Tuesday, January 19, 2016


How I could have been recommending this place as one of my favorites for the amount of time (read: YEARS) since I had first eaten there is reprehensible.  Not visiting monthly, really, is questionable.  Despite the diversity and abundance of Manhattan's dining scene, Joseph Leonard remains at the top of my list since it opened.  It has not fallen short in any manner; in fact, if anything, it is even warmer, more
 welcoming and more delicious than the first time.  The name comes from the owner's grandfathers,
and like a grandpa's embrace. you'd just as soon stay in it for a long as possible were there not some obvious practical constraints in doing so.

Their infamous sandwich board alone propped outside the entrance draws crowds- it is a constantly changing institution of cleverness, sometimes poignant, usually funny, occasionally crass and always unique.  Whoever writes on that thing I want for my best friend.  The menu here is similarly chameleon (and endearing),  vacillating with the tides of market and season, capitalizing on the very best, and in fact, besting the fundamentals it puts into use.

Reservations, on the other hand, are less accommodating: they don't take them.  So we get there early... who cares.   I love just being there, and you'll have more time to appreciate the sign.    And luck has it that an early table is not too difficult to procure- like all places, its that prime-time dining hour that invokes painfully long wait times.  But we were seated swiftly, our waiter familiar and friendly.  I think this is the only place where it actually seemed right that our server introduce himself by name.  It does feel, in fact, like your dining with friends, so you should be at least that familar.  The chef's name, by the way, is Neal Duffy.  He's not the same guy that was there when I first was, but his talented hand maintains the bar just as high.

To begin, our server (Aaron) tried to nudge us towards a beet salad special I'm sure was stellar, but there is a Caramelized Cauliflower that is sort of signature dish that we opted for instead- although frankly we should've gotten both.  It's one of those can't-take-it-off-the-menu kind of dishes.  Florets both raw and roasted are tossed with capers and a mustardy vinaigrette bonding the two harmoniously.  The  raw bits keep the dish from being too rich, and add crunchiness along with the fat pine nuts piled atop.  I can see why it stays on the menu, but at the same time the roasted winter squash or a chicken soup with limas and kale sounded just as wonderful.  We split this as an appetizer (they divided the portion for us, charmingly), although I could've easily taken it down solo.

That just left me hungrier for my octopus, though, so I was happy when a feasibly appetizer-sized portion turned out to be generous, and pooled in thick stewed lentils bolstered with falling-apart tender shreds of braised oxtail.   An herbacious vinaigrette brightened the dense stew, flickered with a bright mince of verdant green olives and tufts of frisee, lending freshness. It
 wasn't so big, though, to keep
me from stealing bites of my tablemate's swordfish, which arrived shrouded in a slippery cloak of pleasantly bitter radicchio, sluiced in a pepperoni gastrique, lively but not spicy.  Peeling back the sturdy leaves revealed a thick cut of juicy fish, anchored in sweet butternut squash pureed to a luscious viscosity.  Perhaps the highlight of the night was a side of roasted brussels sprouts (I know: I'm biased) riddled with sriracha.  Then again, the bias may not really be necessary to appreciate these: my companion tried to replicate
 the dish at home the very next day.  But as restaurants do, they're not so easily copied as initial appearances.  Assuming there is salt and probably butter involved, these were more than just roasted sprouts and a squiggle of hot sauce- the other elements are the intoxicating mystery of the kitchen.

Desserts offered just three options: a salted caramel pudding, carrot cake and the chocolate tahini tart, which won me over with its "toasted fluff", bruleed dollops of marshmallow cream surrounding the dense puck of sesame-tinged chocolate.  Cool slices of brown sugar bananas offered a bit of levity, although for me, the proportions of fluff and 'nana could've been increased three-fold to the size of the tart.  As it were, the fudginess was a bit overwhelming.

But none of this lessens the virtues of Joseph Leonard.  We sat at that table, licking the last drops of pomegranate molasses from the plate, for far too long, knowing our highly coveted two-top was in utmost demand.  But our server didn't rush us off, just like a good grandpa would never kick you out even past his bedtime.  We finally forced ourselves up and out even though the mood just encouraged us to linger longer.  It's all right: Joseph Leonard will be there for me again, and it won't take me nearly as long this time for me to get back to them.

170 Waverly Place
New York, NY 10014


  1. I went here by accident just a while ago and it was splendid, just like you describe it. Is Neal Duffy the man in the bandanna in the last picture? He was the one there when I went and really elevated the experience.

  2. I think you mean James McDuffee, and yes, I believe that's him. Or else Neal Gray... those are the two chefs. It's kind of hard to tell because he's wearing glasses! But I'm thrilled you enjoyed this place as much a I do.