"How it all started was drinking Belgian beers and enjoying them," says Christy Agee. Four and a half years ago, she and her husband, Don, purchased Witts, a Lakeview bar and restaurant that has puttered along successfully for more than a decade without ever really making a splash on the food scene. About a year ago they hired Jeffrey Hedin, a veteran of Spring and Green Zebra, to raise the bar's culinary level. Witts's bar manager, Ben Buhr, is a fan of Belgian beer, and he and Hedin decided to plan a Belgian dinner with food and beer pairings. It was a success, and soon they were all looking past upgrading Witts to a more ambitious venture, a Belgian bar and restaurant with Hedin at the helm.
The result is Leopold, which joins Branch 27, Green Zebra, and other chef-driven restaurants in West Town, on Chicago Avenue not far from where both the Agees and Hedin live. The journey there, though, was circuitous. In August Christy, Hedin, and their designer, Joel Robare of New York-based JR Studio Design, took a trip to Belgium; they chose the name Leopold after seeing it everywhere, including their hotel in Antwerp.
Hedin got his start cooking in Bloomington, Indiana, but it was three months working for chef Hugo Matheson in Boulder, Colorado, that opened his eyes to what food could be. "He showed me heirloom tomatoes coming fresh from farms, he showed me good quality olive oil, the importance of using acidity at the right time in dishes," he says.
In 2006 Hedin visited Germany, and felt immediately drawn to the simplicity and the salty, hearty flavors of northern European food—and how well they went with beer. But it wasn't until he joined Witts that he focused on the possibilities implicit in Belgium's many food cultures: "If you get closer to the German border, you're going to find more rye bread and pumpernickel. If you get closer to the sea, you'll find more mussels and fish. Once you get to the French side, you see a little more French influence in the way that they cook."
The best-known book on Belgian cuisine in English—admittedly, not a crowded field—is probably Juliette Elkon's 1958 A Belgian Cookbook. It demonstrates that the 50s housewife was in many ways a better locavore and more adventurous snout-to-tail eater than most today—one who still had a butcher capable of meeting her needs for an older stewing hare or a skinned eel, and who wouldn't faint at a recipe that begins "Clean brains by taking out black veins and membranes" (Brain Paste, page 28).
Elkon's Belgian food is plain because she assumes that your meat and vegetables will have robust flavor of their own—an assumption that's no longer automatic in an age of hot-house fruits and vegetables bred for looks rather than taste. Hedin shops the farmers' markets, as do so many chefs these days.
He's quick to say that Leopold isn't a strictly authentic Belgian restaurant, but rather one inspired by Belgian cuisine. But a menu that includes smoked rabbit with spaetzle and braised short ribs with a side of stoemp (a traditional working-class potato and root vegetable puree) is hardly throwing Herve cheese on an Angus patty and calling it the Tintin Burger.
I kept tabs on Leopold beginning in November. It was originally shooting for a mid-December opening, but when I visited then Hedin had spent most of the preceding few weeks on one of the couches in Leopold's future lounge, surrounded by order forms and invoices, as workmen hammered and drilled around him. He wouldn't be able to use his newly installed kitchen equipment until a health inspector blessed it. "It's just sitting there, like a tease," he said ruefully. On one mid-November day when I stopped in, Hedin had nixed the already-installed bathroom sinks. "They look like my 1995 rental apartment," he told me. Another day the kitchen dividers had been built six inches too short for the equipment on order.
In December a city inspector decided that the kitchen pass, where chefs set plates for servers to pick up, was too open to the dining room and needed a sneeze guard. Never mind that no comparable pass in the city has a sneeze guard: Hedin's pass got cut in half by one.
But there were moments of happy serendipity, too. They struck a deal with La Farine, an artisan bakery just across the street, for their bread. Rob Levitt, formerly of Mado, was building out his widely anticipated butcher shop the Butcher & Larder just around the corner, and one day his pastry chef wife, Allie, walked in to apply for a hostess job. Even bad news brought good news: the announcement that Spring would close after the new year meant that they'd have their pick of people Hedin had already worked with.
Then there were the stained-glass panels they found in the basement. No one knows where they came from, but after a little restoration, they now serve as the backdrop for the hostess stand.
"You said the other day I seemed too calm for someone about to open a restaurant," Christy said when I visited the space the day before New Year's Eve. "I've stopped being too calm." Then she excused herself to go deal with the stream of water the melting snow on the roof had produced in the women's bathroom.
Leopold quietly opened the following evening—BYO, for lack of a license still in the works. It's supposed to arrive this week. "I think we've finally buttoned it up," says Hedin.
Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon