Henry Miller once remarked with disparaging warmth: “Hell is probably quite similar to most Paris bistros … a bit overheated, somewhat too crowded, and a little too noisy for my tastes. The waiters will surely treat you rudely and the cashiers will always add a few extra francs to your bill but–and this is the important part–the food will be marvelous.”
Restaurateur John McDonald’s Bistrot Leo, recently opened at SIXTY SoHo, eschews the less appealing traits of 1930s Paris (at least as documented by Miller). It does, however, absolutely retain the bistro’s raison d’être: outstanding food–deceivingly simple in presentation, undeniably delicious in taste. Decadently crispy potatoes mille feuille, buttery foie torchon, supple grilled long rib. Though each dish arrives on a plate frankly and honestly, without edible foams or decorative smears, everything on the menu has been painstakingly considered by Bistrot Leo’s chef, Brian Loiacono.
A New York native, Loiacono moved to England, just 19 years old, to stage at chef Raymond Blanc’s two Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. From there, Loiacono returned to New York, where a chance encounter with chef Daniel Boulud swiftly led to Loiacono cooking at DANIEL–still, mind you, under 20 years old. Over the next few years, the young chef moved throughout the Boulud empire, with brief experimental sojourns to Europe in between. Just six years after starting with Boulud, Loiacono was appointed executive chef of db Bistro Moderne. He was just 25 years old.
Loiacono comes to Bistrot Leo by way of Acme, where he married the French training he received under Boulud with his Italian-American upbringing and his travels throughout Europe. For Bistrot Leo, Loiacono’s focus is singular, simple, and unequivocally good–just the way Henry Miller would have liked it. Below, Loiacono talks stuffed artichokes, 1 a.m. risotto, and bussing at a Coco’s in Huntington Village.
Where are you from?
Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. [I spent] middle school and high school in South Huntington, Long Island.
How long have you been in New York?
Thirty years–minus traveling.
First restaurant you ever worked in:
I worked at Coco’s in Huntington Village and was a busboy when I was 14. I was terrible, so they made me a dishwasher/prep cook.
Most memorable meal as a child:
My grandmother’s stuffed artichokes or her fresh pasta.
Signature family dish:
Meatballs for the old-school answer. Nowadays, my dad does a lot of cooking, and he really goes all in when catching whole bass. He welded a large cast iron cage that we put the bass inside of and roast over an open fire whenever we are able to do so.
My family traditionally makes risotto at 1 a.m. at any family gathering. We call it “1 a.m. risotto.”
First thing you cooked that tasted undeniably good:
One summer as a kid I had a grilled peach and it changed my life.
Three things in your farmers market basket this spring/summer:
Tomatoes, fresh marjoram, flowers (for my apartment).
Favorite song to cook to:
I’m all over the place with music, but I’ll probably listen to Prince today.
Favorite song to eat to:
Depends on my mood, I guess. I love to eat at home and with my family. Good times there usually consist of The Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, Bonnie Raitt. Things like that.
Adventurous food we should buck up and try already:
Anything and everything is worth a taste one time at least.
Best spot to score cheese in NYC:
There are so many stores to order cheese over the counter from, but my favorite place to have a meal/cheese flight is Casellula in Hell’s Kitchen.
Best bakery in NYC:
One of the best bakers and people I know is Mark Fiorentino, former boulangier at Daniel.
Butter or olive oil?
I don’t want to offend either. Pass.
Favorite wine of the moment:
Favorite street in Manhattan:
9th Street, East Village–and Thompson Street, obviously.
French town/city we should all have on our radar:
Castelnaudary, home of the cassoulet. There is a huge statue of a woman holding a pot of cassoulet when you get to the town and it just makes you hungry. Also: Banyuls-sur-Mer is one of the greatest places I’ve been in France. Find someone to bring you snorkeling for sea urchin there and eat it fresh out of the water for a good time.
What inspires the menu at Bistro Leo?
Classic French technique, great ingredients, and a balanced menu that leaves diners not feeling uncomfortably full.
What types of ingredients are you focussed on?
Other than the obvious local vegetables and ingredients, we are focusing on wild and properly sustained seafood for our entire menu.
What are you hoping to bring to Bistro Leo?
Hoping to bring a SoHo staple to the mix of amazing restaurants and chefs this city has given me to grow with. I want to combine a stable menu we all know and love and daily creativity through specials to keep pushing Leo’s flavors and capabilities.