Culture meets cuisine

Dayton Art Institute’s Leo Bistro

By Paula Johnson

Photo: Leo Bistro’s Grilled Salmon BLT

An outing to the Dayton Art Institute promises a pleasant afternoon strolling through galleries, drinking in works of art from the ages. On this particular visit, I was joined by budding artist Elle, a young talent whose work I’d bet might just hang in those very halls someday. Perusing paintings and inspecting sculpture works up an appetite, so we were happy to be seated immediately upon entering the DAI’s Leo Bistro.

Leo Bistro is named for DAI’s signature bronze lion sculpture, which oversees Dayton’s cityscape from the museum’s front lawn. The café, located just inside the main entrance, is casual and tastefully understated. The space is modern, bright and open with lots of natural light streaming through a wall of windows. The bar looks like an inviting place to sip a glass of wine on a visit during the museum’s Thursday night hours.

I’ll drink to that

Elle and I settled in to a window table and ordered lemonade and iced tea. It was time to drink in more than just art. Iced tea is my drink of choice (before 5, that is) and I was delighted to see they served it with a slice of lemon and a large sprig of fresh mint, a perfect summer refresher. Elle pronounced her lemonade superb.

Leo Bistro’s kitchen is run by Elite Catering, a large company that caters at several venues and events in the area. While they have a solid reputation as a caterer for large events, I was hoping for more creativity and care in this scaled down operation. The museum’s literature touts Leo Bistro’s “innovative menu that demonstrates what happens when food meets art.” If the implication is that the food is artistically prepared, I’m not sure it was totally successful.

Critiquing the eats

As we sipped our drinks, Elle and I discussed various ways a work of art can be judged, citing many criteria: composition, quality of execution, line, color, texture, harmony, balance, context… and the list goes on. I pointed out that many of the same standards are used in critiquing cuisine.

The Pecan Crusted Fried Brie with Raspberry Sauce ($9.99) prompted a discussion of harmony. This dish had several problems. To begin with, the pecan crust had a soggy, deep-fried taste—an almost greasy oiliness which overwhelmed the sweet nutty flavor and crunch of the pecans. Instead of the accompanying baguettes the menu promised, garlic bread was presented, a definite mismatch with the raspberry sauce. Not a balanced and harmonious work of art, to be sure.

The Crab Cake Bites ($8.99) consisted of four deep-fried crab meat stuffing balls served with a remoulade dipping sauce. Seasoned with Old Bay, it would have been nice to have some larger chunks of crab along with the red pepper and green onion in these little bites. The standout was the apple Coleslaw elegantly served in a short pedestal glass alongside. “Whoa, that’s really good!” exclaimed Elle, and I agreed.

Pretty plates please

The dish’s presentation brought up a discussion of aesthetics and how important attractive plating is. The interesting shape of the plate and the pedestal was carefully chosen, but the large amount of sloppy, limp lettuce garnish was not. Too much to be a garnish and not functioning as a salad—and not fresh to boot.

For our entrées, Elle went with the Grilled Salmon BLT, and I tried the Grilled Filet Burger (both $10.99). The salmon, served on a croissant with green onion aioli, was unfortunately overly chargrilled and dry. While the salty bleu cheese butter added a nice note to my burger, the thin patty prompted Elle to say, “It kind of looks like a burger you’d get at McDonald’s.” Using filet alone sounds good but is not the way to make the plump, juicy burger I had been picturing. Mixing in some ground chuck to beef it up would help. Using a bun that had some taste and texture and didn’t taste like it came from a plastic bag would also be a good idea. The standout was the side it came with, the soup of the day. It was a peppery kale and potato in a light broth, fresh-tasting and savory.

We decided to try some dessert, a slice of banana bread ($2) and a strawberry short cake ($4.50). Nothing says cafeteria like the foil-wrapped butter pats served with the slice of banana bread, or the syrupy sweet strawberries on the gummy shortcake. “Why didn’t they just use fresh ones?” asked Elle. Why indeed?

Don’t hand me that

The service was noteworthy—in both a positive and negative way. On the plus side, our server was friendly, enthusiastic and well-spoken. However, a lovely personality doesn’t supersede breaking cardinal rules of service, such as handing plates to guests, serving before clearing (so the guest has to stack their empty plates to the side), asking about dessert while serving the entrees, failing to refill drinks and, finally, serving dessert without fresh silverware. That’s a long list of minuses.

Cool cafe or merely a cafeteria?

One of the ways to judge a work of art is to ask what was the artist’s intent, and did they succeed in achieving it? Similarly, Leo Bistro needs to decide whether it intends to be an institutional cafeteria-style place where visitors eat because it’s convenient, or whether it wants to serve innovative and artistic food reflective of its location. Elle and I didn’t have nearly enough time to take in all DAI has to offer, and we plan many return visits. We are both hoping for the latter.

Leo Bistro is located in the Dayton Art Institute at 456 Belmonte Park. To book a private event, please call 937.512.0162. For more information, please visit daytonartinstitute.org or call 937.223.4278.

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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