Leon's new chef Carlos Rodriquez-Lima and owner Alan Dhaklallah reinvent the Mexican restaurant in Dongan Hills. (Staten Island Advance/Pamela Silvestri)
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Alan Dakhlallah loves his Mexican food, especially fish tacos. But no one in New York City makes them well, maintains the seasoned restaurateur. So in February, he opened Leon in the space formerly Michael’s Martini’s and Meatballs to satisfy his hunger for that one very item.
Artwork at Leon, a newly rebranded restaurant at Dongan Hills with an upscale menu and sit-down service for its Mexican fare. (Staten Island Advance/Pamela Silvestri)
Alas, the project was a bust, Alan admits on The Dish. He heard his customers complaints and Alan responded accordingly.
“Basically, they said the food sucked. They told me directly,” said a candid Alan. Appreciating the honesty, he shut down Leon for 10 days.
“I say it proudly. I made a mistake. And I fixed it. I have a vision of something and it didn’t work. I own that. My menu was only tacos. We had 20 different tacos. So we switched it from street food to fine dining,” said Alan.
In the time the restaurant went dark, he reimagined the menu with a new chef, Carlos Rodriguez-Lima.
Leon's new chef Carlos Rodriquez-Lima (Staten Island Advance/Pamela Silvestri)
Mexican-born Carlos was trained in French and Spanish cuisine. Before coming to New York City, life took him through kitchens in Mexico and some time serving in the Mexican army.
Carlos said a combination of self-discipline and work alongside classically trained chefs and exacting owners have molded his career. One might see the attention to detail in his craft at Leon — meticulous knife skills, well-balanced flavors and artfully presented traditional dishes curated so as not to overwhelm the palate.
Leon's new chef Carlos Rodriquez-Lima and owner Alan Dhaklallah reinvent the Mexican restaurant in Dongan Hills. (Staten Island Advance/Pamela Silvestri)
Take for example the Shrimp Ceviche. The dish comes with edible flower blossoms, cilantro fronds, finely minced mango and chili slivers. An accompanying chilled citrus broth is poured over the combination in front of the customer. The process serves as a point of service and so as not to toughen up or mar the delicate components with a macerating liquid.
And there are other interesting tidbits to appreciate. Guacamole is mixed in the kitchen from carefully sourced Mexican avocados. It is mashed in a traditional molcajete (mortar) with a pestle. Also, Carlos makes it a point to French the bone on chicken wings, an appetizer served atop Roquefort-whipped cream sauce. The touch affords a patron a more gracious way of eating the hands-on item.
To sip with the South of the Border fare, Alan and Carlos present Jarritos soft drinks in the bottle, Mexican wines and cocktails like “Frosé.”
Perhaps most importantly, Alan is very pleased with the fish taco. Carlos coats it in a light, crispy batter made from flour, eggs and oil.
“We don’t do tilapia,” affirmed Alan. Customers won’t find that fish on any of his menus including that of his Middle Eastern, Richmond Valley spot, Laila.
“We do Mahi Mahi,” added Carlos, a firm-fleshed fish cut into finger-sized bites wrapped into a taco with house-pickled onions.
Hands-free Mexican street corn not on the cob. The baby corn is served on a skewer with seasonings. (Staten Island Advance/Pamela Silvestri)
For more peeks at the food tune into this week’s episode of The Dish broadcast live from Leon located at 1816 Hylan Blvd., Dongan Hills; 347-772-9442, https://www.leonrestaurantny.com. Hours of the restaurant are 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. It is open until midnight on Friday and Saturday and closes at 9 p.m. on Sunday. Leon offers outdoor dining and, during the day, can turn its dining room over to private parties.
The Dish can be viewed live streamed on the SILIVE.com/Advance Facebook page each Wednesday at 11:30 a.m.
Pamela Silvestri is Advance Food Editor. She can be reached at silvestri@siadvance.com.
Artwork around the restaurant is by artist "German." (Staten Island Advance/Pamela Silvestri)
Covered outdoor dining on Hylan Boulevard (Staten Island Advance/Pamela Silvestri)
Cartoon artwork and a lion representing Leon, the lion. (Staten Island Advance/Pamela Silvestri)
Tuna tartar on a crunchy corn taco (Staten Island Advance/Pamela Silvestri)
In the kitchen with Carlos (Staten Island Advance/Pamela Silvestri)
Mexican wines are on the wine list (Staten Island Advance/Pamela Silvestri)
Fun and frivolous lighting in the center of the ceiling in the main dining area (Staten Island Advance/Pamela Silvestri)
Leon's new chef Carlos Rodriquez-Lima and owner Alan Dakhlallah reinvented the Mexican restaurant in Dongan Hills at 1816 Hylan Blvd. (Staten Island Advance/Pamela Silvestri)
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