They remember when the Artful Dodger was the hottest place on Huntington's New Street, when Rose and Thistle wasn’t a parking lot, and Abel Conklin’s served the best steak in town.
“That’s the first place I ever had filet mignon,” recalled Meghan LaCourte. She and her husband James, both Huntington natives, regret being born too late for Hamburger Choo Choo, but do remember being big fans of the Swensen’s ice cream parlor that took its place, as well as Hatch, the eatery that’s there now.
Soon to take its own place in the New Street pantheon, they hope, will be Leilu, which since July 2 has been in soft opening mode. The couple has dreamed of the 50-seat restaurant for years. Indeed, the seeds of it were first planted almost two decades ago when both worked at another Huntington restaurant, Joanina, Meghan as a waitress and James as a pizza maker in the restaurant’s adjacent deli.
And it was at another eatery, the now-shuttered Porto Vivo on Gerard Street — a favorite of the LaCourtes when they were still dating — that they first talked of wanting their own.
“He said, ‘you know, I would really like to open a restaurant,’ and I got really upset,” Meghan said. “If you are opening a restaurant, you pretty much have no money to get married. I mean not that that’s all that I’m about but … I’m like, ‘here we go, we are dating already for years, this is just never happening.’”
Actually, it was the restaurant that never happened, at least for a long time. The LaCourtes eventually did marry and have two daughters, one now 4, the other a year-and-a-half. Which might lead you to believe that now is exactly the wrong time for the pair to be opening a restaurant. But they embraced the challenge, taking over the space most recently occupied by Fado, creating a restaurant that’s both family-friendly and elegant, as well as a portmanteau of their girls’ names, Leila and Lucie.
“If we had opened this before we were married with children, we probably would have opened a bar,” James said laughing as he struggled to contain a squirming Lucie.
“My mom is a nurse,” Meghan chimed in. “And one thing a lot of her patients say is, ‘You can’t get a regular meal in Huntington.’ ” And so, together with chef Brian Hartman, who had worked in kitchens on Block Island and in Colorado, they developed a menu that “tried to take classic dishes that people are comfortable with, but add just a little bit of a twist to them,” said Meghan, “or maybe an ingredient that they may not have had on a daily basis.”
Exhibit A, Leilu’s innocuous-sounding crispy chicken ($25). “The breast is brined for 48 hours in buttermilk and chicken stock and fresh garlic and paprika,” Hartman told me. “Plus, we use happy chickens, which are hormone-free, BPA-free and the rest of it. It all makes for a chicken that’s incredibly tender,” one whose skin Hartman sears to crisp up. The whole thing is served over mac ’n cheese, although this too is an overachiever, “with smoked Gouda, pecorino, sharp white Cheddar and Gruyere,” along with cherrywood smoked bacon bits. “It’s another simple dish made special.”
Hartman has also impressed the LaCourtes and Leilu’s early patrons with a burrata caprese ($14) featuring arugula, peaches and heirloom tomatoes, with a rich cashew pesto binding them together (“This has been one of those dishes where people all but lick the plate clean,” said Meghan), and his own take on the classic wedge salad ($9), here composed of goat cheese and guanciale, and drizzled with a dressing of buttermilk and white balsamic vinegar. Hartman also puts a spin on a meat and potatoes entree ($29, a culotte steak and thrice-baked potato), a flatbread ($11), waffle sliders ($11), and also proudly serves a BLT made with pork belly and boosted by avocado and scallops. It’s $15 and called, appropriately, a B.L.A.S.T.
The LaCourtes are aiming for an Aug. 1 grand opening, at which point they will officially enter one of the most crowded restaurant markets on the island. But both are confident that Leilu, with its menu of modernized comfort food, will bring something new and much needed to Huntington.
“There is something to be said for two people who grew up here,” said Meghan. “I think we have our finger on the pulse.”
“I think we nailed it,” added James.
Leilu is at 10 New St., Huntington, 631-944-3111, leiluhuntington.com. Hours are Tuesday through Thursday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.