Léon's mussels, chips and house-brewed beer

As Belgian favourite Chez Léon chooses London to open its first brasserie outside Belgium and France, our resident foodie expert Coralie Modschiedler samples the chain’s famous mussels and finds out whether rival 'moules frites' eateries in the capital (especially that one in Covent Garden) have anything to worry about…

First impressions

Leon de Bruxelles review - exteriorPassers-by won't fail to spot the green neon signs
Léon de Bruxelles
The location is central – Cambridge Circus in Soho, opposite the Palace Theatre – and the offer is promising – mussels, chips, Belgian beer and waffles, served in a cool-looking brasserie with green neon signs and big floor-to-ceiling windows. Inside, it’s bright and modern, and the green and white tiles, dark wooden tables and green and red leather seats give the place a relaxed, informal feel. The staff are friendly and fellow diners (a mix of small groups, a few couples and one solo diner) seem to be enjoying themselves. What could go wrong?

Ideal for…

Theatre-goers. Singing in the Rain is playing just opposite, and all the major shows from the West End are just minutes away. Léon de Bruxelles is also good for families and small groups of friends or colleagues. Romantics might want to try elsewhere – the venue is more of a family/friends joint (and it’s way too bright for intimacy).

Best table?

Leon de Bruxelles review - interiorThe wall art is by London-based urban artist Fin DAC
WTG / Coralie Modschiedler
If it’s cold outside (like when we visited just before the snow hit London in February), steer clear of the tables by the window. Even a few glasses of wine won’t be enough to warm you up. Any other table is fine. Try to get one near the stunning wall art by London-based urban artist Fin DAC. In summer, the outside terrace will be a popular spot. You don’t need to book, so it’s first come, first served.

The drinks

As I try to ignore the cold and focus on the mussel-shaped menus, I’m surprised the selection of beers is not as extensive as I’d expected. There are a few good choices (house-brewed beer, Duvel, Stella Artois, Vedett, De Koninck), but for a Belgian restaurant to compete on the London food scene, it needs a knockout drinks menu. I order a glass of white wine while my partner goes for the house-brewed beer. I taste it too and it is nice, albeit pricey (£3.50 for a half pint).

The food

Unfortunately, it’s not just the house beer that’s expensive; the star dish of mussels and chips is priced at £14-£16. More expensive than the competition, they must taste amazing. We choose some starters to whet our appetite and the smelts (small fried fish) with homemade tartare sauce are delicious. The portion is good, the fried fish is crispy, and the tartare sauce a delight. My partner’s soup (creamy hake) is a disappointment though – it’s under-seasoned and quite bland. The free bread basket is a nice touch (anywhere else in the capital and you’d have to pay for that). So starters are a mixed bag.

Leon de Bruxelles review - startersThe smelts with homemade tartare sauce are delicious
WTG / Coralie Modschiedler
For the mains, the mussels come in 10 variations, from mussels ‘au gratin’ (gratinated) to classic marinière mussels to adventurous madras mussels. Diners can also choose from a small selection of Belgian specialities and a range of meat, fish and vegetarian dishes. I order the ‘Léon mussels’ (white wine, crème fraiche, celery and shallots) figuring these would have to taste better than any of the other choices, and force my partner to get the ‘Flemish carbonnade beef’ to try one of the ‘Belgian specialities’.

The service is swift and our mains arrive within minutes of finishing our starters. Served in an iron cocotte, mine looks the part. When I lift the lid, I can see some celery and lumps of crème fraiche on a few of the mussels, but the rest of the sauce is nowhere to be seen. The mussels themselves taste fine, but the top ones are dry and all the sauce is at the bottom, and even when I get to the sauce (where are the shallots?), it’s, again, under-seasoned. The chips are not outstanding, and unfortunately, the dauphinoise potatoes I ordered on the side (£2.50) are undercooked. My partner’s beef special is not terribly exciting either. It’s essentially a slow-cooked beef stew with carrots and onions, but it just tastes plain, if not boring. Did anyone taste any of the dishes in the kitchen? Surely, any self-respecting chef would not let a dish leave the pass without tasting it?

I wonder if other diners share my thoughts on the mussels. The couple next to us both ordered mussels – one ‘marinière’ and one ‘dijonnaise. He’s Italian, she’s Belgian. I’m in luck. I ask her what she thought of her dish and although the Dijon mustard helped lift it, she’s not overwhelmed. “The mussels tasted alright but there just wasn’t any wow factor.”

Leon de Bruxelles review - waffleThe Belgian chocolate ice cream is moreish
WTG / Coralie Modschiedler
Although the service has been punctual and friendly until now, we find ourselves waiting for nearly 25 minutes for our desserts. It’s not busy – it’s Monday – so I’m not sure what happened there.

Léon de Bruxelles offers several waffle options, from simply sprinkled with icing sugar (£3) to covered with bananas, ice cream, chocolate sauce and whipped cream (£8). I would say my waffle tastes nice (maybe that’s in comparison to everything else I’ve eaten so far). The shape is perfect, and it’s crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, just as it should be. My partner’s served a mini waffle with ice cream and coffee (‘Le Bruxellois’, £7.50). The Belgian chocolate ice cream is moreish, but the waffle is not as soft and moist (was it cooked earlier and heated up?).


The bar area is a nice space for post-work or pre-theatre drinks. Breakfast is also served here and includes waffles of course, but also French toasts, pancakes, eggs and pastries.

Leon de Bruxelles review - barThe bar area is a nice space for post-work or pre-theatre drinks
WTG / Coralie Modschiedler
The restaurant staff and management seem very receptive to feedback and said they will introduce more beers, lunch and dinner menus, and possibly more mussel dishes in the coming months. They’re doing 50% off all mussels and chips dishes until 1 March. The potential is there, and the public seems interested (even on a Monday there was a steady flow of customers coming through the doors throughout the evening), so I hope they turn it around. The food standards and kitchen protocols have to improve if Léon de Bruxelles wants to make a name for itself in the UK. With such heritage and history (the first Chez Léon in Brussels opened in 1893), it would be a shame to waste such an opportunity just for the London branch to become another overpriced tourist joint.


Léon de Bruxelles
24 Cambridge Circus, London WC2H 8AA
Tel: (020) 7836 3500.
Website: www.leon-de-brussels.co.uk
Price: Average cost for a three-course meal for one with a pint of house-brewed beer: £34, excluding service.  

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