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Chef Nick Leahy's Evening in Provence

Elizabeth Harper | February 20, 2019 | Food & Drink

Chef Nick Leahy brings a taste of the south of France to the Westside with AIX and Tin Tin.

TinTin.jpgSnapper crudo, smoked soubise, chorizo oil, pickled shallot and crispy faro at Tin Tin

Walk through the doors at AIX and you’re in France. Or so I thought. The reality, however, is different, unexpected. There’s no old-world romance, no French brasserie ambience, no snooty waiter in formal dress. Rather, it’s an elevated 21st-century version of the movie-set ideal. With interiors by ai3, the aesthetic is modern, fresh. A muted palette creates a neutral backdrop, while banquettes dotted with a sea of throw pillows create inviting, romantic environs. There are no bistro chairs or cafe tables here, no vintage wine posters, no moody lighting. There’s a sense of new, of the undiscovered. And I’m not at all disappointed.

Located in the Stockyards, AIX and its neighboring wine bar, Tin Tin, join the growing number of impressive restaurants on the Westside. Under the helm of executive chef Nick Leahy, the food is Provençal leaning, transporting you to the quaint sunny hillside towns of the south of France.

I begin my evening as any self-respecting French woman would: l’apéro at Tin Tin, connected to AIX via a discrete swinging door. I tuck into the charcuterie board laid before me. “The space just seemed to divide into two spaces really well,” says Leahy of the mammoth task of debuting sister concepts simultaneously. Plus, he adds, “it allows me to cook the two types of French food that resonate with me: Provençal food [at AIX] and the style of food you get in little cave à vins through France at Tin Tin.”

Andrew_Thomas_Leefinal0033.jpgThe script on the wall of the private wine room, which seats 10, is from a recipe of Leahy’s great-aunt, Tin Tin’s namesake, done in her handwriting. Elsewhere in AIX, another Tin Tin quote reads, “She’s lovely but she doesn’t speak French,” which, accordingly to Leahy is what “Tin Tin said to me five minutes after meeting my wife, Danielle.”

And the food is exactly that—a delicious melding of Leahy’s signature talent. At Tin Tin, the appeal of l’apéro is the star. “[It’s] more about food that pairs with the wine you’re drinking and is less a formal dining experience,” he says. “It’s about connecting over the table with the people you’re with.” At AIX, however, a more traditional dining experience awaits, and you can taste the legacy of the region in each bite. It’s just what your grandmère would have made for Sunday supper.

Leahy approaches his dishes at AIX from a perspective that honors yet challenges tradition, often deconstructing, then reconstructing classic Provençal dishes. My dinner at AIX opens with two of the best appetizers I’ve ever tasted—scout’s honor. The duck confit crepe is decadent. Caramelized onions add a sweet note to the savory duck confit and the wonderfully rich foie brown butter—wrapped in a fluffy crepe and tied with a runny duck-egg-yolk bow. The depth of flavor is astounding. Certainly this cannot be topped. And, yet, the foie gras torchon arrives and it’s magical. The salty notes of the buttery, whipped foie gras are cut with the fruity raisin jam. Add a swipe of torchon to the fresh-baked brioche, and the bite is transcendent.

AndrewThomasLee122718.jpgPoached Georgia shrimp, cauliflower, preserved lemon and sorrel at Tin Tin

There’s a range of seafood on the menu too. “Provençal cooking is lighter, more seasonal, more driven by the proximity to the ocean,” Leahy says. “Think lemon, garlic and herbs instead of cream and butter.” These flavors shine in dishes such as oysters roasted with foie gras butter and thyme; and Georgia white shrimp with garlic, lemon and Pernod. My favorite comes from the mains. In Leahy’s take on bouillabaisse, long gone is the clunky, messy fish stew. Now deconstructed, this bouillabaisse is reminiscent of a work of art. The delicate, flaky fish is placed with caring precision alongside scallops, shrimp, mussels, clams and, of course, a hearty piece of bread to soak up the complex flavors of the saffron broth, which is poured over top tableside—with flourish. It is, in a word, a revelation. It’s Leahy’s sauces that truly impress me most. They have a complexity of flavor, yet are never overpowering. They are a perfect marriage to each dish—adding, never taking away.

From the lamb loin to the cassoulet (also deconstructed), the food at AIX draws on Leahy’s heritage. “My mother is who taught me how to cook in the first place,” says Leahy, who, along with his partners, tested the dishes in his mother’s kitchen prior to opening the restaurant. “It’s decorated in the Provençal style, so it was fitting inspiration.” He adds: “I think there’s an alignment between the approach to food in the South compared to Provence. There’s a lot of seasonal eating; both are agriculture regions for their countries; and both have traditions of preserving ingredients.” Leahy honors these traditions at AIX through partnerships with local and regional producers, as well as with menus that shift with the seasons. “Expect to see lots of green things being celebrated in the spring,” he says.

RyanFleischer7.jpgFor the AIX interiors, ai3 sourced multipendant brass light fixtures from Danish brand Gubi. The soaped white oak ceiling was made by Atlanta-based Hospitality Woodworks. The bar top is Viatera Minuet from LG Hausys. Also on the bar top is a custom copper piece from Hospitality Woodworks.

For now, though, I finish my meal with the Ferrero No-Share-O, Leahy and pastry chef Kendall Baez’s take on a housemade Ferrero Rocher. A brown butter hazelnut cake on a bed of Nutella parfait is topped with caramel, a milk chocolate shell and creme fraiche ice cream. It’s divine. As are AIX and Tin Tin. 956 Brady Ave. NW



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Photography by: leahy and dish photos by andrew thomas lee | interior photo by Ryan Fleischer