A Brasserie With Buzz—and Potential—in Clarendon (Full Review)

“We’ll have a side of frites,” I told my server at Lyon Hall one Friday night. “The duck-fat fries or the pommes frites?” she shouted over the din. Looking around, you wouldn’t expect this kind of question. The new Clarendon brasserie from the team behind Liberty Tavern hops with girls in sparkly strapless dresses and dudes in baseball caps and polo shirts. The muted space with picture windows and subway tiles feels like a new house that hasn’t been decorated yet, and acoustically it’s a pinball machine that rattles like a frat house. There’s a college-party atmosphere with hints of adulthood, but in place of kegs are foie gras sabayon and short-rib frankfurters.

Executive chef Liam LaCivita, who also oversees Liberty Tavern, is in charge of Lyon Hall’s menu, a mix of French, German, Belgian, and Eastern European cuisines. Traditional dishes (schnitzel, steak frites, bratwurst) are tailored to current culinary fashions. Name-dropping farms? Check. House-made charcuterie? Check. Burger with esoteric cheese? Check.

There’s a lot of potential in LaCivita’s ideas, which include making as much as possible in-house as well as lightening usually heavy dishes with spring and summer ingredients. One problem: In a matter of weeks, LaCivita went from leading one kitchen to manning three. (Northside Social, a nearby coffee shop/lunch counter/dinner spot/wine bar, opened two weeks before Lyon Hall.)

For a dependable meal, order a draft beer and an Alsatian-style tarte flambée, a thin onion-topped flatbread. Also good are black pudding, which tastes a bit like Christmas, and chicken livers with diced potatoes in a flavorful mushroom broth—although both are perhaps better suited to wintertime. For now, the rest of the menu is like playing roulette with a salt shaker.

A disk of steak tartare was salty one bite, bland the next. Pickled mackerel, cut into ring-box-size squares, was way oversalted, as was pork schnitzel. Other disappointments included chewy spaetzle, dry sausage, and overcooked mussels.

Dinner improves at the end with pastry chef Robert Valencia’s desserts. A strawberry-rhubarb compote dresses up a lemon-poppyseed brioche, and a chocolate praline cake with a Nutella-milkshake shooter and chocolate-stout ice cream tastes like a deliciously deconstructed Ferrero Rocher confection.

Lyon Hall has quickly become the scene it wants to be and buzzes with young customers. But for it to be the restaurant it wants to be, LaCivita has to figure out how to juggle three menus and three kitchens.

-July 2010