Jean Leon (also known as Jean Antoine, to distinguish him from his father, who is simply Jean Leon) stops at a table at La Scala, his restaurant in Malibu. With his sand-colored, surfer-cut hair and his open-necked cotton shirt, he looks as though he'd just strayed in from the beach.
"I'm six months older than the other La Scala," he says with a boyish smile. He doesn't look it. The "other" La Scala, his father's famed Beverly Hills restaurant, turns 31 this year.
You'll never catch Jean Leon pere in an open-necked shirt. Certainly not without a matching silk jacket. Of course, there was a time when he couldn't afford such luxuries. He came to this country as a professional soccer player but soon found himself driving a taxi and cooking pasta for Frank Sinatra. Inside of two years he had the hottest Italian restaurant in the city. If he hadn't opened a restaurant, he'd probably own Yellow Cab of Los Angeles by now.
Jean Leon has always pushed himself, but never his son. "Jeanny has always had his own mind," he says with his own boyish smile. "He literally grew up in the restaurant, but we never talked about him being in the business. I guess it's something he just came to naturally."
La Scala Malibu is now 7 years old, but despite the presence of fresh flowers, Florentine vases, china, crystal and original art, Leon fils keeps things casual. None of the waiters wear jackets, and there is a patio for open-air dining. It's the kind of place to which you bring the children--kids who like carpaccio and white truffles, of course. If you go on a Saturday night, you might see a Streisand or a Farrah Fawcett, but you also might see a party of four in red sweats greedily spooning up the fettuccine they anticipated during three sets of tennis. Needless to say, at the younger Leon's restaurant there is never a dress code--it's come as you are.
In the Beverly Hills restaurant it's a different story. When you sit there under the Houdon bust of George Washington, or next to the Greek amphorae, and sip Chateau Petrus '61 from Baccarat crystal, you won't even dare loosen your tie. This is a formal restaurant where the china is Limoges and the wine cellar contains more than 30,000 bottles.
Leon pere , incidentally, owns a vineyard in Spain, Chateau Leon, and loves a good bottle of wine. It's worth a visit to the Beverly Hills restaurant just to read the wine list. The cellar contains virtually all of the greater names of European wine--some in magnums or double magnums--including venerable vintages, rare varietals and even a 60-year-old bottle of Jack Daniels that Leon keeps locked away in a vault alongside the Haut-Brion and the Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. It's no wonder that six Presidents have dined here.
The older Leon hasn't changed his style much in the last 30 years. Classic preparations don't require a great deal of change. Don't come to either La Scala expecting zucchini flowers or grilled radicchio .
In Beverly Hills, the delights include white beans and baby clams, or a salad of treviso --a slightly bitter Venetian import reminiscent of endive. Leon's executive chef, Emilio Nunez (a Spaniard like his boss), is a passionate student of Italian cooking but practices controlled innovation. He prepares a rabbit alla cacciatore redolent of the mingling flavors of red and green peppers that nearly reminds diners of heaven, particularly since it is served on a bed of angel-hair pasta.
The Malibu restaurant has a scaled-down version of the Beverly Hills menu. There are frequent specials such as lobster-filled pastas and steamed mussels--after all, you're at the beach--but by and large, Jean Antoine is reluctant to tamper with his father's success.
Interestingly, it is the father--always the innovator--who has been exploring new culinary horizons. A few years ago he opened his first La Scala Presto, a neighborhood restaurant featuring pizza and fresh pastas, in Brentwood. It was so successful that there are now two more (in Toluca Lake and Redondo Beach) in operation, with a fourth scheduled to open later this month in Encino. "La Scala Presto represents the future for restaurant owners in America," says Leon pere with pride. "People want fast, informal elegance in their own neighborhood, but they don't want to sacrifice quality for convenience."
They needn't at any of the La Scala Presto restaurants. Food and service are first-rate, almost in defiance of the modest prices. The restaurants are expertly staffed, too. La Scala Presto of Redondo Beach, for instance, is currently being managed by Jean Antoine's newly married younger sister, Gigi, and her husband, Scott Rooke. Gigi Leon put aside a budding career as an actress to work in the family business, but she has absolutely no regrets. "No one minds a store like family," she declares with a smile.