On Shelter Island, first-time restaurateur Valerie Mnuchin and her father Robert Mnuchin, the art dealer and former banker, have opened the doors to Léon 1909 which offers a Provençal-style menu showcasing peak-of-season, regional ingredients in a most unexpected place — a former bank.
The opening is the latest in a series of transformations on the small island, located between the North and South Forks and reachable only by ferry.
Just down the road on Crescent Beach, the Pridwin Hotel reopened earlier this summer after a major two-year renovation. The Chequit, a 150-year-old hotel and restaurant in Shelter Island Heights, just underwent a renovation overseen by Stacey Soloviev, in partnership with Soloviev Group, the parent company of Crossroads America, whose CEO is Soloviev’s billionaire ex-husband Stefan Soloviev — one of the nation’s largest landowners. Stacey has also made several other real estate purchases, such as the home base of two essential businesses, Shelter Island Pharmacy and Jack’s Marine. The Ram’s Head Inn also changed hands last year.
Now, it is the Mnuchins’ turn to make their Shelter Island debut after a yearand- a-half renovation. (Robert’s son and Valerie’s half-brother is Steven Mnuchin, the Secretary of the Treasury during the Trump administration). The Mnuchins are longtime East Hampton homeowners, but it was Shelter Island where Valerie looked to start in the restaurant business.
“During the early days of quarantine, we were spending so much time on Shelter Island and absolutely fell in love with it,” Valerie Mnuchin says, adding they have been longtime visitors — a 1971 photo of her as a little girl in her dad’s arms at a Shelter Island beach appears prominently on the website.
“The energy of the island reminded us of the Riviera and of the open fire, seaside experience at La Chaumière, a restaurant we love outside of Nice. We wanted to embody that spirit at Léon.”
“Named after Valerie’s paternal grandfather, whose affinity for romantic European adventures and seaside destinations inform the restaurant’s setting, Léon is an inviting homage to the past with warm, natural materials and nods to unfussy, countryside French and Italian fare,” according to the restaurant’s website.
Reimagining the Space for Léon 1909
They opened the doors to their much-anticipated restaurant at 29 West Neck Road in what islanders remember as the North Fork Bank and later Capital One. Its days as a stodgy bank, built in the 1970s, are long gone as the space has been completely reimagined.
Mnuchin was the creative force behind the project. She says she knew she wanted the space to feel like home, “but without having to do the dishes.” She worked in collaboration with the noted New York City architect Robert Kahn, but she is being credited with the design.
“When we first went into the space, it had seven-foot popcorn ceilings — not ideal!” Mnuchin explains, “But we could see the capability to open up the space was there. We began knocking down the ceilings and discovered how open it truly could be. Once we got down to the foundation we were able to see the possibilities and make it the restaurant it is today.”
Robert Mnuchin says he was steadfast in recreating the memories of his time spent traveling in France. When they found the bank, the family knew this was the perfect space for that, which informed much of the vibe.
Old brick was brought in, and wooden trusses were exposed so a lofted ceiling could set the mood. “We wanted it to feel warm and homey, and utilizing brick and wood emulated the cozy feel we were seeking for Léon 1909,” his daughter says.
A wood-burning hearth with its blackened steel hood and soapstone top anchors the restaurant, evoking the feel of old Europe and helping to transport diners to another place. It also inspires the Provençal-style menu and — quite literally — brings warmth to the large space.
The 74-seat restaurant features blue canvas-upholstered banquette and booth seating in the main room with white quartered-oak tables made by a millworker with family ties to the island. Rattanbacked bar seats allow customers to cozy up to the generously-sized bar.
Art by Milton Avery hangs in the dining room of the restaurant, a product of Robert’s connections to the art world.
There is also an expansive outdoor patio, covered by a pergola and lined with bluestone aggregate, designed to be reminiscent of French seaside terraces, despite the inland setting. The Mnuchins are no strangers to major commercial renovations. Robert, a former partner at Goldman Sachs, owns Mnuchin Gallery in Manhattan, and his wife, Adriana, bought Connecticut’s famed Mayflower Inn & Spa in 1990, which dates to 1894 and had fallen into disrepair. They transformed the expansive property, as well as adding acreage and a 20,000-square-foot spa, creating a five-star getaway. While her parents were at the helm of the Mayflower renovation, Valerie was at their knees, watching, and says she learned a lot from the experience. They have since sold the business in its entirety.
Léon 1909 Menu
Léon’s executive chef Mason Lindahl, who used to cook at the popular Diner in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, crafted the menu. It includes starters such as scallop crudo with buttermilk, pepita and lime, and leads to a selection of handmade pastas, as well as a fire-kissed main course, like striped bass with spicy peperonata, Picholine olives and lemon, and grilled ribeye served with a generous helping of crispy herbed potatoes.
From the hearth, there are fire-roasted clams with fennel sausage, lovage and saffron aioli; a slow-fired half-chicken with panade and herbed salsa verde; a Léon burger with Gruyère, caramelized onions and sour pickles; and charbroiled grass-fed ribeye with chermoula and crispy herbed potatoes.
The food is complemented by an extensive wine list rooted primarily in Old World regions while reflecting select contemporary producers.
Léon 1909, which officially opened August 11, is open for dinner five days per week, Thursday through Monday, and Mnuchin says the eatery will remain open year-round.
Léon 1909 is located at 29 West Neck Road on Shelter Island. Current hours are 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Thursday, Sunday and Monday, and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. For more information, visit leon1909.com or @leonshelterisland on social media.