Recently announced as a semi-finalist for the Best New Restaurant James Beard Award – an honor that has been called the equivalent of the Oscars in the food world – Oxford’s newest addition to the Square, Saint Leo, is gaining lots of attention.
“Our James Beard nomination is a big deal,” said owner Emily Blount. “We are getting lots of attention for it, both good and bad. The spotlight is on, people are tuned in to the microscope.”
Finalists will be announced March 15. Winners will be announced April 15 at Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers in New York City.
Blount came to Oxford as a displaced New Yorker. Her husband, Daniel Blount, is a Mississippi native. After spending years in New York City, he convinced Emily to move back to the South with him and their two sons. After spending a year in Oxford, Emily Blount came up with a project.
“I was trying to bring a part of my favorite city to Oxford,” she said. “I wanted something classy and of top condition. I have been working in the restaurant industry for years and have been able to fine tune my idea of what I think a fantastic restaurant looks like. So far, Saint Leo has been a dream come true.”
Saint Leo has a Gramercy Tavern look, which is a New York City classic. With its white granite bar, gold accents and dimly lit space, guest may feel they have escaped Oxford while remaining in the comfort of their small town.
“I think Saint Leo brings a big city feel to a small town,” said Kylie Grimstad, a hostess at Saint Leo. “You feel as if you’re in New York because of the atmosphere that is created through the architecture, staff and food. It creates a whole new experience.”
Saint Leo opened in July of 2016. They started with pop-ups throughout Oxford to gain recognition before officially opening. Blount began hiring months before opening to ensure a well-trained staff. They opened with a fully-trained staff thanks to the work of Blount and General Manager Taariq David.
David is a recognizable face in Oxford, who has managed some of chef John Currence’s Oxford restaurants, such as the formerly named Lamar Lounge. David towers through Saint Leo with his long dreadlocks and his full-hearted attitude while managing a team of diverse students and locals.
“I wanted to make sure we had a massively diverse team,” Blount said. “We want people from all walks of life. When Taariq interviews people, he makes sure that they really bring something to the table, are really interesting. Our diverse team has become a sort of a family, which can be really rare in this industry.”
Saint Leo prides itself on using locally sourced food. All of their food is farm-to-table, and specific to North Mississippi.
Blount has also hired Italian chefs Marco D’Emidio and Leo Marcelloni who bring their knowledge of true Italian cuisine to Saint Leo’s dishes. D’Emidio can often be caught going between the kitchen and making pizzas as he ensures an authentic presentation.
“The white beans we serve as an appetizer are one of my favorite foods,” said Grimstead. “If I think about them, I absolutely cannot restrain myself from going and getting some. They are so warm and creamy and delicious. They make your insides happy.”
Another favorite is Saint Leo’s prosecco pops. These are made with La Marca Prosecco and all-natural ingredients in strawberry flavored popsicles from a North Mississippi company. They can often be found circulating through Instagram timelines.
“Not only are their prosecco pops good, but they have an awesome list of cocktails,” said Maggie Collier, a student at Ole Miss and a Saint Leo regular. “They can be on the expensive end at times, but when my parents are in town, we make a beeline to Saint Leo.”
Joe Stinchcomb, head bartender, has made an extensive list of seasonal cocktails. The list changes according to what is in season and seeks to suit every type of customer, from cocktails with a bourbon twist to vodka-based drinks. All are made from fresh ingredients and high-end liquor.
Blount also prides herself on the restaurant’s wine menus. Many of their wines are imported from the California wine region and Europe. A lengthy wine list can be found on the menu, and those looking for something on the higher end can ask for the “special wine and drink menu.”
Saint Leo is open everyday except Tuesdays. The restaurant includes a lunch menu Monday through Friday and a brunch menu for Saturday and Sunday.