The Washington Post (April 2009)

A Leesburg Oasis
There’s plenty to quench your thirst at this wine-centric new restaurant — if you can find a place to sit

By Candy Sagon
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 12, 2009

Bad economy? What bad economy? On a recent Saturday night at the Wine Kitchen in Leesburg’s historic downtown area, the tiny restaurant is jammed. People hover two and three deep around the seven-stool bar. I can almost feel the thought waves from the group of four women edging closer and closer to our table as we calculate the tip and sign the bill: “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, finish already” are the unsaid words boring into my back.

But then we step out of the noisy, crowded restaurant and begin to walk up picturesque King Street. Two doors away, at the Green Tree restaurant, every table is empty. A man in a white apron waves forlornly at us as we walk by the window. The next place, Bella Luna, has candles burning on the white-cloth-covered tables, but there’s not a soul to be seen inside. As we pass the Georgetown Cafe, there’s a little life — two people at the bar, two more at a table — but that’s about it.

Oh, that bad economy.

Or maybe not. It’s hard to tell, really, whether the Wine Kitchen is doing well in a down economy because it’s the cool, new thing, or because the food is good and the wine list inventive, or because Loudoun County 30-somethings are happy to find a place with a downtown-D.C. vibe that’s only a 20-minute drive from home. Or all of the above.

Then again, maybe it’s so crowded because it can seat only about 35 people.

Whatever the reason, co-owners Jason Miller, 31, and Michael Mercer, 47, are thrilled that it’s all working out, considering that most everyone thought they were nuts when they opened the place in November.

The narrow restaurant is in an 1860s-era building that previously housed a bakery. After the owners gutted the inside, renovated the kitchen and plumbing and added a small bar, Miller’s sister-in-law, Amy Weinsoff, transformed the space with warm colors and whimsically painted details: a trailing vine of vivid red leaves on a buff wall, a paneled painting of eggs frying in a skillet, a trompe l’oeil sink on the wall near the restrooms.

As for the seating, let me warn you: It’s sparse and eclectic, and the restaurant takes no reservations unless you’re with a party of eight to 10. Those groups can reserve the large, white country table. Otherwise, come early. There are a few small tables for two along the wall, and near the front door is a couch with an antique table that four, maybe five, people could gather around. At the back of the restaurant are two more small tables, plus the stools at the bar.

Miller says they’re trying to figure out how to wedge in another table or two, but in the meantime, seats are at a premium.

The chef is Christopher Carey, formerly of the Goodstone Inn in Middleburg. His menu of small plates features meats, cheeses and produce from local family-run farms. The dishes are meant to be matched with the owners’ wide-ranging selection of wines, which are organized into quirkily labeled groupings such as Rockin’ Reds, the Plains of Spain, Whites of Fancy and Pinot Envy. (Beer drinkers, there are two organic ales for you.) Wine can be ordered by the bottle, the glass or the two-ounce taste. All wines can be purchased to take home for $10 less than the bottle price on the menu.

You also can opt for flights of three tastes, which come with a card identifying each wine and explaining why it was selected. With our lunch, a friend and I ordered a flight of three Italian whites: a citrusy pinot grigio, a flinty sauvignon blanc and a smoky, elegant chardonnay. The accompanying card described the Tiefenbrunner pinot grigio as having “a mineral note of acidity that makes the wine dance and twirl like a girl at her first dance recital.”

As for the food, several standout dishes are great as is; the other selections are good but could be so much better with modifications as simple as a little more seasoning or a little more time on the heat.

Take the lamb sausage with white bean stew, for example. The sausage, made from locally raised lamb, is delicious, with a surprisingly spicy kick. But both times we tried this dish, the beans were bland and undercooked, two lapses the chef could easily remedy.

The grilled grass-fed skirt steak with chimichurri would have been a terrific combo with a more assertively flavored sauce. Chimichurri traditionally is a potent green mash of parsley (or cilantro), vinegar, garlic and pepper — basically, Argentina’s version of Italian pesto, but spicier and paired with beef instead of pasta. Carey’s chimichurri was wimpy; it needed more oomph, or at least more salt.

On the other hand, everyone loved the “Chicken and Waffles,” really a deep-fried quail with diminutive cornmeal-herb waffles and a drizzle of bacon-caramel syrup. The quail was fried to perfection, with crackly, salty skin and moist, tender meat. Frankly, once you take a taste, you don’t want to share it, which explains how I was “accidentally” stabbed with a friend’s fork as we dived to get the last bite.

A perfect foil for a glass of red was the wine-braised country ribs with mascarpone polenta topped with tiny cubes of roasted apple. It’s a rich, earthy dish in beautiful balance: buttery slow-cooked pork, creamy polenta and cheese, with the sweet apples as a refreshing counter-note.

Vegetarians will love the contrasting flavors and textures of the sauteed wild mushrooms served with a crisp wedge of fried polenta and a frisee salad topped with a warm poached egg. Also terrific: the panini filled with portobello mushrooms and herbed goat cheese, and the irresistible mac and cheese.

Of the three mini desserts made by a local caterer, the citrus cheesecake was the best: nice, fluffy texture, just enough citrus. The biggest letdown was the Turtles and Apples, basically warm chocolate-chip-cookie balls topped with peanuts and served with a few thin slices of apple. On an otherwise sophisticated menu, this is a dowdy disappointment.

Service here is earnest, energetic and cheerful. Even on that crazy-crowded Saturday night, with that group of four all but breathing down our necks, our waitress did her best to make sure we didn’t feel neglected or rushed. She even told the four women to back up so we could struggle into our coats. Now that’s service.