★ ★ ☆ ☆
Charming and lively, this wine bar takes its food just as seriously. It’s also a fun time.
Tomato salad, pea ravioli, Arctic char, Walsh Family Wines
“There wasn’t much in downtown Leesburg,” says Tim Rowley, the chef and co-owner of The Wine Kitchen. Of course, he lists old-time favorites like Tuscarora Mill and Lightfoot. But now, there’s a scene.
“Downtown Leesburg has a restaurant at every other door,” Rowley says. There’s Bites, a wine and grilled cheese bar; Señor Ramon, a taco shop; Trungo’s, a gastropub; and SideBar, an all-day concept with an attached coffee bar and a DJ on Friday nights.
The Wine Kitchen has always been buzzy—a small, lively spot with a bar, and cozy (re: you’ll get to know your neighbors) seating. The draw was, and still is, an eclectic and varied wine list from around the world, shown off in flights, where three wines display a certain grape or mood or region. (There’s only one dedicated to Virginia wines, and it’s worth it alone to try an experimental red from one of Loudoun’s newest, promising wineries, Walsh Family Wine.)
While there have been chef changes through the years, it’s been helmed for the last four under Rowley, who continues to push the farm-to-table aesthetic.
“We just want to make good food, and use the best product possible,” Rowley says, almost laughing, acknowledging this sentiment, however true, has become cliche. In Loudoun County, where highways and dirt roads divide farmland and the rapid sprawl of retail and residential development, it’s easy to receive a box of tomatoes in the morning and slice them into a showpiece salad: thick slices of red tomato stacked underneath softened strips of sweet peppers topped with generous dollops of burrata.
Sure, it’s a tomato salad. But just like a crisply made bed, or that perfect half-tuck of a shirt, it’s the details that matter.
It’s a perfect tomato. It’s the surprise of peppers, an often uncelebrated ingredient, and here, the way in which the strips are marinated feel reminiscent of a New Jersey-style hoagie. It’s the hefty tufts of burrata, ready to creep into the crevices of the sliced tomato.
Tomatoes weren’t as successful in a chilled soup with curry and a crowd of lentils. The texture was grainy, like chewing on a melting Slurpee. Later, a $37 steak arrived more or less rare, when ordered medium-rare. There was no sear, none of that only-in-restaurants-is-there-this-much-butter floating atop the cut. It was seasoned well, but the execution wasn’t there.
But, the misses were few.
Pasta is a dream. A mash of peas wrapped inside a sheet of dough, folded into half-moons, overlapping on the plate with a scattering of peas, wilted greens, various mushrooms in shapes more resembling aliens and deep red drops of beet puree. It’s art really, and also delicate, dramatic, delicious, too. Gnocchi is a heartier, more rustic affair, like a patch of autumn in a bowl with thick carrots, unpeeled, just scrubbed, so the sauce settles into its textured exterior. There’s shaggy, braised lamb and the whole combination resonates with a dash of harissa heat, but mostly a stunning smokiness.
Fish is served with a deftness, tuna paired with its pink partner, watermelon, plated in alternating swaths filled in with pickled jalapeno, Taggiasca olives and scattered microgreens, a wild combination that works better in the mouth than it might read on the menu.
Tilefish arrives almost creamy, especially underneath a crisped film of skin. It’s next to a summery succotash-like combination of tomatoes, corn and pea shoots. Porcini-crusted Arctic char is a showpiece when it lands on the table. The squared-off filet balances on roasted mushrooms and green beans, heavily sauced in a miso-mustard dressing flooded with sesame seeds. The sauce is rich and savory in a way only fermented soy can bring.
A chocolate torte is best for its neighbor, a scoop of lush passionfruit sorbet made in-house. Better yet, look to the night-ending drink list, especially now that The Wine Kitchen has a spirits program. Start the night there, too, if just to admire the illustrated booklet of seasonal cocktails, whimsically named and described (Beachcomber with aged white rum and allspice dram is “a gentle breeze” and “good for a cool time”).
The Wine Kitchen didn’t start Leesburg’s food scene, and it’s not new and shiny. But that’s exactly why it’s time to go there now, a restaurant comfortable in what it does, and how it does it. It has nothing to prove, and so it proves it’s exactly where to find that next meal. // 7 S. King St., Leesburg; Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday; brunch on Sunday; Starters: $2-$17; Entrees: $15-$37