Eating out is something Mark and I have enjoyed doing together for our entire relationship. Portland was the high point--there are a million great restaurants there, and new ones popping up all the time. In Austin, we explored some, and found a few spots, but compared to what we'd come to expect from Portland, we were disappointed.
Here in Virginia, we haven't had time since we moved to try many places. However, when Mark's parents were here in September, we did go into The Wine Kitchen in Leesburg for some lunch. We didn't plan it, just happened to walk by the restaurant while we were exploring Leesburg. And it was great--we had a light lunch, each had a glass of wine, and improved our afternoon considerably.
It was with this good memory in mind that Mark asked if I wanted to to The Wine Kitchen for dinner on Saturday. We hadn't been out anywhere nice in ages, so I was really excited about it, and I was not disappointed.
We started our meal with the charcuterie plate ($10). The highlight of the meats was an Italian bresaola--I hadn't had bresaola before, and I loved it, particularly paired with the stone-ground mustard The Wine Kitchen provides. The Spanish Serrano ham was good, too, though not the best I've had by any means. I was very disappointed, however, by the domestic (from Iowa) pork belly. It really tasted like raw bacon, and was both extremely fatty and very tough. We also go the marinated olives ($4), which Mark was disappointed to find were pitted, ruining their texture, but I thought were pretty good, and a very generous portion for the price--we couldn't finish them.
Along with our first course, Mark had a taste of Majella Sparkling Shiraz 2005, from Coonawarra, Australia ($4 for the taste) and I had a flight of tastes of three pinot noirs: Terrazze Pinot Nero, 2008 from Provincia di Pavia, Italy; Rosella's Vineyard A.P. Vin, 2006, from Santa Lucia Highlands, California; and Klee Pinot Noir, 2008, from Willamette Valley, Oregon ($13 for the flight). The Wine Kitchen pours a generous taste--I'd say it's more like a half glass--so I think the prices are very reasonable. Mark didn't like the sparkling shiraz, and neither did I--it tasted like carbonated port and was way too heavy for a pre-dinner drink. The Oregon Klee pinot was very good, the California OK, and the Italian antiseptic tasting, to my palette, but I learned to drink wine in Oregon, so take that for what it's worth.
For a second course, we split the Parisian herb gnocchi ($12). Served with roasted brussels spouts, pearl onions, and a balsamic vinegar, browned butter, and ricotta sauce, this was sublime. I don't love gnocchi in general, Mark doesn't love brussels sprouts, and yet we both loved this (though in retrospect, I'm not sure why we ordered it). The gnocchi were soft without being at all mushy, the brussels sprouts were just a bit crunchy, the pearl onions were sweet, and the sauce was perfect. This is a bit rich, though--I'm not sure I would want a whole serving as an entree. For a split starter, it was perfect.
I didn't have to give my entree much thought. I had the "chicken and waffles" ($12) .The Wine Kitchen's take on this classic is actually battered and fried farm-raised quail over cornmeal and herb waffles, with bacon caramel syrup. If that sounds good to you, trust me, it's better. The quail was done perfectly, and it was wonderful with the syrup. Mark also really liked the waffle, but I wasn't as big a fan of it--I wanted to be lofty and soft inside with a crisp outside, like a cornmeal Belgian waffle, but it was more Eggo-textured. Still, the overall dish was a huge success. I'd order it again in a heartbeat.
Mark went for the braised short ribs ($16). His dish was simply not so impressive as mine. The ribs themselves were fine (and it was a generous portion), but the red wine sauce served on them was lackluster. I was intrigued by the red grits the ribs were served with, but they ended up tasting much like grits with tomato sauce in them, and the texture was in the in-between area, not quite grits, not quite polenta. The pickled vegetable salad, however, was excellent, and was a wonderful accompaniment to the heavy beef and grits, adding a crispness that would have been lacking otherwise.
With our entrees, Mark and I each had a flight of wine tastes. I chose the Hills of Italy ($10), which included: Barbera D'Asti Collina La Mora, Barbera, 2007, from Piedmonte; Benotto, Nebbiolo, 2006, from Monferrato; and Chianti Riserva, Renzo Masi, Sangiovese, 2006, from Chianti. The Barbera and Sangiovese were both very solid, not great, but very drinkable. I didn't care much for the Nebbiolo, as it had a dusty taste to it that was too strong on my palette. Mark went for the Righteous Staff Selections ($12). His flight included: Yalumba , Riesling, 2008, from South Australia; La Palazzetta, Brunello di Montalcino , Sangiovese , 2003, from Tuscany, Italy; and d'Arry's Original, d'Arenberg, Shiraz, Grenache, 2005, from McLaren Vale, Australia. I didn't sample his Reisling, but loved it. The Sangiovese was very respectable and would fit right in with the wines in my flight. The high point of his for me, though, was the surprisingly good Australian Grenache, which I loved and will definitely look for again.
For dessert, I was all set to get the Caramel and Sea Salt Torta Palla ($7). Then, however, our waitress offered me the a port and truffles flight ($14), which I couldn't refuse. Mark ordered the Torta Palla and we split both. I didn't get the names of my port offerings, but the tawny was excellent (the other was a LBV that was a bit strong for me). The truffles were quite good. We were surprised to find we both loved the milk chocolate and cinnamon one the most, but the dark chocolate and Earl Gray garnished with lavender was also quite good. The third truffle was a ruby port and dark chocolate version, which I thought was overpowered by the tawny I was drinking and didn't care as much for.
Mark's dessert was my hands-down favorite part of the meal. Two balls of very good, very dense chocolate cake were covered with an excellent hard chocolate shell (not waxy at all, with great flavor). The balls were topped with heavenly homemade caramel sauce, sprinkled with strong sea salt, and garnished with what I believe to have been sweetened and whipped mascarpone. Every element of the dessert was perfect, and it was all fantastic together. I was stuffed to the gills by the time it arrived, and I ate my half with gusto anyway.
As far as atmosphere goes, The Wine Kitchen is a much different place for weekend dinner than for weekday lunch. It was very crowded and noisy. We arrived just after 6pm and got the last open table, and for the rest of our meal, multiple parties were standing up in the middle of the restaurant waiting for a clear table. Our second round of wine was delayed quite a bit, in part because our waitress couldn't make her way through the mob. Still, I like the place, it's comfortable and not pretentious in the least.
I like the prices at The Wine Kitchen, too. The tastes are usually $3-$5, and the flights $10-$16, so it's a great way to taste some wine. The food, too, is very reasonable for the quality and size.
There may well be other great places locally--we'll definitely keep looking--but I think Mark and I may have found our special new date night place here in our new home, and that's a good feeling to have.