Editors' pick

The Light Horse

American
$$$$ ($14 and under)
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Editorial Review

Review

At Light Horse, a little planning pays off
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, December 21, 2012

Old Town Alexandria’s Light Horse is an above-average neighborhood bar: a place to go for $3 beers and snacks after work, to gather with friends for a game of shuffleboard or Skee-Ball, to catch a local band or spend the night dancing to a DJ.

The trick, though, is to know what you’re going to be in for when you get there. Light Horse’s weekly events are designed to appeal to a wide variety of folks, but to make the most of your time, you’ll want to know what’s happening and plan accordingly.

The management originally planned to keep it simple. In the summer of 2011, owner John Jarecki hired Dave Pressley -- the former director of operations for such restaurants as Rustico and the Evening Star Cafe and a partner in Clarendon’s Eventide -- to serve as Light Horse’s general manager. Pressley says he envisioned turning the upstairs bar, which has a small stage and dance floor, into a bar with rock bands playing Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday and a DJ on Friday. “But a lot of our regulars didn’t want live music early in the week,” he says. “They just want to hang out at the bar.”

Follow their lead. Head upstairs and grab a seat at the long wooden bar during happy hour, which runs from 4 to 7 p.m. on weeknights. The house red and white wines are $4. Any bottled beer that regularly costs $5 or less, including Red Stripe, Sam Adams or Tusker, is $3. Of the dozen draft beers, most, such as Port City, Bell’s and Abita, are $3 a pint. Guinness is $4, as is the guest IPA (it was Green Flash last week). And although the taps include some nice Belgian beers, they’re not part of the deal.

Take your drink and wander back into the lounge area, a wide-open room with two shuffleboard tables, couches and, tucked into an alcove, two Skee-Ball machines. (This space holds a few dozen people and, not surprisingly, is popular with groups from the Meetup Web site, so be prepared to mingle.) Shuffleboard is free on Monday nights, so bring your competitive friends. A Tuesday-night Skee-Ball league will run from mid-January through February, which means the machines will be closed to the public at prime times, so you may want to avoid the bar then.

Thursdays generally feature singer-songwriters or acoustic duos after dinner -- more of a soundtrack than anything else, especially when they have to compete with the people at the bar playing shuffleboard or watching sports on the large TVs around the room.

Weekends feature a far more lively scene. DJ Big C drops Flo Rida, Rhianna and ’80s hits on Friday nights for an enthusiastic mix of multi-generational office groups, bachelorette parties and quadruple dates who turn most available space into a dance floor. (Despite the crush, getting a drink isn’t is tough as it looks, thanks to speedy bartenders.) Live music is the draw on Saturdays: From what I’ve seen, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen covers and driving garage rock are the norm. Pressley books “full bands that play good bar covers and stuff that we want to hear,” he explains.

Light Horse rarely charges admission, though some touring acts visiting from Nashville or Athens, Ga., might require a $5 cover.

Finally, one Tuesday a month, Pressley hosts a four-course beer dinner. “John Jarecki and I worked together at Rustico and fell in love with good beer,” Pressley says. A different brewery is featured each time; recent dinners have highlighted Alexandria’s Port City, Colorado’s New Belgium and Canada’s Unibroue paired with Adam Stein’s creative comfort food. The only constants: 44 seats are available for each dinner, and the cost is $55.

Light Horse’s bar fills a nice niche in Old Town’s scene: An alternative to Irish pubs and cocktail bars, a place to catch a rock band, a spot to play a few sets of shuffleboard.

It’s not a game-changer, but if you’re in Old Town -- and you know what to expect -- it’s a good night out.

Stick with the seafood at the Light Horse
By Candy Sagon
Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Light Horse in Old Town Alexandria is a two-fer: Upstairs is a rollicking bar with juicy, thick-as-your-fist burgers and rough-cut fries. Downstairs is a small, more sedate dining area with a sophisticated menu of seasonal entrees.

Downstairs is better for conversation, but it also requires a little trickier navigation of the menu. If you order anything that lives in the water, you’ll be very happy. The chef, Adam Stein, has a light, nimble touch with fish and seafood.

But when it comes to creatures that amble on land, well, those dishes don’t always work as successfully.

General manager Dave Pressley, formerly with Eventide and Ardeo + Bardeo, took over the restaurant about a year ago. He and Stein envisioned the downstairs as a “nice, casual, no dress-up needed” dinner place, but with a more inventive, “hyper-local” menu than upstairs.

The team hired friendly, hardworking servers, and Pressley says he freshened the dining area’s decor, although I’m not entirely sure his choices worked. The hanging pots of ivy, dangling dividers of shiny metal circles, and coaster-size mirrors and painted ovals on the wall strike me as a dubious mashup of the 1960s and 1970s.

But once you sit down and explore the lengthy list of uncommon wine and beer choices, those shiny circles won’t matter as much.

On the appetizer menu, skip everything but the PEI mussels and the chilled English pea soup. You could make a light meal with the jade-green pureed soup as a starter, followed by the generous bowlful of the small, velvety mussels.

The Prince Edward Island mussels were everything they’re supposed to be: tender, delicately flavored and perfectly steamed. They came resting in a dry vermouth broth with Spanish onion and slices of grilled bread.

The appetizer menu also has a market salad of local greens with paper-thin slices of radish. On our first visit, it was soggy and sad. On our second visit, though, it was appropriately perky with shavings of yellow carrot and a deft touch of honey-herb vinaigrette.

We also tried the applewood bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with goat cheese, but the bacon was dry and overcooked, and there was barely any goat cheese filling discernible. The concept was a good one: tangy goat cheese and salty bacon to balance the super-sweet dates, but the execution stumbled.

As for the entrees, we’ll go down the list from very good to not-quite-so-good.

In the extremely good category were pan-seared Dragon Creek sea scallops. Plump with a beautifully seared crust, they came perched on top of a green gazpacho of chopped tomatillos, cilantro and chilies, with fresh crab thrown in as a cool, sweet contrast.

Equally a star was the East Coast cioppino -- a stew of those fab mussels, littleneck clams, scallops, chunks of grilled fish and an intensely flavored tomato-fennel broth. It was one of those dishes where you wanted to mop up every last drop with bread.

Going from surf to turf, the applewood-smoked lamb shoulder had such a strong, overwhelming flavor, nothing else on the plate -- the vegetable slaw, the onion corn bread -- even registered on the palate.

The chicken-fried pork chop was also disappointing. The traditional Texas technique -- batter-dipped chopped steak that’s fried and served with a peppery cream gravy -- is applied to a bone-in pork chop. The coating was crunchy; the meat, juicy. But the gravy was wimpy; a thin, under-seasoned white rivulet with no pepper power. And the shredded apple on top of the chop? It lent nothing to the dish.

I had only one small complaint about the thick Angus filet. Not the cooking -- we ordered it medium-rare, and it came medium-rare. Not the accompanying crispy, halved Brussels sprouts, greatly enhanced by bits of bacon. No, it was the little dish of housemade steak sauce. It was strangely lemony, almost acrid. After we each dipped in a fork tine to taste it, no one at the table wanted more.

For vegetarians, the chef offers a dish of roasted maitake mushrooms with white beans, a soft-cooked egg, pea tendrils and bread crumbs. It’s an appealing dish with just a few discordant notes. The egg was closer to hard-cooked; a runnier yolk could be stirred into the mushrooms and beans. The dish also needed more salt.

Finally, dessert. Order the goat cheese cheesecake drizzled with caramel and nestled in graham cracker crumbs. The two, small, free-form balls are light and creamy in texture, and their mild flavor marries well with the rich, sweet sauce. Avoid the chocolate panna cotta, which -- both times we tried it -- was not nearly chocolate-y enough and had an unpleasant, gummy texture.

Tom Sietsema is on assignment.