The Vintage 50 logo etched into the windows at 50 Catoctin Circle in Leesburg is more than just a handsome design: It offers a hint of what's inside.
In what was the old Thoroughbreds brew pub space, owner Anthony Cavallo and brewmaster Bill Madden are proving that everything old can be new again.
Cavallo, who was a manager for Washington's Blackie's group for years, including a stint as manager of the old Lulu's club downtown, is in the process of transforming the space in Leesburg from a men-only-country-club look into that of a neighborhood restaurant.
For November's opening of Vintage 50 Restaurant and Brew Lounge, Cavallo lured Madden, former brewmaster for Capitol City Brewing, out of retirement to take over the site's microbrewery, and brought in Dan Fike, former sous chef at Magnolias at the Mill in Purcellville, to expand the menu from the mostly meat -- and lots of it -- fare of the old Thoroughbreds.
There's definitely new life in the place, with a schedule that draws a late-night crowd to the lounge, refinements that expand Sunday brunch into a family dining experience and new brews that are attracting attention all on their own.
Although Vintage 50 is tucked into the first floor of a nondescript office building slightly off the main drag, the restaurant and brew pub's signature logo can be easily spotted from the street. An appealing patio is being spiffed up with more comfortable lounge seating for warmer weather.
Smoking is not permitted, either in the lounge or the dining room, although it will be allowed on the patio.
The lounge, which opens for lunch every day but Monday, offers its own menu of sandwiches, pizzas, burgers, jerk chicken, fresh pretzels and chicken wings, along with the six to 12 beers that Madden brews on the premises. The selection changes often, said Madden, who added that he sometimes brews beer every day if the demand requires it. The signature beer is called Catoctin Kolsch, made in the style of German beer from the Cologne region.
Other selections include Point of Rocks Ale and Bohemian Pilsner.
There is also a new emphasis on designer martinis. A wine bar has been added to the main dining room, and Cavallo is increasing the number of selections to about 200. And he has begun renovations to make the lounge and dining room more cozy. A custom banquette, built to bar stool height, is being installed in the front lounge.
For now, Cavallo has deconstructed the booths that dominated the main dining room, turning them into temporary banquettes that line two walls. There is a smaller, slightly raised dining area that can also be used for private parties. Cavallo's long-term plans include custom banquettes for the dining room and an open kitchen.
"Once we got in, we realized the kitchen isn't designed to turn out the quantity of food that we are serving," Cavallo said. So it will be reorganized and streamlined under a redesign that is scheduled to begin early next year.
If there are physical shortcomings in the kitchen, they are well masked by Fike's creative hand.
Tuna, specifically gently seared tuna, seems to show up in some form on every menu these days, but Fike's Seared Ahi Lollipops are playful and flavorful. Perfectly seared slices of tuna are speared on skewers to look like big red lollipops on a crisp white plate and served with seaweed salad and what looks like the typical shredded daikon. But those white threads aren't radish at all, but slender fried cellophane rice noodles that give the dish an unexpected crunch. And you can actually taste the smoky flavor from the tuna's searing. He tops it all off with a squirt of spicy chili sauce on a feather of cucumber.
Fike also has the gumption to serve Caprese salad -- fresh mozzarella and tomatoes -- in the off-season and pulls it off with tomatoes that pack real flavor, in the dead of winter. It's all garnished with a balsamic vinaigrette that isn't too sweet and nicely accents the flecks of fresh basil.
There are the ubiquitous Caesar salad entrees on the menu, but Fike also offers a smaller side version that is just enough for an appetizer and with a dressing that doesn't scream anchovies (which would be okay with me) but isn't merely glorified mayonnaise either.
Entrees include old-time favorites such as chicken pot pie and shrimp etouffe; standards such as New York strip steak, filet mignon and sea scallops; and innovative preparations of fish.
Bits of corn are mixed into the polenta that serves as the pedestal for perfectly cooked black cod, which is then showered with shoestring potatoes. A red-wine butter sauce runs like a halo around the whole preparation.
Tenderloin tips are sauteed and mixed with egg noodles, rings of sauteed onions and a rich wild mushroom sauce in a dish that looks plain but carries deep flavors.
There is a long list of desserts, though many are purchased rather than made in-house. Fike's kitchen turns out creme brulee, bread pudding and a killer stout brownie (with stout from Vintage 50's own brewery) that lends an earthy taste to chocolate like nothing I have ever eaten.
--Nancy Lewis (March 29, 2007)
Some of the freshest and best beer in Loudoun County flows from the taps at Vintage 50, a brew pub that has taken over the space formerly occupied by Thoroughbreds. What sets the new Leesburg bar apart is that the man concocting its ales and lagers is award-winning brewer Bill Madden, who ran the show at Capitol City Brewing Co. and Founders.
After running down the taps at Vintage 50, I've yet to be disappointed. His Extra Special Bitter is the best in the Washington area to wear that famous name, a solid, malty example of the British favorite. Point of Rocks Pale Ale is tasty without being overwhelmed by hops, and its Belgian cousin, a hard-to-find Belgian Pale Ale, is tart and surprising.
Madden is still making his delicate German Kolsch and the delicious Wee Heavy Scottish Ale recipes he has carried with him since Cap City. His cask-conditioned ales, served through an English-style hand pump, weren't available on my last visit. The bartender explained that they'd simply run out because they hadn't foreseen how popular the beer was going to be.
Everything coming from the taps sounds good, so it's best to order the sampler -- five-ounce pours of any four from the six or seven beers on the list -- before deciding what you want to drink.
Unlike at most other area brew pubs, Vintage 50's bar area is a separate, intimate affair not dominated by copper serving tanks or brewing apparatus. (Those are on your right as you walk in.) At one end of the room is a raised lounge area with couches, leather stools and low-slung tables, which could have come from a higher-priced joint downtown. It feels like a VIP area, which is slightly odd when juxtaposed against the rest of the bland-but-attractive decor: high two-person tables, flat-screen TVs and plenty of bar stools.
Aesthetic gripes aside, I'll be back for happy hour, which runs from 4 to 8 weekdays and features $3 pints. If you need a souvenir of your visit, Vintage 50 sells growlers of its beers to go: $17 for a resealable glass jug, and $9 every time you have it refilled.
-- Fritz Hahn (March 16, 2007)