When I arrived here four years ago, it quickly became apparent that if there was a gold standard for restaurants in Leesburg and its environs, it was surely Tuscarora Mill.
Since owner Kevin Malone opened "Tuskies" in an old grain mill in the middle of town in 1985, no other restaurant in the area has turned out such consistently fine fare at such reasonable prices, matched it with such an extensive wine list and thrown into the mix a serious beer drinkers tavern. Tuskies today--with nonstop business functions during the week and rehearsal dinners every weekend, special wine dinners, a booming catering business and the new adjoining South Street bakery--offers something culinary for everyone, whether it's casual or formal, moderate or expensive, Bud or Bordeaux.
Executive chef Patrick Dinh, in his eighth year at the Mill, has done a marvelous job of moving the burgeoning local populace away from what he calls a "meat and potatoes mentality" toward his modern American style--an adventurous fusion of the old continental with the spices, techniques and flavors of Asia, the Southwest and wherever else Dinh feels like borrowing from in a given season.
"Three years ago, I had trouble selling tuna medium rare rather than well done, but now it's the norm," said Dinh, who trained with Jeremiah Tower in San Francisco and at I Ricchi in Washington.
Indeed, over the years I have been wowed by entrees ranging from the sublime yellowfin tuna with Madeira sauce ($20, though not now on the menu, which changes quarterly) and Dinh's signature sesame roasted salmon ($12.50 for a small plate, $18 for a full) to the simple grilled buffalo burger (with a pasta salad, $7.50). Dinh is forever throwing wild stuff onto the menu--venison, mushrooms, duck, quail--usually based on availability and the season. There is a robust heartiness to the mix that comes from lots of smoked stuff and lots of meat, but that has been nicely countered with several well-turned fish and salad courses.
My recent foray to Tuskies for lunch and dinner confirms its status as Loudoun A-list. But I also noticed a few chinks in the armor. Time will tell whether Dinh and his restaurant is overextended with its seven-day-a-week marathon or we just stumbled into a bad patch. In fairness, we learned later that Dinh had the night off when we went for dinner, so it's possible that we lucked into an off night. As a fan, I hope so.
First lunch, in Tuskie's comfy, dim cafe, an informal room with a bar that boasts about 20 beers on tap and a mixed crowd, from polo shirts up through suit and tie. The eclectic lunch menu has broad appeal. The six starters range from a $3.75 corn chowder to a game sampler (duck, venison quail) at $8; there are eight salads topping out at a grilled salmon Caesar ($9.75), eight entrees mirroring the dinner menu and nine sandwiches, a bargain at about $7 each.
My wife and I split the spring roll appetizer (a nod to Dinh's Vietnamese heritage), and I order a mahi mahi salad special ($10) while Kathy tries the rigatoni. Service is rapid if annoying: Our waiter rests his hand on my shoulder in an overly familiar way when he greets us and later removes my plate in the nearly empty restaurant 10 minutes before my wife is done.
I have never been disappointed by a Tuskie's appetizer, and the shrimp and chicken spring rolls, crispy on the outside, with cucumber and mint overtones and a sesame dipping sauce, make the grade. Kathy's rigatoni is a perfect al dente tossed with a mouth-watering blend of tomatoes, olive oil, dry-cured olives, capers, roasted eggplant and fresh mozzarella. The mahi mahi salad, however, comes up short. The fish is mushy, except for the ends, which are tough. There is a slight fish smell that the fresh greens and red onion can neither mask nor rectify. Okay, even Tuskie's is allowed the occasional miss. But several weeks later, I return for dinner and begin to wonder.
The main dining room at Tuskie's is the old mill room, a soaring wood-floored chamber with giant timbered pillars and industrial strength turbines and machine belts still in place. The decor is Big Wood meets Victorian meets Country Craft. The noise level in this room can be deafening--I've departed hoarse after dining at a large table on a busy night. But I prefer it to the garden room, a former deck that was enclosed, or the perimeter tables, which are in a former hallway wrapping around the main room.
We are seated at 8 p.m. on a Wednesday, and within a few seconds Kathy switches her chair with another at our table. As my backside sinks into the sagging seat, shoving the wooden frame uncomfortably into the backs of my thighs, I am reminded again that these chairs are in serious need of repair or replacement.
Famished, I am looking forward to snacking on some of Tuskie's fine homemade breads while we wait for our meal. But it takes 15 minutes--after we order--before a busboy arrives with a loaf. He sets it down directly in front of me, as if he is serving me an appetizer, so at first, I think how odd my starter looks--a pale little mound with a dipping sauce . . . but no. It is a loaf of tasteless white bread and some butter. Apparently the good stuff's gone. "Are you sharing that?" Kathy jokes.
The dinner menu is similar to the lunch menu, plus a few more appetizers and minus the sandwiches. Entrees range from wild mushrooms with fettuccine ($17) to the roasted rack of Colorado lamb ($25). I order the spicy pot stickers ($6) to begin and the rack of lamb. Kathy tries the Baked Oysters Three Ways ($9.50) and the smoked chicken over penne ($16.50). The restaurant doesn't have the first Italian red we order off its 350-wine list but comes through on our second choice, a gritty tasting Alessandra Barbera d'Alba ($25).
Our appetizers are super. The dumplings, stuffed with pork and shiitake mushrooms and arranged in a star pattern with a scoop of sweet ginger relish in the middle, are light, almost crisp, a succulent reminder of why we keep coming back to this place. Ditto the baked Blue Point oysters, two each with almond garlic butter; bacon, peppers and onions; and--our favorite--spinach and Pernod cream. We're tempted to order another round.
With such artfully presented appetizers, I was surprised with the C-minus presentation of my roast rack of Colorado lamb. The four chops arrive piled haphazardly on the scalloped potatoes, with a handful of carrots and green beans wedged unceremoniously onto too small a plate. The chops themselves are fine, with just a hint of garlic and rosemary. The eggplant caponata would have helped the flavor if it hadn't sloughed off and been lost in the potatoes.
I love smoked foods, but there is a limit to smoking, and I believe it was surpassed in the chicken and penne entree. The dish is prepared with smoked chicken that has been marinated in olive oil with garlic and salt and pepper, then served over penne in a reduced sauce of white wine and goat cheese cream with pancetta and rosemary. But the only thing you taste is mesquite, which has overpowered every other ingredient. It is a heavy dish to begin with, but with such an intensely woody taste, Kathy has no appetite for more than half the serving.
Fortunately, Kathy makes a fine, redemptive choice for dessert, the hot chocolate truffles, while I try the trio of creme brulees. The brulees--chocolate, Irish cream and vanilla--are served cold with a bit of brown sugar on the top. They are decent, though I prefer warm or room temperature brulee with a crispy broiled crust. The truffles, filled with creme de cassis, breaded in graham crackers and served warm over a thin caramel palette with a bit of whipped cream, are a sinfully rich and delicious concoction.
Dinner for two, before tax, tip and wine ran about $65.
William W. Horne's e-mail address is whorne@ mindspring.com.
* Address: Market Street Station, 203 Harrison St. SE, Leesburg. 703-771-9300.
* Restaurant hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; buffet brunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday; 5:30-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 5:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday.
* Cafe hours: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday.
* Prices: Lunch: appetizers, $3.75-$9.50; salads, $4.50-$9; sandwiches, $6.50-$7.75; entrees, $7.50-$24. Dinner: appetizers, $5.50-$11; salads, $4.50-$8.75; entrees, $16.50-$25. Brunch: adults, $14.95; children, $8.95.
* Miscellaneous: Catering on- and off-site. Private dining rooms for business or private occasions. Regular prix fixe wine dinners and seasonal prix fixe specialty dinners (i.e. game, mushrooms). Smoking in cafe only. Free parking available in adjoining Market Street Station lot. All major credit cards accepted.
CAPTION: Standing in front of a painting inside Leesburg's Tuscarora Mill, executive sous chef Ezra Elkon, left, and executive chef Patrick Dinh offer up two of the restaurant's dishes.