Crown Seeker

The Light Horse tried to find its rank on King Street.

The Light Horse tried to find its rank on King Street.

By Stefanie Gans / Photos by Kate Bohler

Upstairs: Dark, dim and more than just bar food.

It can’t be easy serving food on the same street—King Street—as three of the top restaurants in Northern Virginia.

There’s Restaurant Eve (technically around the corner on S. Pitt Street) glorifying unexpected proteins (antelope), with highly seasonal, rotating vegetables and clean service. With Vermilon, chef Anthony Chittum (who is scheduled to leave early this year for a new restaurant in Washington, D.C.) prepares dishes that seem both neighborly and extraordinary. And at Brabo, connected to the Lorien Hotel, the nightly prix fixe reaches glory in small plates, beautiful flavors and retains one of the most unpretentious sommeliers in the area.

The Light Horse lives on King Street and—on, or within a half block of that strip, between the waterfront and King Street Metro—more than 50 restaurants exist, according to the Alexandria Convention & Visitors Association.

But Light Horse’s competition includes more than the gourmet tables in town. The brick oven pizza chain Bertucci’s sits nearby, as do casual sushi spots and kabob places.

There needs to be a strategy for potential taste buds: Light Horse conducts a two-prong approach for dollars on the crowded asphalt.

Downstairs is a mostly non-descript dining room, with booths and tables lining the perimeter, no real bar (mostly a space to pour drinks, not linger on a stool) and a light wood color scheme. During multiple visits, it was never at capacity.

Say goodbye buffalo: Wings arrive saucless, but abundantly smoky.

Upstairs feels wholly opposite in comparison: downcast lighting, huge bar, flat screens. There’s even a mock living room with recliners huddled around TVs. It’s meant for sports and beers, not baby carrots.

The drastic, bi-level split allows each concept to draw its own crowd, explains owner John Jarecki. But this dual identity doesn’t let the more serious downstairs menu fulfill its ambitions and potential talent.

Adam Stein, Light Horse’s chef for about a year, partly left a previous restaurant job because the owners “weren’t on board” with his interest in locally sourcing meat and produce. The meat at Light Horse is local, proving his commitment. But integrity alone doesn’t make a dish.

Brussels sprout chips, now seizing the crown from kale for “chip of the moment,” reaches umami paired with the crunch of Lay’s. A farro salad, nutty and chewy with adorable actual baby carrots (not those manufactured from large carrots) bring a snap, but the abundance of grain overloads for a heavy first course.

A squash and apple soup should be rescued with much needed salt and citrus, but instead remains sweet with a background of cinnamon enforcing the dessert aurora.

A weeknight special of blue fish comes on strong like Danny Zuko at the drive-in, but steakhouse pairings of salty creamed spinach and buttery mashed potatoes push back with justified force, just like Sandy’s elbow.

The seasoned crust on a skirt steak breaks to tender redness, with broken bacon pieces nestling in with snappy, vibrant halved Brussels sprouts.

Ingredient selection mimics the season, a wise move for a restaurant competing against houses of garden worship. And Jarecki knows, for six years he worked for Neighborhood Restaurant Group, with its venues Vermilion and Columbia Fire House, both from the King Street area, receiving vegetables from the group’s nonprofit farm. Jareck left the group almost 5 years ago.

Diner downstairs shows scallops with sweet potatoes, spinach, creamed parsnips & beet puree.

Peas and arugula in a spring pasta, and a pile of beef brisket melting on top of chunks of carrots and mashed potatoes for a cold night, exemplify the calendar-as-king view. But both lack a deeper pleasure, with pasta gaining nothing from a vegetable stock-based sauce and meat plate offering no big flavors, just wintry heft.

With scallops cooked until almost blackened it diminishes their inherent delicateness. Worse, varying size chunks of sweet potato lay haphazardly around the plate, as if a parent rushed the meal prep in between homework and bath time.

The upstairs menu—an addition to the full menu available here—makes good on bar food.

“We have the best wings in town,” the server tells us. Brined, smoked and grilled chicken wings arrive sauceless, but full of smoke.

Blue fish comes on strong, like Danny Zuko at the drive-in, but creamed spinach and buttery mashed potatoes push back with justified force, just like Sandy’s elbow.

Fritters of crab and mascarpone fly into the accompanying bacon mayo, and are just as frat-boy-grown-up wonderful as they sound.

The burger is gorgeous in its meatiness. We ordered the classic and cannot therefore endorse the self-proclaimed “Heart Attack Burger” with two grilled cheeses playing bun; the classic cheeseburger fulfilled our red meat craving.

When asking about dessert, the same server smiles, “our food is awesome.” I laugh—not at him, but at his enthusiasm, it’s intoxicating—and he continues, “It’s the first place I’ve worked at where I don’t have to lie about the food.”

The same spirit of belief sits on the menu, which will soon expand to offer the ubiquitous small plates.

The kitchen works in the right direction—the menu reads like any modern American restaurant on King Street—but it lacks the nuance and the finesse to break out. So far.

Notes

The Light Horse

Cuisine
Seasonal American + Class Bar Food Staples

Scoop
Graduated percentage off bottled wine: 50 percent on Sundays to 20 percent on Wednesdays.

Dishes
Appetizer $6-$10, Entree $16-$28, Bar menue $5-$17

Open
Dinner daily

715 King St., Alexandria; thelighthorse.com 

 

(February 2013)

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