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December 2, 2011 - Phyllis Sigal
I've had some pretty good meals in my lifetime, but I can count on one hand the number of truly extraordinary meals I've had at restaurants.
But two that I've had at The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., are in the top five.
It was 10 years ago for our 20th wedding anniversary when my taste buds were first delighted by the amazing food at Chef Patrick O'Connell's award-winning restaurant.
We were lucky enough to stay at the inn on that visit, and were treated to afternoon tea with a wonderful assortment of canapes upon our arrival, a complimentary cocktail while waiting for our table, a tour of the kitchen and a delicious breakfast the next morning.
I've never forgotten that experience and the dinner that trumped all dinners — well, at least until our visit to the inn for our 30th anniversary in October.
I think dinner was even better the second time around. We didn't stay at the inn this time, but we still were given a complimentary glass of champagne for our anniversary celebration.
Practically every table was celebrating something. It's just not the kind of place you go to on a whim. First, reservations go quickly. Second, you've got to save up!
The menus are printed daily at The Inn at Little Washington. Not just because the offerings may change based on fresh food availability, but because whatever the guest is celebrating is noted at the top of the front page. When we were handed our menus, there were the words, "Happy 30th Anniversary to Bruce and Phyllis." It was enough to bring tears to my eyes. Even though everyone else's milestone was noted, it still made us feel special!
Our table was probably the best in the house — with the exception of the chef’s tables with a ringside view to the kitchen. We were seated in a cozy, cushy corner, with a salmon-hued fringed lamp shade above. The decor is as rich as the food, with lush tapestries and velvety, wine-colored banquettes and chairs.
But as beautiful as the interior is, O’Connell’s culinary creations take center stage. A miniature box of popcorn tossed in truffle oil and with freshly shaved truffles on top started off the dinner production ... Our waiter told us that a customer once said that eating at the inn was like "watching a show."
"What's a show without popcorn?" was Chef O'Connell's response.
Theatrics is a theme at the inn. The inn rooms as well as areas in the restaurant all have been designed by British set designer Joyce Evans. The building started out as an old gas station, prior to its 1978 opening as the restaurant. But you'd never know it. You'd think it was an inn built around the same time that George Washington himself surveyed the town, back in the mid-1700s.
O'Connell said he was supposed to be an actor, but now, each night the restaurant allows him to be “producer, director, set designer and lead player."
And in a starring role each night are such delicacies as: fois gras, caviar, squab, lamb confit, shishito peppers, shaved black truffle, veal sweetbreads, salsify puree and Lilliputian shrimp dumplings. O'Connell certainly serves well as director and producer. He takes these raw materials and fashions them into such masterpieces as:
• Carpaccio of herb crusted baby lamb with Caesar salad ice cream
• A marriage of hot and cold foie gras with sauternes jelly and quince marmalade
• Fricassee of lobster with potato gnocchi, green grapes and curried walnuts
• Maine day boat scallop sauteed with tomato gnocchi, capers, brown butter and lemon
• Truffle-dusted Hawaiian yellow tail saute on rutabaga puree with artichokes and chanterelles
• Bitter chocolate-dusted Border Springs lamb loin with salsify puree on early autumn ratatoulle
And, not only is the chef creative, he’s got a great sense of humor, as proven by this selection:
• Pepper-Crusted Tuna Pretending to be a Filet Mignon, capped with seared duck foie gras on charred onions with a burgundy butter sauce.
There are more ... which is the problem. What to order? The choices are so difficult because everything sounds amazing. When presented with three choices of foie gras, I knew I’d have to have at least one. Black truffle appears on the menu several times, kicking up even the most ordinary item a notch or 10.
Macaroni and cheese with Virginia country ham and shaved black truffle was a second-course item I would’ve have loved to have tried. Another diner — a woman staying at our inn down the street — reported it was incredible.
Shaved black truffle also turned our very first tidbit into something amazing, as I mentioned at the start. The popcorn, served in its miniature popcorn box, was delicious with our champagne.
After the popcorn we were served A Shot of Liquid Autumn — a tiny cordial mug filled with apple rutabaga soup. A hint of maple syrup is the taste treat’s secret ingredient. A miniature cheese biscuit accompanied the silky slurp. (I whipped up a batch of the soup recipe for our Thanksgiving dinner last week. It was met with rave reviews!)
Next came caviar wafers — potato chips sandwiched around Ossetra caviar and creme fraiche — presented standing on end on a piece of slate; shiny, black stones were strategically placed to aid in the display. The restaurant’s maitre d’ noted they glued the stones to the platter so patrons could not mistakenly snack on them.
After we enjoyed our little nibbles, it was time for the big decisions — our first, second and third courses.
Finally, with a little help from our very pleasant waitress, I decided on:
• Chilled Maine Lobster with Cucumber Sorbet, Shipwrecked in the Vegetable Garden; seared duck fois gras on a salad of frisee, house-made bacon and lamb confit with a poached egg from the restaurant’s hen house and shaved black truffle; and curry-dusted veal sweatbreads with homemade applesauce, Virginia country ham and pappardelle pasta.
My husband Bruce chose:
• A melange of spicy big eye tuna with avocado, mango, crispy shallots and sake-yuzu sorbet; blueberry squab, a grilled breast of young pigeon marinated in blueberry vinegar on a zucchini crepe; and milk-fed organic veal loin with bone marrow custard, caramelized fennel and fennel puree. (After 30 years of marriage, I could've guessed each of his selections.)
We asked the staff to choose the accompanying wines — a few less decisions we'd have to make! We had a white with our first course, and I wasn’t quite ready for another glass when my second course, the duck fois gras, arrived. “How about just a little splash of red,” our waitress offered. The restaurant's sommelier visited our table and explained why she chose the wines that she had for our third course — yet another special touch.
Everything was delicious. The homemade applesauce, such a simple side, was the best I've ever had.
After a meal like that, there’s really no room for dessert. But with the desserts offered, there’s really no way to turn them down, either.
More decisions. Sweet, sweet decisions.
The painter’s palette of autumn sorbets or the warm chocolate bread pudding with almond ice cream perfumed with black truffle? The triple cream cheesecake with roasted figs and champagne-concord grape sorbet or the southern butter pecan ice cream sandwich with bittersweet chocolate and hot caramel sauce? The warm local Granny Smith apple and quince tart with calvados ice cream or the cocoa nib napoleon with caramelized bananas, chocolate mousse and coconut sorbet with caramel lime sauce?
Another choice is the fromager’s cheese selection on a “mooooo-vable” cart.
It’s a cow actually, a wooden cow named Faira with a tray full of cheeses on top. There is a “resident cheese whiz,” who helps with the selections.
Well, as much as I do like cheese, it’s no replacement for chocolate.
I decided on the ice cream sandwich; Bruce decided on the cheese cake.
But then, out came a gorgeous white pedestal platter. Sitting on top was a chocolate package, with gold leaf ribbons and a bow, and a marzipan ribbon with, in more gold leaf, “Happy Anniversary.”
It was too beautiful to eat. But we did.
Our waitress sliced it open to reveal a green pistachio and white chocolate checkerboard of ice creams.
We canceled the ice cream sandwich, but we still let her bring us the cheesecake with grilled figs.
I was glad we had a bit of a walk back to our inn.
We didn’t order cocktails, because our waitress had offered the bubbly for our anniversary. But the cocktail menu is as creative as the dinner menu. A brief history of the how cocktails came to be named is explained on the menu, and the cocktails are divided into “Flutes,” “Straight Up” and “On the Rocks.”
I’m sure I would’ve gone with the Warm Welcome, listed under “Flutes.” Green apple and sacred basil puree with a dash of St. Germain elderflower liqueur topped with Inn at Little Washington brut certainly would’ve been a warm welcome! The Virginia Vesper, a “Straight Up” cocktail may have been my second choice: local Watershed gin and Cirrus vodka shaken with Lillet Blonde.
Despite every wonderful morsel of food, the piece de resistance of the evening was when Chef O’Connell invited us into the kitchen after our meal — the centerpiece of which is a Vulcan range built to order in France.
We shook his hand, chatted a bit, and he showed us around the kitchen.
He said he never had a business plan for his restaurant — only a passion for food.
I've always noticed that those who are passionate about what they do are the ones who succeed. Chef O'Connell certainly has proven that. Among the many of its accolades, the restaurant has been named one of the top 10 restaurants in the world.
I was quite taken with meeting the well known chef and just didn't want to let go of his hand! He was so hospitable.
“Next time,” he said, “You’ll have to sit at the chef’s table.”
I am already looking forward to Chef O’Connell’s encore.