“Do you know these guys? They have what some consider the best restaurant in America…” I would almost never ignore this statement. But while sitting in the cigar room at Del Frisco’s on a night that someone had closed it to throw a party for chefs in town for the Beard awards, of course I dropped my Romeo y Julieta in the ashtray and said “no, please introduce me.” Although I hadn’t recognized the gentlemen by face, as I was introduced to Patrick O’Connell and Reinhardt Lynch I knew exactly what restaurant the introducer meant. It was Inn At Little Washington, and of course I had heard of it.
At that time (remember we were in the cigar room of a New York restaurant so quite some time ago) I had a short hit list of destination restaurants to get to. Foodies I had come to respect purported the best restaurants around with American-born chefs to be, in no particular order: Trotter’s in Chicago, the Laundry in Yountville, and the Inn in Washington, Virginia. That was then. These days Alinea strongly commands my focus of food-related travel so I needed not only motivation for a food trip that could be done in a weekend, but a reason not to see Bestfriend and find out what Grant is up to these days (besides having been afflicted with cancer of the irony).
The occasion was Roar’s Birthday and a time in our life with a stronger than usual desire for respite rather than excitement. We needed indulgence so thorough that we would feel vacationed, even though all we would have done in reality was have a sleepover. We were also willing to pay for it, having saved some money recently with all vacation time related to family or weddings.
A two hour and forty minute Amtrak ride from NYC brought us to a rental car desk in Washington, DC. A drive of a little more than an hour from there brought us to rolling hills of farm country and, with the final direction from the rental GPS of “turn right and proceed point four miles to destination on right,” we were right were we needed to be.
About fifteen minutes after turning the rental over to the valets we were in a sumptuously appointed room deciding in which order we should nap on the featherbed-topped mattress under the damask cover on the second floor of our room, bathe in the deep jacuzzi tub, or return to the living room for afternoon tea service.
As time for travel has shortened, Roar and I have started placing a higher premium on comforts, like good sheets and good towels. The Inn is not cheap by anyone’s standards but it feels like the kind of place where the significant portion of the yield has been plowed back into making it better and better, or at least was in the beginning. At this point nothing is missed or overlooked, so plunking in bed was most tempting, but the truth is Chef O’Connell’s food is why we were here for the night rather than at all the other destinations easily accessible in four travel hours from NYC, so tea it was.
Tea was really just an extension of the pampering appointments the Inn offers and we needed. It was simple and relaxed, while feeling dignified. Cumin-dusted nuts, a Silver Needle White for me and a Russian Country for Roar with a few tasty tea-sized morsels: lemon cream tart topped with fresh raspberries, maple cookie, salted oatmeal raisin cookie, house smoked salmon with cucumber, and a country ham on chive biscuit with mascarpone pepper jelly. All exceptional and served on comfortingly fine china, a decisive transition from travel to destination.
After baths that involved salts and the donning of more appropriate dining attire, we proceeded back downstairs for dinner. I was greeted with a white carnation boutonniere, explained as a house tradition, and led to a two-top in a row of about four in the first of a series of dining rooms. At table we found dinner menus topped with a birthday wish for Roar and two glasses of champagne. A note written in someone’s pleasant hand on an Inn at Little Washington card informed us the bubbles were sent by our friend Outback from NYC.
Champagne consumed, we turned to dinner choices. Roar was clearly in a particular mood because for the first time in our nine years of dining together she asked if we could skip the tasting menu due to three things on the prix fixe menu she found desirable. Since I found as many offerings attractive I deemed it a fine choice.
The meal started with four lagniappes served on flattened Chinese soupspoons. A beet and horseradish mousse with a sprinkling of American caviar, a tiny ball of pear flesh wrapped in prosciutto, a parmesan cream on basil oil, and tuna with a micro green and some crisped something. For some reason our table for two was served only one of each. This did not seem unique; every table of two near us (they are close enough that you are aware of most of the intimacies of your neighbors) seemed to receive the same service. A strange decision, because if these bites are not shared the best result is one of the diners wishing she hadn’t missed one or the other if it is well received. Or you can do what we did, which was try to split them only to have a pear ball roll down the front of my shirt.
Amuse was duck consommé, which showed that the savory flavors of the mirepoix trilogy live longest into the winter months. A deep mahogany liquid served in a demitasse cup with perfect clarity redolent of roasted late autumn game, consumed in three quick sips. It made me wish for quarts to help through the change of season cold I was shaking most of the week leading up to dinner.
For the first course, I chose Crispy Maryland Crabcakes with a Trio of Sauces: Garden Sorrel, Classic Tartar, and Roasted Red Pepper. The cakes themselves were perfectly light with a slight crisp edge yielding to a creamy mash of crab. I can’t really report on how good or bad the crabmeat tasted because, as served, it was impossible to discern without some form of garnish. Whatever they were it’s flavors were light enough that even the dill fronds garnishing overpowered them, let alone the sauces better suited to a fried cod type dish.
Second, I chose Burgundy Truffle Dusted Diver’s Scallop on Cauliflower Puree. Sometimes black French truffles and sweet fresh scallops combine and find in each other a flavor profile reminiscent of the cleanest, sweetest drinking water, which they did in this dish. These light, clean flavors were perfectly suited to foil the richness of the cauliflower purée and a pool of beurre rouge so intense it was meaty. A great course.
For the main, unable to resist the word “pretending” on the menu, I chose Pepper Crusted Tuna Pretending to be a Filet Mignon Capped with Seared Duck Foie Gras on Charred Onions with a Burgundy Butter Sauce. I don’t know what I was thinking. I am not a guy intrigued by tuna’s ability to play the role of meat. I like tuna loin for its umami qualities, not its sanguine. I like my foie unctuous, not heavy. I hate the idea of beurre rouge so thick with demi-glace it doesn’t blend with the oil released from seared foie, and I hate any of this on a fish course. These, however, are aspects to be expected when fish imagines it is meat. I know a bunch of people that would have loved this dish and I will suggest it to them because it is exactly what the menu promised and I should have known myself better than to order it.
The service was the perfect illustration of politeness and ebullience, however it was not necessarily deft. For example, the stemware was the late seventies versions of “white” and “red.” When our ‘96 Meursault Perrieres was served and I asked to have it in the burgundy shaped (“red”) glass they were more than pleased to accommodate but it wasn’t their instinct to use/offer it.
The room is intimate and not un-bordello-like, if the ladies of eve in the town were very successful and paid a lot of attention to touches like ceiling decoration, which I guess they would. As mentioned, you are very close to your neighbors and the space feels as full as it could. At the same time it is romantic, and what you learn from the intimacy is that everyone (really) is celebrating something on the occasion of his or her meal at the Inn. During ours we learned four of the couples seated in our proximity were out for a birthday, two were anniversaries (one of which was a seventh, this couple the closest of all).
Having let Roar have all the Virginia ham fun at dinner, for breakfast the following morning I chose Eggs Benedict because this local delicacy was featured in the role of Canadian bacon. I never quite figured out what caused the hollandaise to be pink but I very much enjoyed its assertive acidity. The eggs were properly poached, which is to say when pierced they released a copious amount of yellow fluid, but not clear, and it sat atop the hearts of English muffins, trimmed to be just the right size for the small package that topped them.
Although Lutèce will always be important, thirty years into Soltner’s reign was anything he was doing less significant? Of course it was. He had accomplished so much that everyone copied him, many so successfully that, first or not, his innovations seemed humdrum late in his run. While his regulars demanded he never change, chefs after him with just as much talent were copying, updating, and reinterpreting him, often at better prices.
There is little doubt of O’Connell’s significance, and his skill in defining and refining what is now largely (thanks to him and a few select others) accepted as American cuisine. The food I had was first-rate, but short of exceptional. I am not sure if it was because I was still a little sick. Possibly I have had too much food by the generations that have followed in O’Connell’s footsteps. Maybe being in New York jades my judgment (they were very proud of their cheese cart and it was impressive but if you go to Murray’s once a week Epoisses and Brunet are less exciting than I imagine they are if you don’t enjoy our proximity to a couple of the world’s greatest cheese shops). Or it could just be that the Chef is relaxing, having been at the top for quite a while. I do wish I had gone for my first time fifteen years ago when it first topped my list of places to go.
All things considered, I remember our night at the Inn as almost magical and I recommend it highly as a close to perfect oasis doable in fifty hours from away New York, but I would do a couple of things differently.
Firstly, I would visit in the spring through autumn seasons – American food works best when our gardens are in action.
Second, I would definitely get the tasting menu. On my own I chose light, light, heavy, and Roar went heavy, heavy, light, leaving neither of us satisfied with the progression.
The entire experience was wonderful. The lodging was nothing short of superb and I blame myself as much as anything else for the points of dinner that fell short. So any time I need someone else to get me the heck out of the moment by immersing me in opulent comfort this will top my places to go train, unwind and enjoy. But if I am looking to be excited on a trip and care only about dining, well then it’s to Chicago I will fly.