I wanted a special restaurant to celebrate with the entire family – something classic, somewhere classy, someplace where the four of us could sit back, eat great food, and be taken care of as we celebrated mom’s birthday, my completion of residency, and our first long trip as a whole family in years…what better place than one of the most celebrated dining rooms in the entire United States – a 30 table restaurant in operation for greater than 30 years? Residing nearly 60 miles outside of Washington DC in a city known almost entirely for its restaurant and Inn, the trip to The Inn at Little Washington was quick and colorful…and when we finally stopped driving none of our cell phones had service – to call the restaurant remote would be an understatement. Parking the car and wandering about the small town, shops, and related properties while snapping some pictures the entire scene felt very quaint – small town Victorian America – like another place and another time.
Making our way to the doors of the famed restaurant I asked the young man at the door to snap a quick photo – with perfect manners he complied and jokingly said he acted both as the doorman and house photographer. Making our way into Patrick O'Connell’s famed lobby we confirmed our reservation, were welcomed cordially, and after a short wait were led to a fine table along the wall in the main dining room. Greeted shortly thereafter by the dining room manager and our primary server, a young and somewhat smug fellow named Landry, we were presented with personalized menus and our water was filled. Browsing around the glorious room the Victorian feel of the city was continued aplenty – heavy drapes in crimson and gold, pleasant lighting, fresh cut flowers, excellent spacing, and personalized white linen and china, crystal stemware, and silver covering each table – it is no wonder the Queen opted to dine at The Inn during her visit, everything felt very regal.
Browsing the contemporary menu – long titles with plenty of whimsy – I was delighted to see many of O’Connell’s signature dishes being offered that night and I was additionally impressed by his strong commitment to local businesses…everything from meats to cheeses to vegetables and fruits appeared to be locally sourced – much like the servers and staff, everything felt like it belonged in Little Washington. As we browsed and sipped our water another young man appeared to discuss wines – stating we didn’t consume alcohol my aunt and mother opted for Iced Tea while my sister and I stuck with water – as the young man disappeared another collected the wine glasses while a young woman delivered the night’s bread selection and a creamy cow’s milk butter. A quick taste of the two breads, a cornmeal crusted French baguette and pecan-raisin rye with sea salt, indicated the bread girl and I would become friends during the evening – given my seating against the wall this necessitated her reaching across on the first refill, but after that I simply presented her the plate…the bread was heavenly and we all ate too much of it.
With Landry still missing and our orders unplaced nearly 20 minutes after seating (thankfully his team did a great job taking care of us as he seemed rather disinterested, aloof, and preoccupied) another young man appeared from the kitchen presenting the night’s collection of canapés. Eight options total with five different bites I was a little confused as to why each diner wasn’t presented with one of each bite, but reading other reviews this seems to be the custom at The Inn. Spoiled as I am my family members allowed me to have a bite of each of the options – a Red Wine Risotto Ball, a Beet Purée with Cranberry and Horseradish, the “World’s Smallest Baked Potato,” a Lamb Carpaccio Riding a Surfboard on a Hummus Wave, and Saffron Parmesan Panna Cotta. Disliking the sharpness of the Horseradish in the beet dish I will note that both my aunt and mother raved about it – of the other options I quite liked each with the Lamb Carpaccio so good that it influenced my later order.
With Landry finally returning to take our orders I will note he was helpful – I had specific requests about adding additional courses and these were allowed without question; he didn’t question my gluttony even though my family did. With orders placed he noted our menus would be placed in an envelope at the front desk so they would not get damaged. Having requested the menu be signed if at all possible I was told that Chef O’Connell would be leaving early that night and may not have time to sign the menu (which he did not.) Shortly after Landry’s departure the kitchen once again brought us a treat – this time an amuse proper for each of us in the form of a split pea veloute with hints of grape paired with a crumbly and cheesy gougere. Creamy and sweet I loved the soup’s velvety texture and the sweetness balanced nicely with the salty and buttery ball of cheese.
A short while passed and we ate more bread (seriously, that French Roll is dangerously addictive) before our first courses began to arrive. For my mother and aunt the option was simple – with more esoteric items dominating the first part of the meal they each opted for the Chilled Main Lobster in Sherry Vinaigrette with Avocado, Grapefruit, Crispy Lotus Root. Presented beautifully in a rainbow of colors the lobster itself was chilled in a mild cream sauce and speckled in three large piles beneath the crispy lotus chips. Sweet and succulent the lobster was complimented with the acidity of bitter-sweet grapefruit, creamy chunks of avocado, and intensely sweet (especially for the season) fresh tomatoes. Tying the dish together were the pleasant notes of the vinaigrette – sour without being acidic, fragrant without overwhelming the subtleties of the composition.
For my sister’s first course, the mélange of Spicy Big Eye Tuna with Mango, Avocado, Crispy Shallots, and Sake-Yuzu Sorbet. A large portion with ruby red tuna, fresh as if it were just caught, complemented with traditional avocado and shallots but also with nectar sweet mango, lemony sorbet, and cracked pepper I quite liked the composition of this dish. Lacking the creaminess of most of the tartare dishes presented in fine dining these days the mélange was more…substantial, perhaps and the sorbet was a very nice accoutrement providing temperature and texture variability.
For my started I’d planned on the Tin of Sin – until I tasted the lamb carpaccio amuse. Arriving as a beautiful palate Carpaccio of Herb Crusted Baby Lamb with Caesar Salad Ice cream was marvelous – a single option charcuterie board flanked with potato wedges, onions, a leaf of crisp romaine dusted with parmesan, a smear of basil, and ice cream that tasted the very essence of Caesar dressing. Delicate, melting in the mouth – every bit as delicious as beautiful.
Clearing our plates it was only a matter of five minutes before our second courses arrived – a seemingly short time given the mere four courses, but oddly not overly quick as we lingered on each dish for some time. For my mother’s selection during this course she opted for Our ‘Lasagna’ of Morels, Country Ham, and Asparagus – the least attractive of the group but perhaps the most delicious. Featuring a free-form lasagna with hand torn noodles draped around a smoky ham, fresh earthy morels, and the most fragrant green asparagus I’ve yet encountered the dish was finished tableside with parmesan and a buttery sauce that warranted extra bread for mopping up.
Erika’s selection was From Our Hen House – Spinach and Cheese Filled Ravioli with Molten-Gold Center – a dish that reminded me in presentation of the duck egg ravioli at Osteria Mozza but in flavor and constituents blew it out of the water. Lightly fried and loaded with ricotta and a liquid egg the pasta burst open on piercing allowing its contents to meld with the pool of butter, pine nuts, and crispy spinach – yet another dish that begged for additional bread.
For aunt, the most linear macaroni and cheese ever - Macaroni and Cheese with Virginia Country Ham and Shaved Black Summer Truffle. 7 handmade tube pastas, perfectly al dente, lined along a curl of crispy pastry over a slice of ham formed the backbone for the dish which was topped with a small salad of chopped crystal lettuce, oven browned buttery bread crumbs, mozzarella, parmesan, black truffle, and a sauce not dissimilar from Béchamel. Fortunate enough to land a single noodle I find the notion of this being called Macaroni and Cheese the same as calling the Vatican “a church.”
For my second dish – a no brainer - A Marriage of Hot and Cold Foie Gras with Sauternes Jelly and Pickled Cherries plus Brioche. A marriage in that they remained separate identities but worked well together both preparations were stunning examples – the char and mildly smoky flavor of the seared version well tamed by the use of a red-wine and fig reduction and the terrine a smooth and subtle slice with only touch of sugar from the sauternes jelly and some sourness from the picked cherries. Spoiled as I am I rather wished someone would have brought more warm brioche as I ran out rather quickly, but a simple request produced more within a few minutes.
Fully admitting that when I go out to eat I try to sample the best in variety, house specials, and my personal favorite foods I simply couldn’t decide on one main course – so I ordered two. At a mere $30 surcharge the decision was simple and after fifteen minutes of reveling in the flavors of our second courses the mains began to arrive. For my aunt, another lobster course – this time the Pan Roasted Maine Lobster with Braised Baby Bok Choy in a Fragrant Coconut Sauce Perfumed with Lemongrass. Served simply but elegantly in a large bowl the whole lobster was flawless – sweet and tender yet snappy moist. Complimenting the crustacean was buttery bok choy and a silky smooth coconut butter sauce with only the faintest hints of lemon.
My mother’s main course was a bit of a mistake for someone with a small appetite (and already full on bread plus a previous pasta course.) Artichoke Filled Cappelletti with Braised Artichokes Perfumed with Mint was a substantial portion – at least 10 stuffed pastas matched with a buttery morel sauce, crispy pan braised artichokes, and only the faintest accents of mint. Impressively thin and wonderfully prepared the pasta hats alone were on par with the best pastas I’ve ever tasted but when paired with the earthy sauce and crispy artichokes the whole dish was a wonderful surprise – and I got to eat plenty of it.
Miniature Filets of Black Cod Saute with Lemon Vodka Sauce and Lilliputian Shrimp Dumplings, my sister’s choice, was another winner in terms of preparation but I found the potency of the sauce a tad overwhelming of the mild fish. Speckling the plate with seared mushrooms and miniature shrimp dumplings I enjoyed the manner that everything was cooked – crispy yet tender – but in general I did not enjoy the dish quite as much as the others…my sister, on the other hand, raved it.
For our “shared” main – plated at the center of the table but largely consumed by myself – I opted for the Duet of Peking Duck: Seared Breast and Braised Leg with Turnip Puree and Dried Plum Sauce. Delectably fatty and ample in portion this dish was a stunner with the confit leg served over an applesauce accented turnip puree and the large slices of breast perfectly seared crisp and interspersed with whole figs and a vinegar accented plum sauce.
My second main course was potentially O’Connell’s most famous dish – a playful reinterpretation entitled Pepper Crusted Tuna Pretending to be a Filet Mignon Capped with Seared Duck Foie Gras on Charred Onions with Burgundy Butter Sauce. First of all, yes, I know I ate three slices of Foie Gras in this meal and I don’t feel bad about it – this dish was a masterpiece. Peppery without being overly spicy the large slice of tuna was seared brown on the exterior yet ruby red inside – “rare” if you will, and topped with a slice of smooth and buttery liver that was literally melting like butter over the fish. Serving as a base to the proteins were three large onion rings and two types of squash – a pungent meets vegetal accompaniment to the hearty flavors above.
Arriving to check in on us Landry offered the dessert menu and coffee or tea (included in the dinner price) – with two coffees and two herbal teas ordered we perused the menu and made our selections, again adding one additional dish at the cost of $20. Moments later we heard the ringing of a bell and the “moo” coming our way. Perhaps one of the most iconic images of The Inn, Faira the Cow, arrived after a long trot across the restaurant and with her a fromagier from the kitchen who helped guide each of us to a selection of 6 (out of easily 25) beautiful cheeses; Barely Buzzed – Cow, Albarene Ash – Goat, Skyline Blue – Sheep, Cave Aged Gruyere – Cow, Camembert – Cow, Other Raw Goat (name forgotten) along with Walnuts, Apricots, Honey and a basket of water crackers and thinly sliced bread. Whimsical to say the least each of the cheeses was excellent, particularly the Barely Buzzed and Albarene Ash.
Moving on to sweeter things, our desserts arrived after approximately 20 minutes and a refill of coffee. For my mother, a lemon and rhubarb fiend, Our Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp, Moonshine Laced Lemon Pudding Cake, and Strawberry Honeysuckle Ice Cream. To ask if this was good you’d have to ask my mom – normally one to share anything with her children I got only a small bite of the pudding cake – I was lucky to even get a picture.
For my selection, like the foie gras, it was another no brainer. Steaming hot and somewhat different from a traditional bread pudding The Inn’s Warm Custard Bread Pudding accented with Solera Vinegar and Pickled Cranberries was my favorite dish of the night in a night that contained nothing but fantastic food. Highly accented with vanilla and sugar the custard pudding itself was remarkable – almost soufflé light yet moist and delicate with hints of acidity peaking though in the lower layers. Paired with spun sugar, minced quince, and the pickled cranberries the dish was sweet without being overly so – a truly remarkable choice and amongst the most complex desserts I’ve had in some time.
For my aunt the choice was between a trio and a septuplet – in the end she went with the trio. Entitled “A Chocolate Manage a Trois” with Black Forrest Mousse Bombe, Chocolate Crème Brulee, and Bitter Chocolate Soufflé I will admit that the qualities of the chocolates here were ethereal despite the dessert being somewhat undersized compared to the other selections. Featuring a soufflé that was easily 68% cocoa and a Bombe that may have been pushing 80% the focus of the dish was clearly on dark chocolates and it was all the better for it, especially when combined with the significant sweetness of the Brulee and chocolate ribbon.
Erika’s dessert selection was the house favorite Seven Deadly Sins with the Bombe from the Manage a Trois, the Rhubarb Crisp, a wheel that tasted like a divine Tiramisu, butter pecan ice cream, a creamy panna cotta, banana rum cake, and a mint chocolate ice cream cookie. While the flavors were certainly somewhat disconnected the point of this dish was clearly quality, quantity, and gluttony. Tasted by everyone at the table I will note that I particularly enjoyed the cocoa and coffee wheel while Erika raved the mint chocolate cookie.
With dessert completed we were presented a cute and kitschy box of mignardises in the shape of the Inn. Finely crafted of paper and filled with Candied Lemon and Orange Peel, Almond Cookies, Chocolates, and shortbread I appreciated the attention to detail and the humor – as refined as everything is at The Inn they’ve clearly not lost their sense of humor.
Sitting and chatting after paying the bill I asked Landry if we could see the kitchen and was told “of course” but warned that it would take a few moments. Not in any rush we sat in the parlor where Faira resides for approximately 5 minutes before the maitre d’ arrived to escort us to the renovated kitchen – a kitchen that puts all but Alinea’s to shame in terms of sheer size, cleanliness, and grandeur. Greeted by the sous chef (acting as Chef du cuisine that evening as O’Connell had to leave early) we were told of the kitchen’s history, their reasons for the unique animal themed decorations (and Dalmatian pants) and largely treated as VIPs throughout our tour around each station – I’d recommend the kitchen visit to anyone interested, it is awe-inspiring.
Making out way out the way we came we were bid farewell by everyone from the hostess to the maitre d’, to the door boy – everyone except Landry who walked right past us without a word. Having heard rumors that The Inn at Little Washington had slipped a notch or two in recent years I have to admit I was bit hesitant about making it the family meal of the visit when I was originally planning, but in the end it turned out to be an absolute delight – the city, the restaurant, and particularly the food which was some of the most delicious and elegantly presented I’ve ever tasted. While our server could use some lessons from the crew at any number of 4 to 5 star restaurants the rest of the staff was fantastic and I’d strongly encourage anyone considering the Inn to make the journey – they aren’t reinventing the wheel, but they’re certainly fine tuning it.