by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
September 30, 2008
My recent visit to The Inn at Little Washington was a phenomenal experience. Under the stewardship of the proprietor, Chef Patrick O’Connell, who truly understands the concept and meaning of hospitality, The Inn is a special place for anyone who comes to stay or dine.
An unforgettable meal paired with impeccable service, gorgeous setting and comfortable atmosphere, culminated in a night that I continue to relive and cherish. From the minute I walked through the front door of The Inn, I was in the capable hands of a team trained to predict my needs and provide service before I even asked. The staff’s every gesture and consideration is meant to make your stay more pleasant. And pleasant it was. Throughout my time at The Inn, one pleasant surprise built on another. And it is unequivocally this seamless precision that attracts a devoted following, as well as top food and hospitality accolades from around the world.
Patrick O’Connell is a visionary. A self-taught chef, O’Connell, and former partner Reinhardt Lynch, rented half of a defunct garage for $200 a month and opened The Inn as a restaurant in 1978. Standing at the corner of Main and Middle Streets in Washington, Virginia, a town of population 158 at the time, The Inn was an instant success. At the same time, the inn itself was also gaining recognition and became a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux organization in 1987. Thus O’Connell is responsible for making Washington, Virginia, a destination and putting it on the map.
Often referred to as the Pope of American Cuisine, O’Connell’s drive for excellence doesn’t stop. 30 years after The Inn first opened, he continues to expand, not only in physical space, with the addition of guest houses such as the spectacular Claiborne House (a 3,200-square-foot cottage, named in honor of the late food journalist Craig Claiborne), but also in his professional pursuits, such as his plan to start his own farm. There is already an herb and cutting garden used by the kitchen across the street from the Claiborne House, but O’Connell’s vision is larger than that as he has purchased acres of land to achieve his goal.
O’Connell’s vision of a dining experience involves a bit of theater, so it’s important to him that the atmosphere of the restaurant and rooms reflects that opulent experience. All of the interior spaces are designed by Joyce Evans, a London-based stage and set designer. Each room is layered in rich fabrics, period antiques and fine art to create the luxurious feel of a country home.
While the interior design is dramatic, the dining area and kitchen are laced with whimsy. Even the uniform of the kitchen staff is rather humorous with their Dalmatian spotted trousers in honor of The Inn’s two Dalmatian mascots, Pearl and JoBe. The cheese cart is a replica of a cow by the name of Ferra, who carries the cheese plate on her back as she is wheeled into the dining room. These whimsical touches help to lighten the mood of a formal dining atmosphere, and they are executed not ridiculously but elegantly, adding to the personality of The Inn.
This was my first visit, but I can’t wait to return. In the meantime, I strongly encourage you to take a trip to Washington, VA, and experience an American countryside vacation like no other at The Inn at Little Washington.
by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
September 30, 2008
THE INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON
Middle and Main Streets
P.O. Box 300
Washington, VA 22747
The evening started at The Inn’s bar, Monkey Lounge. Since no aperitif is civilized without accompanying snacks, with my glass of champagne, there first came a basket of fresh thin Parmesan crisps, then popcorn seasoned with truffle oil and parsley, topped with black truffle shavings. Popcorn will never be the same.
Once I was seated in the main dining room, a plate of four canapés on individual spoons was served. Even the simplest sounding one of mozzarella and tomato was a burst of sheer ecstasy as the vibrant flavors popped in my mouth.
I found my meal at The Inn to be perfect. Choosing the tasting menu with paired wines gave me a comprehensive overview of Chef O’Connell’s cuisine. The seven-course tasting menu was just right in terms of quantity. Tasting menus often run ten to twelve courses, and inevitably right before the main course is served, I’ve run out of space, which affects my ability to taste and enjoy the food. But here at The Inn, I was able to savor every last bite and even polished off my dessert and the petits fours that followed.
I’ll share the tasting menu from that evening:
Chilled Island Creek Oysters in Cucumber Froth
Takasago Shuzo, Junmai Daiginjo, Divine Droplets, Sake, Japan N.V.
A Tin of Sin: American Ossetra Caviar with a Crab and Cucumber Rillette
André Tissot, Crémant de Jura, Brut, France N.V.
Maine Diver’s Scallop in a Garden Minestrone Perfumed with Pernod
Qupé, Marsanne, Santa Ynez Valley, California 2007
Potato Crusted Tuna Wellington with Caponata Ravioli and Sauce Béarnaise
Picardy, Pinot Noir, Pemberton, Australia 2005
Pan Seared Four Story Hill Farm’s Pekin Duck Breast on sweet corn pudding with blackberry sauce
Hillinger, Hill 1, Burgenland, Austria 2005
Our Strawberry-Basil Bubble Tea
A Limoncello Soufflé with Lemon Ice Cream
Vietti, Moscato d’Asti, Cascinetta, Piedmont, Italy 2007
And the highlights from the evening’s menu:
A tin of sin: American Ossetra caviar with a crab and cucumber rillette and brioche toast was one of my favorites. The presentation of a 30-gram Petrossian caviar tin as the container was a whimsical start to this dish. The crab and cucumber rillette is covered in a layer of caviar in the tin, so until you scoop out your first bite, you don’t see that there is more beyond just caviar in the tin. A mini slice of brioche toast is served on the side, which is clearly not enough to accompany the caviar and rillette, but the servers come with more as soon as it’s finished. The lighter flavor of the crab and cucumber rillette balanced the richness of the caviar, making this a scrumptious and, indeed, sinful appetizer.
For main, the pan seared Four Story Hill Farm’s pekin duck breast on sweet corn pudding with blackberry sauce was astonishing. This is only one of two main dishes I have enjoyed so much in recent years that I can remember its taste with perfect clarity (the other was the calotte de boeuf grillée at Per Se). Thin slices of duck meat top the corn pudding and blackberry and wine reduction. The duck was so tender that even with the sliver of fat on each piece, it was unbearably light on the palate, teasing me to want more. The sweetness of fresh corn is heavenly, and in the form of a smooth pudding, it was an elegant companion to the duck, while the lush blackberry sauce accented the two in perfect harmony.
Dessert was a limoncello soufflé that ended the meal on a beautiful note, light and graceful. Though I love lemons, I have a hard time with this Southern Italian lemon liqueur, as I find it too strong. But the brilliance of a limoncello soufflé is that the alcohol has evaporated and you are left with its essence but not its overwhelming flavor. Eating the soufflé was like light clouds dissolving in my mouth, and the lemon ice cream on top provided the sweet and tart aroma of the fruit that I love so dearly.
Dinner was followed by an opportunity to show my gratitude to the chef during a tour of the kitchen. The new state-of-the-art kitchen was completed five years ago as part of The Inn’s five-million-dollar renovation. It includes two “Chef’s Tables” that seat up to 12 diners who can see their food being prepared first hand. It also features a massive wall of windows, which, incredibly, allows Chef O’Connell to keep an eye on this 24-hour kitchen from his house. I bid farewell to the Pope of American Cuisine and headed out. Naturally, with the keys in the ignition, the car was waiting outside facing the road. They don’t miss a thing.
Photograph at the top of the page by Tim Turner.
by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
September 30, 2008
Chef Patrick O’Connell
The Inn at Little Washington Exterior
The Dining Room in The Restaurant
The Courtyard at The Inn
The Claiborne House (The Presidential Suite)
The Claiborne House Master Bedroom
Garden Suite #16 Bathroom
Photograph of Patrick O’Connell by Sandro. Photograph of courtyard by Tim Turner. All other photographs on this page by Gordon Beall.