Every year, I go to the Inn at Little Washington wondering how Patrick O’Connell and staff can possibly top their performance from the year before, and every visit I leave with greater admiration for a troupe that refuses to settle for mere excellence. My most recent pilgrimage found more bedrooms, in what used to be a parsonage across the street, and news of an upcoming book on the design of the legendary inn, born as a gas station, by the kitchen pope himself. The best news for diners is a revised way to eat: The Inn’s epic menu has been divided into collections of house signatures, odes to the season and vegetarian creations: seven-course tasting dinners that allow diners to mix and match. So no more exquisite torture. If I want to feast first on herb-crusted lamb loin with Caesar salad ice cream (a classic), move on to folds of Wagyu beef with pickled root vegetables (a dish of the moment) and follow that with the best cauliflower “steak” of my life (a meatless move, with Indian spices) — not a problem. Every dessert is a star, but my heart belongs to the butter pecan ice cream sandwich, a tiered design finished at the table with sauces of chocolate and hot caramel; not since Dorothy liquidated the Wicked Witch of the West has there been a better meltdown. No matter the path you follow, dinner commences with fancy child-size hors d’oeuvres and ends with a tiny box, a miniature inn, filled with cookies and other sweet treats that somehow never make it home (with me). The most memorable dessert for some guests is the chance to chat up O’Connell after dinner; if you ask, a server is happy to make the introduction in the chef’s dramatic kitchen. Parked outside the regal restaurant is another piece of news. The Inn has added to its long list of amenities for overnight guests: a Bentley. What next, chef? Nightcaps on the moon?
2013 Fall Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
October 10, 2013
First-timers to one of the most famous addresses in the food world often e-mail me to ask, "What should I know before I go?" My gut reaction: Pace yourselves. The a la carte menu of four courses (three savory ones plus dessert) is preceded not just with lovely breads, but with canapes so gorgeous, it's tempting to look but not touch them. Tempura fried baby zucchini with an Asian dipping sauce, a shot of sumptuous tomato soup with a coin of truffle-edged, Comte-filled brioche and a miniature lobster salad garnished with a teaspoon of tomato sorbet crowd the table within moments of your being seated in a room so plush you feel like royalty.
From there, follow your heart's delight and get whatever combination calls to you most. On the light side there might be tiny turnips filled with osetra caviar and staged around a scarlet scoop of beet sorbet. The most decadent second course is "a marriage of hot and cold foie gras." One of the Inn's best-known dishes, the plate pairs seared duck liver with a pink slab of pate and garnishes of pickled local fruit and shimmering Sauternes gelee. Crisp, curry-kissed veal sweetbreads remain my obsession, as much for accents of roasted plums and Virginia ham as for the rich organ meat.
Order cheese, if only to spend time with the resident "cheese whiz," Cameron Smith, and his tag-along cow on wheels, otherwise known as Faira. (Yes, she moos.)
Great, sometimes extraordinary, cooking served by a fleet of cosseting servers is part of what makes the Inn such an enchanting place. The cocktails are perfect, the bouquets are sumptuous, the chef's favorite cologne rests on the counter of the gentlemen's restroom for sampling.
A chat with the star of the show in his grand kitchen -- a fillip extended to every diner -- reveals plans to add six guest rooms across the street in April. How does chef-owner Patrick O'Connell do it after all these decades? I believe in magic.