Washington has fondly watched its small rural namesake grow as the Inn at Little Washington has gained national acclaim and developed a bed- and-breakfast industry to handle the overflow from its eight exquisite guest rooms. The dining rooms and garden are superbly decorated, and the menu lists the finest ingredients of the Virginia countryside and beyond, filtered through chef Patrick O'Connell's inventive mind. Extra lobster shells? He turns them into the flavoring base for lobster gazpacho. Local crab meat? He constructs a timbale of it with spinach mousse. Silver Queen corn? He makes it into a cold soup. He spectacularly combines New York's fresh foie gras with Virginia's country ham, smoked goose breast and black-eyed peas on wild greens dressed with vinaigrette.

The Inn attempts a lot -- from an ambitious wine list to 15 desserts an evening. And some attempts fail -- a too-sweet, too- tomatoey sauce eclipses shiitake mushrooms and sesame-oiled vermicelli, and sweetbreads don't combine memorably with crab, capers and lemon sitting sauceless on a plate. Desserts are variable, from a glorious nutted apricot ice cream cake to a forgettable fruit mousse. And when diners pay prices equal to the city's highest, after an hour-and- a-half ride, forgiveness is not easy. But when the Inn delights, it does so superbly. The tiniest and tenderest milk-fed veal tenderloin, charcoal-grilled to heighten its flavor with an earthy undertone, sauced with a smooth and delicate rosemary cream -- a lot of talent goes into such a deceptively simple and exciting dish. The Inn is a leisurely luxury, and is developing into a nationally recognized asset to our region. Middle and Main streets, Washington, Va. 675-3800. D $20-$26.95. D daily. Closed Mon, Tues. Res req. Full bar.