Unrated during the pandemic
Did I mention Dolly might be singing in the background, too? The singer’s likeness is part of a charming mural of barn dancers welcoming visitors to the cafe’s convivial bar.
Light touches — in the company of serious cooking — have long distinguished O’Connell’s visions. Think about it: What other restaurant in the world has a cow-shaped cheese cart that moos? Not even the pandemic could dampen the party at the Inn, whose idea of social distancing was to place mannequins in retro garb throughout the formal restaurant.
Patty O’s, which borrows O’Connell’s childhood nickname and embraces a country theme, is hardly a new idea. The chef has been considering something informal since 1994 and actually put forward plans back then, although they met with resistance from locals, who feared losing Washington’s sole cafe to lofty competition. Rumors about an $18 cup of coffee made the rounds, says O’Connell, who instead spent his budget on expanding the Inn’s kitchen and adding guest quarters. It seems time has softened feelings. Now, area residents are asking staff if Patty O’s might introduce a night just for locals.
“So pleased to serve roast chicken, which was on Chef’s first menu” in 1978, a server says as he presents a homey trio of crisp-skinned chicken, carrots glossed with Grand Marnier and mashed potatoes so rich with butter and milk you wonder how they hold up. Some of the dishes at Patty O’s have, as O’Connell says, “come out of the closet,” meaning they were put away as the Inn grew more sophisticated and the tastes of diners changed. Another blast from the past contrasts thin slices of peppery seared rare tuna with a cool scoop of cucumber sorbet — fire and ice making nice.
The soups are trips down memory lane, too. White bean soup is comfort food made glorious, thanks to a pink island of julienne country ham sporting a tuft of peppered whipped cream. A few swirls of a spoon gets you salt and fat — flavor — in all the right places. French onion soup reminds us not to judge books by covers. The beige appetizer doesn’t look special. But the contents — a mass of three cheeses, onions caramelized in the time it would take you to fly to France from D.C., a broth built from chicken stock, beef bones and veal demi-glace — find you scraping the bottom of the bowl, indeed tipping it back to catch each noble, Calvados-spiked drop. The rescue effort is assisted by excellent breads (sourdough and seed-flecked multigrain) from the adjoining bakery.
The cafe, set off with rafters, a crackling fire and clusters of Majolica plates on the walls, bears a family resemblance to the Inn. However, only the cafe tempts you to dine outdoors. O’Connell commissioned a patio with the kind of village vista he admired at sidewalk cafes in France. A custom-built chuck wagon at the corner of Middle and Main streets serves as mascot and, depending on the occasion, mobile oyster bar, ham sandwich source or hot chocolate dispenser. (A “wanted” poster inside the cart promises $5,000 to whoever steers O’Connell to law enforcement for the crime of “stirrin’ it up.”)
Simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy for the kitchen. “A lot of suffering has to go into it,” O’Connell reminds his staff. Take just the black crust on the tuna appetizer. Grind the black peppercorns too fine, says chef Devin Bozkaya, and you overwhelm the fish with heat; grind the spice too coarsely, and shards get stuck in your teeth. (The happy ideal is achieved using a mortar and pestle.)
Bozkaya estimates the cafe’s ravishing Greek salad took more than 100 tries to perfect, partly because his boss requests it for dinner so much and is a stickler for harmony. The recipe for the ideal features a sherry-based dressing, the crisp centers of lettuce, Turkish goat’s milk feta cheese and oil-cured kalamata olives, which don’t water down the salad like regular brined olives, says Bozkaya.
Meat makes a fine entry point. This time of year, I’m partial to the cafe’s fat grilled pork chop flanked with tangy sauerkraut and apples, a dinnertime draw. The half-pound burger, shaped from Wagyu beef from a farm in nearby Paris, is tall and delicious, gooey with Comte cheese and sandwiched inside the bakery’s caramelized onion roll. Alas, Patty O’s doesn’t make its own french fries — the biggest disappointment in multiple visits. For such a pedigreed operation — and considering the labor and love poured into much of the rest of the menu — frozen potatoes taste like a compromise, never mind that they’re fried in duck fat.
Despite its youth, and the occasional AWOL fork or knife, Patty O’s is a smooth-running machine, supported by a general manager, Christopher Fasce, 28, who previously worked as a table captain at the Inn, and Bozkaya, 41, who cooked across the street from 2006 to 2011 and last served as executive chef at the Weekapaug Inn in Rhode Island. Bozkaya’s time away appealed to O’Connell. “Experience in the real world,” says his employer, “and in the land of make-believe.”
Patty O’s is an amenity for lodgers at the Inn, who might prefer something basic before or after a $315 tasting menu and are the only customers who can book reservations. (Mere mortals can call ahead and put their names on a waiting list.) The owner hopes locals see it as “their place” and young people use it as a springboard for finer dining — “a gateway drug for the Inn at Little Washington,” O’Connell says his staff jokes.
Desserts tend to be best in class. Patty O’s makes a carrot cake that packs in everything you expect yet manages to be both light and moist; its success hangs on compressed pineapple, grapeseed oil, fresh-grated carrots and whole ground spices. The lemon tart comes with fetching “kisses” of vanilla chantilly cream, pistachios and flower petals atop its surface. In contrast, chocolate bourbon pecan pie is a big sugar shock.
How to improve on world-class butter pecan ice cream and warm caramel sauce, a forever staple at the Inn? Chefs have tried to enhance the marriage but always come back to the original recipe, which relies on lots of brown butter and toasted pecans. What has changed is the vessel. Patty O’s serves the scoop in a handsome chalice whose distressed jade color mirrors that of the pressed tin ceiling in the bar.
The land of make-believe wouldn’t have it any other way.
Patty O’s Cafe & Bakery, 389 Main St. Washington, Va. 540-675-3801. pattyoscafe.com. Cafe open for inside and outside dining 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Friday through Tuesday. Prices: Appetizers $9 to $22, lunch sandwiches and salads $16 to $29, dinner entrees $19 to $38. Sound check: 72 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers to entry. Bar includes a lower surface for wheelchair users. ADA-compliant restroom.
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