The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide as No. 7 on Tom’s Top 10.
No. 7. Inn at Little Washington
The biggest challenge for fine-dining purveyors these days? Exquisite food and service aren’t enough, says Patrick O’Connell, the country’s wittiest innkeeper. “People want to be astonished!” Thirty-eight years after his dreamy dining destination opened within view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, “the Inn” still manages to coax sighs and smiles from repeat guests. One of three menus celebrates the “here and now” with foie gras mousse and sauternes gelee in (how rich!) a golden egg. Another list, “The Good Earth,” makes a world-class “meatloaf” out of local chanterelles. And no matter how many times I’ve sampled it, herbed lamb carpaccio with Caesar salad ice cream, among several “enduring classics,” tastes like falling in love for the first time. Prepare to eat too much bread, drink too much wine and wish you had the work of the Inn’s pastry chef for all enchanted evenings going forward. A great way to gauge a restaurant is to see how it handles sticky situations, as when a certain food critic’s credit card was declined — no thanks to a fraud alert I never got from MasterCard until after I got home. “The same thing happened to the president of” a U.S. ally, one of the Inn’s suave stage managers assured me.
Inn at Little Washington: 309 Middle St., Washington, Va. 540-675-3800. theinnatlittlewashington.com
Prices: Prix fixe $188 to $218.
Sound check: 53 decibels / Quiet.
The Top 10:
The following review was originally published Oct. 1, 2015 as part of The Washington Post’s 2015 Fall Dining Guide. Inn at Little Washington was No. 5 on Tom’s top 10 last year.
Inn at Little Washington
The Inn thinks of everything. Personalized menus? Check. Toothbrushes in the restrooms? You’re welcome. A 1949 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith parked out front, just in case a hotel guest wants to take a spin around the block? Vintage fun. When it comes to pulling out all the stops, few restaurants in the country can match the whimsy and excess of the dining destination conceived and nurtured by chef-owner Patrick O’Connell.
The flotilla of hors d’oeuvres alone threatens to fill me up even as I dispatch every marvelous crumb. Among the clever snacks is a tiny corn ice cream sandwich rolled in local corn. Diners select from among three menus, each $208 (and one vegetarian), but are free to mix and match courses as they wish.
Last-meal fantasies are spun from roseate petals of lamb carpaccio paired with ice cream that suggests Caesar salad, labeled on the menu as an “enduring classic,” and crisp, bourbon-kissed veal sweetbreads with silken pappardelle that becomes a dish “of the moment” in August with a flourish of summery peaches. A bouquet of summer squash with bright lemon ricotta, representing a category called “the good earth,” reveals a kitchen that treats vegetables like gold and harvests a considerable amount of its riches from its own gardens and hives.
The pomp and circumstance of an evening in the most cushioned and gilded dining rooms of my acquaintance come with sides of levity. As many times as I’ve watched the guy with the cheese trolley cut up diners with his hee-haw jokes (“That’s a gouda one”), I still like to catch his routine involving a little cow on wheels. Far from resting on its considerable praise, the Inn seeks to raise the bar from year to year: Fresh back from Cuba, O’Connell intends to replicate for New Year’s Eve a memory of Havana showgirls descending a three-story staircase wearing lit chandeliers on their heads.
Flawless? Well, the bartender was sorry he didn’t have mezcal for a margarita on a hot summer’s day. I could almost hear O’Connell, a theater major in college, whisper, “Don’t let’s ask for the moon, Tom. We have the stars.”