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Southern butter-pecan ice cream sandwich with bittersweet chocolate and hot caramel sauce. [Joseph Victor Stefanchik/For The Washington Post]

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?


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