The Gleeful Gourmand: The Inn at Little Washington

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Inn at Little Washington

This year for our 6th anniversary, my husband and I took off in the early afternoon and headed for the Blue Ridge Mountains for an unforgettable meal at The Inn at Little Washington. Tucked away in the tiny hamlet of Washington, VA, the restaurant (there is also a hotel) has earned legendary status among East Coasters as one of the best places to eat. It was recently awarded Five Stars by the 2011 Forbes Travel Guide for the 21st year in a row making it one of only 23 restaurants in the U.S. to hold that distinction. It’s also the only restaurant in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan area to have ever received Five Stars.

So I’m sure you can understand that I was more than a little excited to finally experience this particular restaurant. When we finally pulled up into the drive of The Inn at Little Washington (it took us precisely two hours from Richmond), we were immediately greeted warmly and asked for our name. By the time we got inside, the matire’d already knew exactly who we were, and seated us promptly. Although the dining rooms themselves are small, they are decorated in a way that makes it feel cozy and intimate, rather than crowded. Our only complaint the entire evening, however, was about the lamp hanging over our table: its fringes were so long that it came close to obscuring our view of each other.

But enough about the damn décor. Our waiter was one of the many highlights of the evening. He was engaging, warm, attentive and funny, and never once overbearing – exactly the way waiters should be. There was also a sommelier on hand to answer any questions about the extensive wine list. We were presented with pre-printed menus that had “Happy Anniversary to Mr. & Mrs. Robinson” scrawled across the top, which was a lovely touch. But my first experience of being charmed that evening came when I ordered sweet tea for my beverage (let me just say I can’t wait to go back and eat there again when I’m not pregnant!). The tea came unsweetened in a beautiful glass with a round of lemon and a sprig of mint, and also a tiny ceramic pitcher of simple syrup to use at my will. This could be trouble, I told my husband, but I was utterly enchanted. What an ingenious idea! This southern beverage staple was just made ultra classy. I knew that the rest of the meal would be just as unforgettable.

We were served obligatory bread (which was just okay), and then we were also given four different spoons of miniscule amuse bouches: a crispy risotto ball, a miniature loaded baked potato which was literally the size of my thumbnail, pork belly, and one other that I cannot remember that my husband ate. Then, on top of that, we were presented with a shot of Minted Pea Soup and a small Gruyere puff. The soup was warm and delicious, like drinking spring in a shot glass, and the puff practically melted on the tongue, it was so tender and perfect.

For my first course I chose the Beet Fantasia: Three Varieties of Roasted Beets, Beet Mousse and Citrus Salsa. If you know me at all, dear reader, you will know that I was in beet heaven. The plate was artfully designed, and each small mound of beet loveliness was accompanied by a dollop of crème fraiche. There were also three small cubes of Absolute Citron Vodka and gelatin. Yes, I had one. And boy, did it pack a punch! Buck had the Chilled Maine Lobster with Braised Celery Hearts and Citrus Vinaigrette, which was equally delightful.

The second course was something I truly could not resist: Macaroni and Cheese with Virginia Country Ham and Shaved Black Truffle. Oh, my. Here’s what made this particular Mac and Cheese so wonderful: The cream was smeared on the sides of the plate, rather that heavily soaking the noodles and cheese, and the top was crusty and crunchy with buttered breadcrumbs, and tons of Parmesan. Since Parmesan cheese is my favorite, I was smitten. Sometimes gourmet Mac and Cheese can end up being too heavy a dish, no matter how small. This was a salty, perfectly portioned delight. I also liked that they used rigatoni instead of the classic elbow macaroni. Buck chose the “Lasagna” of Local Morels, Country Ham and Asparagus, which was very tasty but could not compare to my dish (sorry, hon).

The main course was just as excellent. I had Pan Roasted Maine Lobster with Baby Bok Choy, Grapefruit and Citrus Butter Sauce. It was a very simple dish, yet executed with care and attention. The sauce I could have easily had in a cup and drunk straight from, and the lobster was cooked perfectly. I enjoyed the baby bok choy, and the sweet pearl onions, which combined with the grapefruit slices helped cut the butter sauce. Buck’s entrée was equally as spectacular (and I loved the name): Pepper Crusted Tuna Pretending to be a Filet Mignon Capped with Seared Duck Foie Gras on Charred Onions with a Burgundy Butter Sauce. It was decadence defined. My only problem with it was that the pepper really was heavily crusted on the tuna, and I ended up choking on some of it. Buck claimed to like that part, but then he too ended up coughing as well. If they scaled back the amount of pepper, I think it would have been perfect. It was designed to have a bit of foie gras with every bite of tuna, and it delivered.

Dessert. Oh, dessert. After agonizing over the choices, each one looking more ridiculously delicious than the next, I settled on the Warm Granny Smith Apple Tart with Buttermilk Ice Cream. It was a true treat, but I actually need a knife to cut through all those layers of phyllo dough. However, it melted once on the tongue, and I was really happy that I didn’t have to share any of it at all (Buck is allergic to apples). I also really enjoyed the Buttermilk Ice Cream, which had a nice subtle tang. Buck chose the Spring Fling: A Miniature Strawberry-Ruhbarb Cobbler, Limoncello Pudding Cake, and Ruhbarb Frozen Yogurt. It was delicious, but they weren’t kidding when they described the cobbler as miniature: there were maybe one or two small mouthfuls to be had of it, which wasn’t enough. Also, each of our plates boasted a strip of golden fondant with “Happy Anniversary” piped in chocolate across it – a really nice touch.

To cap off our evening, which was perfect in company and culinary delights, we were sent home with a box in the design of the Inn, which held several different cookies and chocolates. The Inn at Little Washington truly lived up to all the hype we had heard about it. And here’s something else to blow your mind: The chef, Patrick O’Connell, is entirely self-taught. Granted, he’s been in the business now for 23 years, but still. No Culinary Institute of America, no Cordon Bleu; just a true passion for food and a natural-born genius. Believe me when I say that making the trip to The Inn at Little Washington is entirely worth it.


Elizabeth Wilson said...

I hope you have large thumb nails. The "damn decor" - I love your writing!

Jenna said...

Ha! I'm telling you, they were it was the tiniest baked potato imaginable!

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