THE premier restaurant of Baltimore-DC area, world: The Inn at Little Washington [classic article]

For many years now, The Inn at Little Washington has topped many of the most important foodie review lists: The Washington Post, Mobil, AAA, and more. Travel + Leisure magazine just named it the #1 Hotel Restaurant in the world. Yes, it’s everything that they say and more. Located in “Little” Washington, Virginia, the restaurant is built to look like a historic inn of old, though it spent time decades ago as a gas station/dance hall!

Though it’s fine dining at its best — and people definitely dress in cocktail wear — you’re made to feel like you are at a beautiful, elegant house party that’s catered, rather than a restaurant. On any given night (reservations are a must — supposedly Al Gore was unable to get around this recently), you might see movie stars, political heavyweights, royalty. Believe me, the service is very much aimed at making you feel like royalty, as if you were being taken care of by long-term retainers. It’s gracious but makes you feel like you belong.

Chef Patrick O’Connell is self-taught, but in the way that Lincoln was self-taught. We should all be so self-taught! He is so very knowledgeable about the cuisines of the world and the local fare of the area. He grew up in Maryland and is now president of the prestigious Relais-Chateaux group.

Before you are seated to your table, you can go to the “library” (most popular) or lounge (so cute with monkey wallpaper!) for cocktails. I tried a delicious apple drink made with rum and local apples, spices. I ordered it primarily for the localvore angle, thinking it might be a mulled cider kinda thing. The weather was still warm out and the drink was just perfect: cool, bubbly, tall, and very drinkable. Same with another cocktail that was a lighter take on a Dark and Stormy, using Hendrick’s Gin (with cucumber and rose petal notes) and ginger beer. The nuts in the cocktail lounge are quite spicy and smoky.

People are then welcomed to their tables with little individual popcorn containers that a server, wearing white gloves, shaves black truffle over. This is accompanied by Parmesan tuiles. Then, breads are brought over: a mini baguette is a texturally exciting improvement over boring ol’ breadsticks, while the pecan-currant-rye bread rolled in Kosher salt and served with French butter will have you strongly reminding yourself that you have a whole dinner ahead. You or a loved one might have to offer some tough love!

I have been to the Inn at Little Washington a few times, so on this occasion, I wanted to venture away from familiar favorites and do the Chef’s Tasting Menu. There are lots of reasons to order from a tasting menu in general: the chef is excited to present new things and exotic presentations, it expands your culinary knowledge, and you are introduced to new flavors and combinations. You will discover new things to like and maybe equally importantly, what you may possibly not like.

As an amuse bouche, a tall shot glass of red pepper soup with Sambuca was presented. It was creamy, herbacious, and snappy on the tongue at once — the perfect palate awakener.

Next came a “caterpillar” of avocado, Peekytoe crab, with a heaping spoon of caviar and garnished with fresh chives. It was rich and creamy in the mouth, with the caviar standing out in flavor and texture. It sure beats the salty fake caviar in the grocery store! That caviar should maybe be called “Kaviar” or something.

Then came Chilled Petals of Veal Tongue Ravigote that another server grated fresh horseradish on. It was accompanied by hard boiled quail eggs, with the “ravigote” made with capers and cornichons. I thought of it as an amusing and witty take on deli! It was like the most dainty and delicate delicatessen appetizer conceivable. The tongue was so tender and flavorful. The quail eggs made me wish all grocery stores would carry them. I think you can get them at Han Ah Reum in Catonsville.

The next course — and maybe my favorite one — was Miniature Filet of Black Cod Saute’ with Lemon Vodka Sauce and Lilliputian Shrimp Dumplings. It was cooked until still translucent and so very tender. It was as “rich” as a fish can be in the mouth. Sauces were just lightly daubed on the plate, gently adding flavor without taking charge.

Then came “Our Seafood Sausage” with tomato butter. I’m ashamed to say, I almost didn’t order the tasting menu because of this! Every other seafood sausage I have ever had was fishy and pencil eraser rubber-like, with a casing resembling Saran Wrap. The Inn at Little Washington’s seafood sausage is sublime. It’s in tender lamb casing, with seafood like shrimp and scallops. They’re using the best of the best for sausage, not using it as a recepticle for proteins that have seen better days or shouldn’t see the light of day. The tomato butter was a beautiful compliment.

Next came the Potato Wrapped Tuna Wellington with Caponata Ravioli and Bearnaise sauce. It’s also dotted with basil oil. Chef O’Connell is famous for his “tuna as beef” courses, serving rare tuna to perfection.

The final savory course was Pan Seared Pekin Duck Breast with Fois Gras on Butternut Squash Risotto with Carmelized Endive. The endive lent a nice “bitter” counterpoint to the rich meats and risotto. Fois Gras was served in a nice portion, creamy above the crispy duck breast skin. A server came by to grate allspice on it, “for a Fall air”.

The palette refresher was a passionfruit and vanilla Dreamsicle. It was a baby popsicle with a tiny stick, rolled in toasted coconut. The passionfruit was a new twist, but of course referenced the classic orange/vanilla combo.

The dessert was a genius pairing — oh no, bad pun — with this cusp of Fall menu: A Trio of Pear Dessert. It was a plate of delicious pear sorbet shaped into a pear with a spun sugar “stem” and mint leaf that has me asking for an ice cream maker for the holidays (yes!!!) and copying the recipe from O’Connell’s most recent cookbook, Patrick O’Connell’s Refined American Cuisine: The Inn at Little Washington, a mini hot pear souffle’, and pear tart with housemade caramel sauce. It had the orchard fruit Fall flavor while being something different from and a cleaner flavor than apples.

Following dessert, a little paper box shaped like the inn comes with coffee. It’s filled with handmade chocolate candies, mini shortbread and butter cookies, candied orange peel.

After the last course, I was invited to view the inner doings of the kitchen — it runs 24 hours a day, making breads and ice creams, for example. Just when I thought, John McEnroe for National Car-style, that I was all fancy-pants special, I found out that all people are invited to see it after dessert. There’s a couple of tables that people can reserve in there too… if one can find a free calendar date!

Afterwards, you can have after-dinner drinks in the library or lounge. For those who order off the regular menu, one of the dessert offerings is a cheese course served on a porcelain cow, “Faira” that moos when they roll it in.

Your menus for the evening are autographed and presented to you wrapped up at the end of the evening.

Here’s a story that might put it all into perspective. When my dad was alive, he had been slighted by a rude frenemy. I made up my mind that I would do something special to take him out of his funk. I figured, carpe diem! So, I saved up and told him to get dressed up. I told him that he was going to dinner at The Inn at Little Washington! He had tears in his eyes and said, “I thought only kings and queens ate there.” He went on to say, in his inimitable way, that really, it’d be good enough just to take pictures outside the place and just say that we ate there. I reassured him that we didn’t have to do that. He had a wonderful time. He was impressed by the server when he asked, “What time do you close?” and the server replied, “Whenever our guests require.” He said, “That’s a beautiful answer!” So, when my dad was on his deathbed, one of his last statements was, “I just wish…we could go back to that ‘little’ restaurant in Virginia. Do you know the one?” Yes, Daddy, I do… and I wish we could too.

The Inn at Little Washington

309 Middle Street

Washington, VA 22747

(540) 675-3800

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