Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Visit to The Inn at Little Washington

For my wife’s 1st birthday as an empty-nester, I figured I’d lessen the blow of separation anxiety and aging anxiety the way Jewish husbands have for centuries; I threw money at it.

My plan was to whisk her away to Virginia wine country, take her out for a four star meal and a lavish B&B. If you know our area, the one place to do that where you know everything will be amazing is The Inn at Little Washington.

Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, the Inn is about as sumptuous an experience as you can imagine. The staff is particularly impressive. When we arrived in the late afternoon to check in, they were ready for us and called us by our names before we had a chance to tell them anything. Either 1) we were the only people checking in (wrong), 2) we were the last to check in (possibly, but I doubt it) or 3) they had googled us and had pictures ready the way reporters will for prospective interviewees. That is a bit creepy, to be sure, but it’s that kind of attention to detail that is so amazing about the place. Chef and proprietor Patrick O’Connell was an actor before he took on the Hospitality game, and he has turned the experience of dining and hosting into a performance; a show complete with prologue, characters, plot development, and denoument.

After being toured through the facility, we were shown our accomodations, a beautiful little palace guest room. All the appointments ( I know that’s the right word but it sounds wrong, doesn’t it?) were luxurious. The bathroom in particular was remarkable but very tight, however, where doors open into each other, and negotiating between sink, toilet and shower was difficult. Still, the fixtures, counters, tiny ablutives, terrycloth robes and slippers were all the best money can buy. So this is how the very rich live, thought I. Treated like celebrities, coddled with the nicest of niceties. No wonder they start to think of themselves as a race apart. What I like about the Inn is that even though they might realize that you are not part of the landed aristocracy, they will treat you as such. No snobbery here, at least not to your face!

As for our meal, the show really begins when you take your seats. We had been wine tasting all day, so were not really in the mood for a bottle. I ordered one glass of my favorite wine, Chataneuf du Pape. As we perused the menu (and I was familiar with many of the dishes from looking at the Chef’s books which were coffee-table variety books strewn about our room), the meal began with an amuse-bouche. Three large porcelain spoons each with a little bite of something unmemorable. A little roasted pepper on this one, some grapefruity concoction on that.

Ordering at the Inn is difficult, since you would like to try everything. What you get is 4 courses for a lot of money. When we went there the first time back in 1991 it was $97 prix fixe. Now it is almost twice that! Talk about inflation. We ordered, and I realized that our waitress was probably the least interesting server in the restaurant. There was another waiter, a gentleman who looked like a marionette, bobbing and weaving all over the place in the most exaggerated movements. Why couldn’t we have had him?

The Maitre D’ came over and pinned a white carnation on my lapel, informing me that all male overnight guests at the Inn get one. After ordering, the bread came, delectable little rolls and slices. Quickly we were recipients of a little double demitasse of Cream of Parsnip soup. It was perfect; creamy and flavorful. It made me want to figure out just what parsnips taste like. I don’t believe I have ever had one as the centerpiece of anything.

Our first course arrived post-haste. My wife had ordered the lamb carpaccio, I the lobster salad. Round one went to her. I thought the lamb was better than any beef carpaccio I had tried, plus it was drizzled with some delicious EVOO, and served with a bit of tabouli with just the right hint of acidity to cut against the oil and lamb. My lobster salad was mostly claw meat with a little tail, some fresh grapefruit pieces and frisee. I’ve had better in a shack in Maine. I think with lobster it’s always about how it gets to your plate, and the closer you live to where it is harvested, the better it will be. Those tanks are flavor killers.

The second came out soon after we finished. Timing is everything at the Inn. Two waiters will bring your food and plop the dishes down at the very same moment. It’s one of the flourishes that makes the whole experience seem special. I had requested the “Fire and Ice”, Chef O’Connell’s famous fois gras dish. A seared slab of the glorious foodstuff is placed next to a cold piece of it. If you love this like I do, you try not to think of the process, but only of the result. Hey, I like hearts of palm, but as infrequently as I have it, I don’t feel responsible for the disappearance of the rainforest! Anyway, the birthday girl ordered pecan crusted tempura softshell crab. A very good and meaty crab, but the preparation was not really the right blend. Round two went to me and my fois gras.

Now, the main event was upon us. Rack of Lamb was the lady’s choice, crusted with pistachios (that’s a big thing, the nut crusting). I found the dish a little disappointing. The lamb, cooked rare, was a bit dry and flavorless. The reduction accompanying it was also not remarkable. There were little pillows of artichoke ravioli which were exquisite, but not enough to rescue the dish. My entrée, on the other hand was the Tuna “Masquerading as Filet Mignon”. A large center cut Tuna steak, seared and capped with a slice of fois gras (I told you I can’t resist!) which itself is masquerading as a mushroom cap. It was served with a hoisin sauce and very thinly sliced vegetables. It’s like having the most tender steak with none of the cholesterol. No contest here, my dish was far superior. Score: me 2, birthday girl 1.

Finally, dessert. My wife, evidently stuffed to the gills from watching me eat everything on both plates, ordered the “Palette of Sorbets”. I, in a final act of pure gluttony, ordered the “7 Deadly Sins”, a sampling of their most decadent dulcet delectables. The Sorbets were served on what looked like a glass artist palette, with little brushes made of cookies. It was one of the most visually stunning presentations I’ve ever seen in a restaurant. She raved about the Grapefruit/Campari Sorbet, but I also really liked the Blackberry. All I remember about my dessert was me stripping naked and diving into the plate, fork and spoon whirling together like a speedboat propeller, and then coffee. What was on the plate, I can’t tell you. I know chocolate was involved. Maybe even Crème Fraiche. Probably no fois gras.

The best part of the night was our commute back to the room. Actually, for me, I needed to walk off all that entrenching. It was a beautiful early fall evening, and I walked all around the town, which took about 10 minutes. Behind the Inn is the chef’s private garden, filled with fresh herbs and beautiful flowers. You can also look in the window upon the kitchen to see the magic in preparation. I stood there for quite some time, enjoying the action. It really was something to watch, kind of like a different reality show; Heaven’s Kitchen.

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