Last fall I attended a farm-to-fork tour of Rappahannock County sponsored by Les Dames d’Escoffier DC. The tour included a visit to the famed restaurant Inn at Little Washington. Chef/restaurateur Patrick O’Connell spoke to the group about his beginnings at the restaurant more than 30 years ago, his connection to local farmers, and how he believes that “food is love.” The goal at the Inn is for guests to enjoy a transformative and luxurious experience, encompassing far more than the enjoyment of fine food. Chef O’Connell is a charismatic speaker, and I am spellbound by his words.
For years I felt I was missing something by not having dined at the Inn. But for maximum enjoyment (i.e. a nice bottle of wine) to dine at the Inn requires an overnight stay, since its Washington, Virginia location is an hour and a half drive from home. This is not just dinner out. It is a commitment of time and money.
But listening to Chef O’Connell speak, I realize that there is no more appropriate place for my husband and I to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. Food is love? This is basically the theme for our marriage. Fortunately my husband agrees with the plan, which is probably part of the reason we have been married 30 years. (Not the agreeing with me part but the being okay with spending hundreds of dollars on dinner part. Well maybe both).
Since a stay at the Inn itself is another commitment altogether, with rooms starting at approx. $600 per night, we opt to stay at a bed and breakfast in nearby Sperryville, Virginia.
You don’t sign on for a meal that costs $200 per person before tax, tip, and alcohol without extremely high expectations. It is imperative to suspend any concern about cost. This is about excellence. Inn at Little Washington is #1 on Washingtonian’s list of 100 Very Best Restaurants, four out of four stars from The Washington Post, an almost perfect score from Zagat, a 5-diamond (highest-rating) award from AAA for 25 years running, and too many other acknowledgements to mention. Ask almost anyone who has dined here, and you get a reverent sigh of satisfaction.
Joining us for dinner at the Inn are cousins A & B, who are also celebrating an anniversary. Since their introduction came by way of our engagement party, we agree that a joint celebration is in order.
We begin our evening in a sitting room adjacent to the dining area, where we can soak in the ambiance before we focus on the food. The Inn’s decor is ornate and old-fashioned, with tassles and fringe galore. The immersion in luxury begins.
A closer look at the decor reveals whimsical touches, such as a wooden cow waiting to take a turn as a vehicle for the cheese course. I usually prefer a more modern atmosphere, but it’s impossible to resist the Inn’s charm.
This photo of Inn at Little Washington is courtesy of TripAdvisor
From the moment we are seated, it is clear what the fuss is all about. Employees are well-trained in the art of hospitality and are ready to accede to our every wish. Cousins A & B, who are here for the second time, remark that their previous visit to the Inn felt more dramatic. It’s difficult to replicate the magic of a first time experience. We have no basis for comparison, and are content with service that may lack drama but is not at all short on finesse.
The four course tasting menu has a welcome diversity of options. While some tasting menus present challenges for my Kosher-keeping husband, this is not the case at the Inn at Little Washington. The menu includes fish and pasta that do not require a request for substitutions or omissions.
Our server guides me when my confidence in what to order falters. I am poised for a culinary adventure, and I don’t want to make any mistakes. It doesn’t take long for me to relax and enjoy the parade of breath-taking dishes placed before us.
I begin with carpaccio of herb crusted baby lamb loin with caesar salad ice cream, which provides a shockingly cool and satisfying contrast to the rare meat. It tastes as spectacular as it looks.
My second course is New England day boat scallops sautéed with curried cauliflower, sultanas, and garlic chips. While I have resorted to dishes featuring two of my favorite ingredients, other lamb and scallop dishes I’ve had recently pale in comparison. My only concern is this: when you dine at the top of the restaurant pyramid in terms of flavor, complexity, and presentation, can you subsequently find satisfaction at a lower level? Time will tell. This meal is about the present.
My main course is seared rare tuna crusted with mustard seeds, and layered with foie gras, with preserved lemon puree and a confetti of garden vegetables. I am not accustomed to eating foie gras, but the indulgent ingredient seems appropriate for the occasion. It is a generous portion and at some point I decide to leave some of it behind and focus my attention solely on the tuna.
One of the things I like best about a tasting menu is that I don’t have an internal struggle about dessert. It’s included. I’m eating it. End of story. My selection is cocoa nib Napoleon with caramelized bananas, chocolate mousse, and sorbet with caramel lime sauce. I have again steered towards my favorite flavors (caramel and lime) and have no regrets. The Happy Anniversary message is a lovely, although somewhat expected, touch.
In the interest of time and space, I will not include the dishes enjoyed by my dining companions. Suffice it to say that a magnificent meal was enjoyed by all. Happily, the story of my experience doesn’t end here.
The next morning my husband, who is in the restaurant equipment business, has arranged to work with some of the staff at the Inn. I tag along, because I can’t turn down an opportunity to spend more time here.
We have just eaten a lovely breakfast at our B&B, but when we are invited to sit at the chef’s table and enjoy breakfast before my husband begins his work….how can we refuse? My husband looks uncertain, but I am grinning from ear to ear. Diner’s at the Inn can pay a surcharge on their meal for the chance to sit at the chef’s table and observe the goings on. The surcharge for a Saturday night is $575. While this isn’t a Saturday night, and the kitchen is most certainly more relaxed than during dinner, this is an opportunity not to be missed. A flight of juices, a warm basket of baked goods, fresh fruit, and hot coffee exceed my expectations. When I don’t think it is possible to eat another bite, we are handed a menu and invited to order a breakfast entree. Can I possibly eat any more? Apparently so. A brioche French toast with blackberry sauce is one of the most heavenly dishes I have ever tasted. It’s so light and airy that I can’t imagine it contains any calories at all. At least that is what I tell myself.
The staff are treating us like royalty, although at this point we are not paying guests. This is a testament to how a culture of excellence in service is ingrained in the staff. It is not something that dissipates when you are behind the scenes. I mention to one of the staff that my only disappointment about the previous night is that our meal did not include the truffle dusted popcorn, for which Chef O’Connell is famous. This is included in the more robust Gastronaut’s menu, but not the a la carte menu. The executive sous chef promises to make me a batch of the popcorn before we depart. I am treated to a demonstration, where I marvel at the luxurious ingredients which includes air popped popcorn, truffle oil, sugar, Parmesan cheese, and a healthy shaving of imported truffles. At this point I really am too stuffed to enjoy the treat I have lusted after. I take a few bites and hold onto the rest for when I am hungry again, which isn’t until many hours later.
My only remaining regret is that there is no Chef Patrick O’Connell sighting, although I know he is in the kitchen while we are enjoying dinner. I want him to know how much we have loved his food and have fully appreciated the care and attention that he has put into his entire operation. Dining at the Inn of Little Washington is an experience to be cherished, and for a special occasion experience, it is unparalleled. I think back to his speech that brought me to this moment. His 30 years at the Inn at Little Washington. Our 30 years of marriage. Indeed…food is love.
The Inn at Little Washington, Washington, Virginia
Video of Chef O’Connell making truffled popcorn