Patrick O'Connell grew up with a fondness for grilled cheese sandwiches and his mom's egg salad; now he dines on foie gras and forest mushrooms. He eats the finest food in the world. In fact, he often cooks it himself.
And on the first Friday in August, O'Connell cooked for us at the Inn at Little Washington, Virginia.
Awash in the rosy glow of fringed Victorian hanging lamps, we luxuriated in cuisine and service worthy of the many awards displayed in the public rooms of the Inn. O'Connell's culinary skill plus the hospitality and aesthetic sensibility he shares with coowner Reinhardt Lynch have garnered stars, diamonds, toques, plaques, and engraved plates. Among the honors are five stars from the Mobil Travel Guide, five diamonds from the Automobile Association of America, recognition for superior accommodations and meals by the prestigious international Relais et Chateaux guide, and the 1993 James Beard award as the best restaurant in America. In January 1994, Patricia Wells of the International Herald-Tribune included the Inn as one of the ten best restaurants in the world (yes, WORLD). Phyllis Richman of the Washington Post sings the Inn's praises. Craig Claiborne of the New York Times celebrates his birthdays at the Inn.
The secret ingredient is not an herb but an attitude. A former student of speech and drama who speaks with quiet precision and confidence, O'Connell prescribes fine dining as a restorative for an ailing world. With their extraordinary cuisine and opulent rooms, he and Lynch offer "a healing experience for people who feel disenfranchised with the deterioration of culture," says O'Connell. Committed to nurturing the Inn's patrons against urban angst, staff members rank each guest's mood on a 10-point scale. "Before dessert, every diner should be at least a 9," the chef insists. (We surmise that we started at 9 and left with a rating of 11.)
Overnight guests are invited to afternoon tea in the garden; along with breakfast in their Victorian chambers, guests can call for food around the clock. There's no room service menu; instead, a culinary school graduate is always on duty to cater to special requests. Although the Inn was designed to be a luxurious adult retreat, the kitchen can handle such contingencies as the young couple traveling with their baby and nanny. "Nanny orders caviar and lobster," smiles O'Connell."Baby eats only organic foods. I've pureed organic veal and broccoli for Baby myself."
O'Connell's quiet demeanor contrasts the sensory stimulation of the setting and the food. Colors and textures blend and contend: hunter greens, deep clarets, dark walnuts, and swashes of mustard gold abound in complementary patterns. Striped chairs in the dining room, for example, reflect the hues of the fruit-papered ceiling, the lattice-patterned carpet, the marble wall panels, the floral balloon shades on the windows, and the contrasting floral design of the side draperies. Latticed wood panels with pineapple finials create several alcoves in the center of the main dining room. Tables hugging the surrounding walls are perhaps a little too closely spaced, but after a few bites of the first savory, you won't care. Along one wing, a long banquette with plump cushions faces the courtyard where afternoon tea and after-dinner coffee and dessert are served in the garden.
In contrast with the variegated appointments, the staff is sensibly neutral and instantly identifiable. Men wear white shirts, black trousers, black vests, and bow ties; women wear long-sleeved white draped-front blouses and black skirts that fall below the knee. Discreetly professional, they never hover. Should you look up in quest of service, however, somebody appears as if by magic. Instead of a waiter, you have an entire staff to serve you.
Ours was a party of three seasoned tasters accustomed to sharing food both for the joy of breaking well-made bread together and for what must be the world's most desirable job, reporting on our culinary experiences. We agreed afterward that the Inn was heavenly: dinner began with moons and ended with moons and stars.
First came a savory crescent of puff paste encasing a soupcon of barbecued rabbit; onto a toast round the size of a nickel was a piped a swirl of foie gras mousse--just enough to stimulate the appetite and increase the challenge of choosing among the riches to come. Fortunately, we did not have to make choices for the next offering, a demitasse of velvety red pepper soup perfumed with fennel, jalapenos, fresh tomatoes, and a swish of sambucca-flavored cream.
Alas, we were only three and the first course options were a dozen. Fortunately, chef O'Connell sent us samples of several items. Black mission figs with country ham and lime cream on cantaloupe coulis made a succulent still life; paper-thin sheets of ham formed a rosette in the center, the lime cream a pinpoint of tartness on the sweet fruit. Risotto combined creamy rice with nuggets of silver queen corn garnished with slivers of country ham and 3 perfect shrimp. Ruby circles of lamb carpaccio seared just around the edges overlapped like petals, trimmed with a touch of bulghur wheat tabouli and rosemary-scented mustard. Sauerkraut was never so elegant as these translucent cabbage shreds sweetened with riesling and presented as backdrop to a skewer of juicy rabbit sausage, liver, and bacon-wrapped conserve of fig and apple.
We did not try the salmon five ways, the foie gras on tart greens, the prawn in pistachio crust, or foie gras with peach salsa and sauternes jelly but would gladly have lingered another hour to sample them all. We did, however, have time for stunning tender lobster pieces sandwiched with crisp potato slices and dressed with a teaspoon of ossetra caviar. With our preference for dishes difficult to duplicate at home, this one and the rabbit sausage were favorites.
The second course, listed as "between course selections" was a sorbet or salad (but, truth be told, we would have liked both a salad and a sorbet). Pine nuts and slivers of grainy asiago cheese topped thick slices of red and gold garden tomatoes, delicately drizzled with basil vinaigrette and decorated with grilled red onions. Hearts of romaine were heavily coated with a creamy garlic dressing, an oven-roasted tomato accompaniment a perfect counterpoint. Just the right tingle for a transition to the first course was a martini glass of rosemary-scented lemon sorbet afloat in a puddle of white wine.
Ten main course choices meant we really needed seven more people in our party, but we made the tough decisions by our usual criteria. What would best illustrate a kitchen's skill; demonstrate its facility with fish, fowl, and flesh; display its handling of produce; reveal its imagination and creativity; dazzle us with dishes we couldn't easily get at home; and succor us with the restorative effect O'Connell prescribed? Imagine the difficulty we had rejecting these options: no to loin of veal with homemade fettucini and pesto, no to Maine lobster with citrus butter sauce, no to rack of lamb in a pecan crust, no to poussin in blackberry vinegar, no to salmon in a polenta crust, and no to native rockfish with chanterelles.
We said enthusiastic yesses to braised and glazed local rabbit served oh-so- simply with a shallow pool of apple cider, a sprinkling of currants, a scoop of garlic mashed potatoes, and forest mushrooms. We wisely gave the go-ahead to an inch-plus-thick tuna filet served with carrots, cucumbers, and crusty charred vidalia onions plus dabs of a decadent burgundy butter reduction. As if this combination of fresh, cooked, smoky, sweet, light, and rich were not nirvana, the tuna was topped with a slice of duck foie gras like buttered satin.
We gave six thumbs up and a standing ovation to a sandwich that would have turned Dagwood Bumstead into a connoisseur: layers of veal, veal sweetbreads, chanterelle mushrooms, country ham, and a swish of onion-roasted plum confiture. Heavenly. My dinner companions, typically aghast at the mere suggestion that internal organs can be culinary treasures, were licking their lips at foie gras and sweetbreads. A pewter serving bowl of local corn relish with red peppers, onions, and bacon circled the table only once before coming back to me clean.
Here we thought to pause, but the Inn was unrelenting. Each of us was offered a melon fantasy as pretty as it was refreshing. Composed to resemble a watermelon wedge on a garden fence, tricolored light melon sorbets of pale lime and rose were dotted with currants and chocolate-drop pips. This icy essence of fruit was balanced on a lattice of creme anglais and raspberry puree--to cleanse the palate and prepare us for dessert.
After a little coffee and conversation, we were ready for the final challenge of the evening, choosing a sweet. How clever of O'Connell to include such assortments as a fruit trio called peach intensifier, three nut tarts with three ice creams, chocolate four ways, and seven deadly sins. Creamy options were rhubarb pizza with ginger ice cream and white chocolate ice cream with dark chocolate sauce. Light options were coeur a la creme and raspberries with Grand Marnier sauce. Of course we selected the samplers. Seven deadly sins had bite-sized servings of chocolate cakes, flan, apple tart, ice cream, and sorbet. The nut tarts of hazel, pecan, and pine were straightforward but the accompanying homemade ice creams of caramel, maple, and vanilla were special. After such a wealth of preceding courses, the peach intensifier was perhaps most satisfying in its balance of light fruit and rich cream. Peach puree, peach sorbet, and peach ice cream were garnished with curls of, you guessed it, fresh peach.
At the very end, more moons, this time small crescent cookies accompanied by chocolate diamonds and marzipan rings. And on fine evenings, stars, as diners enjoy their desserts in the softly lighted garden.
Throughout the meal, a silent server circulated with a basket of crusty rolls and slender slices of salt-glazed currant-walnut-rye, slipping another roll onto the bread plate every time the previous one disappeared. Not only did the bread plates have their own butter knives, the butter crock had one as well. Salt and pepper were absent; O'Connell knows his seasonings need no adjustment. However, when the salad course was imminent, a silver pepper mill and crystal salt shaker appeared. As the salad plates were cleared, the condiments were cleared as well.
Not ready to tackle the 9,000 bottles of wine in the Inn's collection, we trusted the staff to suggest appropriate wines. With respect for the varied drinking customs of its clientele, the Inn offers two dozen wines by the glass, including a Chardonnay from Virginia's own Misty Mountain, labeled with the Inn's swan logo. Three dozen wines come in half bottles. As part of their commitment to the best of the region, the Inn also features two dozen Virginia wines. Nine beers, four nonalcoholic beers, and a selection of single-malt Scotches are highlighted as well.
How unoriginal of us to echo the words of other visitors to the Inn: If you savor incomparable regional food and internationally acclaimed service and setting, the $88 prix fixe dinner is worth every penny plus the additional charges for tax, tip, and drinks. For the few hours that you dine at the Inn, you will luxuriate in Victorian splendor decorated by a renowned English theatrical set designer. You will be pampered by a thoroughly professional staff trained to answer questions about the decor as well as the wine and the food. And if you cannot afford the $240 for the smallest guest room (that's a queen-sized bed and shower, no tub; add $100 if it's Friday, $125 if it's Saturday) much less the $490 for a suite with jacuzzi bath, double shower, dressing room, parlor, balcony, and sleeping loft with king-sized bed (don't forget to add $100 if it's Friday, $125 if it's Saturday), perhaps you can afford a charming bed and breakfast in the countryside or a motel room in a nearby town.
The Inn itself is the centerpiece of Washington, Virginia, a tiny town just off highway 211 west. Seventeen years ago O'Connell and Lynch converted a former gas station to an elegant retreat, first as a restaurant, building its kitchen where the garage grease pit once stood, and later adding rooms that brought comfort to capital residents willing to drive an hour and a half for dinner but not to confront the drive home afterwards.
Ironically, in the 1950s O'Connell used to pass through Little Washington with his parents on Sunday drives from the D.C. suburb where they lived. His parents, having honeymooned at the once-elegant Mimslyn Hotel in Luray, returned periodically to dine there. Young Patrick was "excited by the fingerbowls and mint jelly." He remembers the Virginia town surveyed by George Washington in 1749 as "just three gas stations in the days before the highway." Now under the guidance of O'Connell and Lynch, the garage at the crossroads of Middle and Main streets has been transfromed to one of the world's best restaurants.
But international fame has not distracted O'Connell from his compact kitchen. "I'm still on the line every night when I'm in town," he assured us. He's not just supervising the cooks, however. He's creating a fantasy, a drama, a refuge. All the special occasions of his life and even of his favorite films, for example, "My Dinner with Andre," took place in restaurants. In restaurants, he says, "You are transported away from the everyday world." And most important, he feels, "you can reestablish a spiritual connection. We're here to celebrate life and the beauty around you."
After dinner we understood exactly what Patrick O'Connell meant when he said, "You should leave feeling restored, not just fed."
modified January 7, 2008 by D. Reiss