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The Inn At Little Washington - With 2001 National James Beard Award Winner Patrick O'Connell

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brr   

A'ight kids, put yer reading caps on

Friday was our 7th wedding anniversary. That means its been 7 years since some generous friends took us to a meal at the Inn at Little Washington as a wedding present. Our gustatory urges had been slowly awakening over the previous year, driven in part by our release from the penury of graduate school into gainful employment, and we had wined and dined ourselves at Obelisk, Cashions and DC Coast to name but a few. Fine restaurants all. But "The Inn" was the big kahuna. Remember that in DC in 1998, there was no Maestro, no Laboratorio, no CityZen, no Eve, a reminder of how spoiled we are for fine dining options now (I think Citronelle was there but for some inexplicable reason we have yet to dine there).

The passage of time, the loss of brain cells and a couple of years of sleep deprivation have taken their toll, and memories of the meal are hazy, but we remember literally being *blown away* by the whole experience. The setting, the service, and most importantly the food were all superlative - we had never experienced anything like it - I remember a sublime molten Valrhona chocolate cake before it had become a tired cliche.

Two years later we returned, flush with the proceeds of a Harry Potter arbitrage scheme on eBay, and left wondering whether The Inn had changed or had we changed. Were our expectations too high after our first visit? Had we become more discerning as diners? Or was The Inn standing in place, content to serve a menu eerily similar to two years beforehand to those willing (and there were still many of them) to make the two hour trek from metropolitan DC, or even further afield? Some of the dishes were very good, but lacked the wow factor of our previous visit, and the service seemed a little detached and rote. As we left, the prevailing sense was that for $120+ per person BEFORE wine, tax or tip was it just wasn't good enough. Based on the comments on several other food sites it seemed as if we were not alone in this opinion.

Time passed and we concentrated our fine dining adventures closer to DC, enjoying spectacular meals at Maestro, Laboratorio, and Eve, or overseas (Arzak, McNean Bistro). Last Christmas, my sister, remembering our raves from our first visit generously gave us a gift certificate for The Inn. While grateful for the gift, we honestly were not that jazzed about going back to The Inn and sat on the gift cert for a while (and in the "We do it because we can" category, shame on The Inn for voiding gift certs after ONE year). We finally decided to go in late-September and turn it into an anniversary celebration both for us, and my parents who would be visiting.

My mother has a garlic allergy which can make dining out a difficult process so I mentioned it as I made reservations, and was assured it would not be a problem. Then the day of the meal, our babysitting fell through and I called The Inn to find out if it would be ok to add a 4-year old to our reservation. Again, they said it was not a problem (to be honest I was surprised at this, as an ultra high-end restauranteur, adding a 4 year old into a dining room full of boomers spending $200+ per person seems to have lots of downside).

We arrived just in time for our 6.30 reservation and were shown to a circular table overlooking the courtyard (the same table as our first time there, maybe a coincidence, maybe not). Our amuse bouche arrived quickly, with about 8 for the non-garlic allergites (is that a word?) on one place and 3 or 4 on a separate plate for my mother which I thought was a nice touch. The amuse bouche included a mini-BLT (still on the menu after all these years) a red wine risotto filled ball, parmesan crisps, a rabbit turnover, a mini-ham sandwich and one or two others which I have forgotten. In general the amuse were good but not earth shattering. In ordering for the rest of our meal, our waiter took scrupulous care in accommodating the garlic allergy, to the extend of tweaking the making and presentation of dishes to ensure there would be no garlic but that my mother could still order just about whatever she wanted. I was very impressed.

After the amuse came a complimentary cup of chilled watermelon soup with a hint of tequila. The soup was excellent - creamy, yet light, tasting of summer, and with the tequila giving its just the slightest kick. They even brought a cup of the soup (minus the tequila!) for our daughter, which she loved.

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For the first course proper, me and my mother had Prawns and Charred Onions with Mango Mint Salsa, while my wife and dad had Maryland Crabcakes Sandwiched between Fried Green Tomatoes with Silver Queen Corn Salsa. In general both dishes were excellent, but I think the prawns shaded it. Three large, succulent prawns paired nicely with the sweetness of the charred onion and the salsa.

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In another nice touch, they brought our daughter some macaroni (penne pasta to be precise) and cheese between our first and second courses so we could concentrate on feeding her and still be able to eat ourselves. This was seriously tasty and I'm guessing they used several different cheeses in its preparation.

For the second course, I had A Marriage of Hot and Cold Foie Gras with Homemad Quince Preserves, my mom had a Morel Dusted Diver Scallop on a Cauliflower Puree, my wife had A Fricassee of Maine Lobster with Potato Gnocchi and Curried Walnuts, and my dad had A Warm Salad of Stone Church Farms Seared Duck Breast with Baby Arugula, Pine Nuts and Parmesan.

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In general, I adore foie gras and ordered this dish mainly for the seared foie with aged balsamic and it did not disappoint, but was pleasantly surprised at the "Cold" part of the dish, which was a delicious pate served with a small piece of toasted bread.

For our main course, myself and my dad Medallions of Rabbit Loin Wrapped in House Cured Pancetta Surrounding a Lilliputian (!!) Rabbit Rib Roast Resting on a Pillow of Pea Puree, my mom had Prime Angus Tenderloin of Beef on Silver Queen Corn Saute with Wilted Baby Spinach, and my wife had Sesame-Crusted Chilean Sea Bass with Silver Queen Corn Succotash.

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I don't think I'd really eaten rabbit before and it was excellent. The pancetta added a good deal of flavor and it was surprisingly tender. The sea bass was also good, and the corn succotash was very flavorful.

For dessert I had cheese, my wife had a trio of chocolate desserts (Black Forest Mousee Bombe, Chocolate Creme Brulee, and Bitter Chocolate Souffle), my father had the "Seven Deadly Sins", and my mother had a trio of peach desserts (Peach Melba, Peach-Champagne Sorbet and Peach Cobbler). In general I thought the desserts were good but not outstanding, although I think I was more in the mood for savory than sweet that night. Our daughter had a scoop of mint ice cream (that was as good as 2 Amy's and that's saying something) with chocolate ribbons. At The Inn, the cheese is served from the back of "Faira", a wheeled cow that must be (somewhat arkwardly) manouevered around the dining room - its cute, kind-of, but let me tell you when you're a 4-year old nearing the end of a 3 hour meal and its an hour after your normal bedtime, it's the coolest thing in the world! I had a nice back and forth with the cheese guy (earning a "you know your cheese" by the end of it all), and ended up picking a Montenbro, a crumbly blue from the Asturias region of Spain, a wonderfully ripe Tallegio, an even more wonderfully ripe Epoisses, a pungent cheese from Switzerland whose name escapes me and an award-winning American cheese that, much to my chagrin, I had never heard of.

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Now we were really starting to wind down, and Reinhardt Lynch came by and asked if we wanted the doors opening out onto the courtyard to be opened. Again, a great idea for a rapidly tiring 4-year old, and while we enjoyed coffee, tea and cookies, we took turns peering into the courtyards coy-filled ponds with her - several other tables were enjoying their desserts outside.

After dinner, we had a quick tour of the kitchen and observed those willing to pony up the addition $300 ($450 on weekends) for the chef's table, exchanged pleasantries with Chef O'Connell (always easy when you have a cute kid), and made our way into the night air for the drive back to DC.

Total bill for 4 people, a nice but inexpensive bottle Pinot, and a "kids meal" plus tax and tip was $775. The regular menu is $128 per person, our wine was $60, and our daughters meal was $28 (note that the tasting menu is $168 and the tasting menu with wine pairings is $243!!). We tipped 20% on the total bill including tax because the service was exemplary. Neil is a true professional, always there when we needed him, sensitive to the particular demands of our table, friendly, and good with our daughter.

So, was it worth it? I would have to say yes. Its not the kind of place where you should go all the time, and it may not even be the place where you go for groundbreaking cuisine, but for a special occasion, the combination of ambience, service and food is hard to beat. I think they deserve credit for regaining their focus and maintaining a general level of excellence as they enter their 28th year in business.

A final note on our superstar daughter. Yes, she's used to being taken out to restaurants, but she excelled herself this time around. By the end of the night, complete strangers were coming up to talk to her, clearly awed but her ability not to ruin their evenings!

A final, FINAL note on the one teeny-tiny sour note for the evening. A young female member of staff loudly chastised my wife for reading one of Patrick O'Connells cookbooks that had apparently been already purchased by someone else but left on a table in the common area directly outside the kitchen. Honey, she wasn't trying to steal it, she didn't know it belonged to someone else, and your tone was not appreciated.

Edited by DonRocks

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Stretch   

Nice write up, and it's pleasant to picture your daughter enjoying the white-glove treatment. Very "Eloise at the Plaza."

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Jonathan   

i also had a gift certificate to the Inn that I received for my wedding. it was extremely generous, and since I had never been, I was excited to check out this piece of american gastronomy.

my wife went just about 8 years earlier, and had since declared it the best meal she ever had.

well times have changed...and the Inn apparently hasn't.

what we had was a very nice meal. everything nicely executed, but nothing left me wowed; nothing left me scratching my head saying "what is this flavor?" or "how do they do this?" unlike maestro.

and nothing we got i couldnt have conceived and then executed on my own.

the food was good; but honestly, it was a price gouge. and i was not impressed with the pastries, petit fours and amuse bouches at all.

the service was very good and extremely attentive, but with some hiccups. I was never given a wine list with my menu or asked if i would like wine...and the same goes for the table next to us (also a young 30s couple). we both had to inquire awkwardly to our server AFTER we had ordered "what about wine?"

and for $400 for 2 people (only one drinking a glass per savory course) it is too much money.4 courses each for $128 is too much money for food that does not wow or overly impress. lets break this down....$128 for 4 courses is roughly:

$20 first course (tuna sashimi with wasabi sorbet and a lamb carpaccio with tabouleh)

$30 second course (tomato, mozarella and basil napolean and a lobster and grape and mucshroom fricasse with gnocchi) price gouge!!!

$60 entree (beef two ways: short rib and tenderloin sous vide and sweetbreads in a port sauce) Price gouge!!!!

$20 desserts (nothing spectacular: 7 deadly sins and peach 3 ways)

After the meal my wife remarked to me how her meal at the Inn wasnt the best meal of her life; it was just her limited perspective that had led her to believe that; and she would rather go to maestro again than come to the Inn.

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ScotteeM   
Indeed. I heard a big one but didn't want to spread, well, rumors...

What? Are they renouncing foie gras? Going macrobiotic? Introducing Tofu Three Ways on their tasting menu? Offering Karaoke at the bar?

ScotteeM (I have to lie down now, I'm exhausted)

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DonRocks   

“I have an unusual request,” I said. “I’d like a second glass of champagne to honor someone who couldn’t be here with me tonight.”

“Certainly Mr. Rockwell,” she said, bringing back the bottle of Henriot, pouring a second glass and setting it across the table.

Tonight was Pat’s birthday, she and her husband Lester staying at the Inn and sitting right next to me. The three of us chatted between courses, her scallops arriving shortly afterwards.

“These are to die for,” she said.

In the meantime, I had looked over the wine list, deciding to bypass the magnum of 1982 Cheval Blanc for $7,500. Not wanting to pay $5,000 more than a wine is worth, I instead ordered a 1991 Joseph Matrot Blagny “La Piece Sous Le Bois” for $35.

Thirty-five dollars, the label being torn and stained, as stained as if Jackson Pollock had eaten beets and balsamic, climbed a ladder, and then dripped on the bottle.

The best bottle of wine I’ve had in a restaurant in ages, the cuisine being surpassed by several restaurants in the Washington area, don’t come here just for the cuisine, promise you’ll trust my judgment in saying that the cuisine at Inn at Little Washington is not at the very highest level, not necessarily a culinary experience, and if you come just for the cuisine you’ll leave feeling angry, don’t come here for the cuisine alone.

Late in the meal, the cheese cow arrived, a cart in the shape of a cow, and the server plopped down a cylindrical moo-device on the cart, eliciting a soft “moo” sound. The cheeses, like just about all of the ingredients here, are well-sourced, and often benefit from minimal disruption.

After finishing my cheese plate, the server wheeled away the cheese cow, furtively cupping the cylindrical moo-device in his left hand, turning it twice as he walked through the restaurant so it would quietly moo for the diners and attract their attention. As he disappeared around the corner, my eyes were naturally drawn back to Pat and Lester.

“Where are you going to celebrate your birthday next year,” I asked Pat.

They looked at each other and smiled, and then she turned back toward me.

“Who knows - I’ll be 86 next year,” she said.

He smiled and said, proudly, “I’m 90 years old!”

I smiled back, and said “you don’t look a day over 89,” adding, “You’ll have a great breakfast here tomorrow morning.”

And then I looked back at my table, attracted to the tall, thin flute of Henriot sitting across from me, bubbles rising to the top of the untouched glass, disappearing into the air. Pressed up against it was my glass of Matrot. When I picked it up and gave it one last swirl, I saw that there were tears pouring slowly down the side of the glass, falling back into the wine.

Happy Birthday Pat, it was nice meeting you Lester.

Happy Anniversary K.

D

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bilrus   
I heard the dalmations have gone to doggy heaven.

I saw a report a while back, I think on CBS Sunday Morning, that the original dogs were not around any more but they train new generations of dogs. When the female is mature enough to be around guests on her own she gets her own pearl collar.

I wonder who gets custody.

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JPW   

While I realize that it is a real news story, I felt like I had to go to the kitchen and wash my hands after reading today's piece. The same feeling I get when I read the National Enquirer.

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Pat   
While I realize that it is a real news story, I felt like I had to go to the kitchen and wash my hands after reading today's piece. The same feeling I get when I read the National Enquirer.
I was kind of getting the feeling that Tom was happy the Style section got this one. I still have never been there. Around the time I was thinking seriously of trying to make a reservation, I started to hear people saying it's not so good anymore. For the enormous cost of going and staying there because it's far out, I'm not so interested in gambles.

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I wasn't aware that they had real estate holdings throughout the town; I'm beginning to wonder whether the little kozy korner diner (not actual name, as I can't remember it) on the main street was owned by the gents in question and thusly constrained to only providing grilled cheese and fries in order to keep out the gourmet competition. That was a damn fine grilled cheese and I can't recall it costing several hundred dollars, so if they're granted their freedom in the coming arbitration the Inn might have some local flavor fighting them for the next Beard awards.

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While I realize that it is a real news story, I felt like I had to go to the kitchen and wash my hands after reading today's piece. The same feeling I get when I read the National Enquirer.

I agree. Way more information then needed to be publicized.

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Waitman   
I was kind of getting the feeling that Tom was happy the Style section got this one. I still have never been there. Around the time I was thinking seriously of trying to make a reservation, I started to hear people saying it's not so good anymore. For the enormous cost of going and staying there because it's far out, I'm not so interested in gambles.

For whatever reason my two visits to the Inn never blew me away. For the money, I'd take Citronelle (or maybe even Palena, though the plush whorehouse-y over-the-top-ness of the the decor and accompanying unctuous service was part of the charm).

If you do decide to take a run out there to check on the post-litigation state of the place, however, note that a little B&B cottage industry has sprung up in the area to shelter those who can spend $500 on dinner, or $500 on lodging, but not both on the same night. Google is your friend.

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B.A.R.   
I agree. Way more information then needed to be publicized.
Really? If, just for the sake of argument, Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman were to divorce and subsequently dissolve their business partnerships, you don't think it should be part of the conversation?

I thought the wording of their "relationship" was a bit awkward, but it's a divorce. Those things can get kind of messy. :)

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Barbara   

The Reliable Source women also had their weekly online chat today and the subject came up.

Click

Apparently, a business partnership needs an escape clause, in the event of dissolution. These guys didn't bother with that part; sorta like Paul McCartney not getting Heather to sign a prenup. I've never been to the Inn and I don't know either one of the men; nevertheless, I am sorry it has come to this and also that the breakup has become so public.

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Really? If, just for the sake of argument, Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman were to divorce and subsequently dissolve their business partnerships, you don't think it should be part of the conversation?

I thought the wording of their "relationship" was a bit awkward, but it's a divorce. Those things can get kind of messy. :)

Just for the sake of comparison in the restaurant industry lets look at Tru in Chicago. Rick Tramonto and Gale Gands divorce got little attention. It just did not have the eyebrow raising impact that the O'Connell, Lynch relationship has. And the media is aware of that.

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If you do decide to take a run out there to check on the post-litigation state of the place, however, note that a little B&B cottage industry has sprung up in the area to shelter those who can spend $500 on dinner, or $500 on lodging, but not both on the same night. Google is your friend.

Does anybody know of a great B&B out there? I can google, but was interested in recommendations. All are appreciated.

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