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2004
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04-Whipped Cream Rises to the Surface.jpg

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Inn at Little Washington, Washington, VA, tasted on February 6, 2004 — We were already going out to the Washington, D.C. area for my sister's graduation from high school. Since my parents live outside DC in the Maryland suburbs, going to visit them does not typically involve going out for great food. We don't tend to have time to go to D.C., and Rockville, MD has a thick coating of strip malls with mediocre chain restaurants and lousy sushi places. But as always, I'm determined to have at least one interesting food experience on every trip outside Seattle. I figure it's my only chance to make sure tastingmenu.com stays interesting to people who live outside of the 206 area code. The Inn at Little Washington had crossed my radar a few times. Situated 72 miles west of D.C. it's one of those cute little olde towne bed and breakfast type places in a tiny little town in the low rolling landscape of Northern Virginia. The only difference is that this little inn belongs to the high end Relais and Chateaux affiliation of super fancy hotels and houses what's commonly mentioned as the best restaurant in the D.C. area, and one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. Our choice was clear.

We rolled in during a rainstorm that for some reason had almost shut down the greater Washington D.C. area. They're not used to inclement weather there apparently. After a tour of the adorable premises, we got a pair of glasses filled with sparkling wine and passionfruit. Sort of a passionfruit mimosa which was yummy, and got to hang out in our room until dinner.

Debbie loves room service, so even though we were going to eat a big meal soon she had to order something. A few minutes later some of the best hot chocolate I've ever had arrived at our door. Served in a small teapot alongside a cup that already had a dollop of whipped cream and two little cigarettes of dark and white chocolate respectively. We poured some of the hot chocolate into the cup, watched the cigarettes dissolve, and marveled at the creaminess that was forming in the cup. After filling the cup and setting the pot down, the dollop of whipped cream surfaced like a submarine after a long dive. it was fully coated in the thick liquid of the hot chocolate, but seemed to have survived the ordeal more or less in tact. The faint traces of the dark chocolate cigarette were just visible on the side of the cream. Then we tasted it. It was pretty much the best hot chocolate we'd ever had. It had a thickness which was almost disarming. As much as your enjoying the creaminess you're almost distracted wondering how they got the texture to be so luxurious. Then, after a moment, the core of chocolate flavor hits your tongue. The only thing we might wonder about is that the hot chocolate wasn't quite  hot enough. Turns out (after refilling the cup) that in fact it was quite hot, but the whipped cream cooled it down a bit in that first draught. Maybe they could have made it even hotter to compensate for the whipped cream. Though I asked for the whipped cream so I'm not sure they make it that way by default. Then again, hot chocolate wasn't on the room service menu so maybe they just made it for us on the spot anyway. Knowing how hard it is to find special food experiences, I tried not to get my hopes up, but couldn't help thinking how nice it would be if the hot chocolate was a sign of things to come.

After a little rest it was time for dinner. We headed down from our room  to the lobby and were escorted towards the kitchen. Before we entered, our guide stopped us at a set of double doors and said "Robert Mondavi once referred to our chef Patrick O'Connell as the Pope of American Cuisine". On the heels of his introduction the doors opened to reveal a short hallway occupied by a waiter dressed in what I can only describe as an altar boy outfit. He swung a lantern-like incense burning container back and forth as he led us into the kitchen. There we were greeted by the kitchen staff all standing at attention in a row. We started laughing a bit as the whole thing felt a little bit silly. Though as we made our way to our table (there are two tables for 6 in the kitchen) I ended up thinking that the shtick was cute after all. They seemed to have a sense of humor, and that's always nice. I did feel a little bad for the cooks having to wait for us to make our entrance before they could go back to work. The kitchen is a busy place where timing is everything. Neglecting their cooking for 60-90 seconds while we make our way in is no small sacrifice. The incense, the recording of monks chanting playing over the kitchen sound system, and the Catholic-ish motif reminded me of visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This is the church that is built around the spot where Jesus is supposed to have been buried. I remarked that the kitchen smelled like church, but nobody seemed to know what I was talking about. I suppose when the only church you've really been to is one of the originals, located in Jerusalem, and filled with incense and ancient monks then your scope of reference is not that relevant for most other folks. Still, the effect was complete for me. Debbie too was affected as she said that if they tried to baptize us next, we'd have to skip out before the food arrived. When the copper bowl and pitcher arrived filled with rosewater we started to wonder. But the waiter informed us that there was a Moroccan tradition of washing your hands with rosewater before a meal. (Also, don't forget the large silver water goblets on the rustic table, made me feel like Henry VIII wanting for an enormous bone to gnaw on.) A little corny? Yes. But how can I begrudge them showing a little character. You want that in the food, why not in the ritual surrounding the food.

The kitchen (in which we ate) is only 4 or 5 years old as we were told. And it was quite beautiful. Brushed aluminum, brass and green everywhere. There was some sort of a quote or motto printed on the walls just below the ceiling: "Anticipation + Trepidation + Inspection + Fulfillment + Evaluation". The "+"s are mine, sort of. They were just icons between the words in the shape of plus signs, and I'm not sure they were supposed to imply some sort of addition. I kept wondering what this meant. I hypothesized that it might be directed at the staff reminding them what goes through the minds of customers out in the dining room as their food is being prepared in the kitchen. Kind of like a permanent exhibition of one of those "inspirational" management posters you sometimes see in businesses. Whatever it meant, I can only assume it was important to the Chef. And ultimately it's the food that will determine whether the motto was helpful or not.

Without missing a beat some pre-meal snacks showed up. First a cylinder filled with Tempura Green Beans with Thai Dipping Sauce. The tempura were seasoned nicely, and the fish sauce based dipping sauce was an unexpected (non-traditional) and tasty touch. Next to the beans was a a basket of Parmesan Tuiles. We got a generous number of them, they were tangy, and just a touch oily, but very good.

That wasn't enough apparently to get us warmed up for dinner as a tray of amuse bouche showed up in short order. These included a falafel-like (in appearance) fried ball filled with delicious red wine risotto and black pepper on a long long finish; a lox, herb, and capers on rye morsel that was good; some ham on a creamy textured corn muffin; a yummy thick slice of bacon atop another canape; a fried tuna cake with capers on a cracker - salty goodness; and some kind of what tasted like tomato preserve with capers, and parmesan, all sitting on a puff pastry. The preserve was really juicy, had a beautiful texture, and was bursting with flavor. All in all things were shaping up nicely. The yummy crusty bread that arrived didn't hurt either.

The menus had a wealth of choices. Tasting menus, vegetarian tasting menus, and a large a la carte selection. There really wasn't any question that we would get the tasting menu. But we wanted even more diversity. And sure enough they were happy to accommodate our request. We ended up with two completely different tasting menus with Debbie and I each trying from both sets of dishes in each course. We ate tried a total of 17 items not including the 8-10 desserts. It was very nice of them to do that on such short notice for us.

Soup was first. Debbie got Rutabaga and Apple Soup and I got Duck Consommé. The apple rutabaga soup was creamy warm, a little bit sweet, a little bit savory, and its texture was like a warm milkshake in a good way. The consommé was pretty much fantastic. It looked like a cup of coffee with its dark color. The flavor was rich and almost gamey. It was a quality that wasn't Debbie's favorite, but one that I found special and unique. Really memorable. (I wonder if they clarified the consommé with duck meat. I would assume so.)

Next up was Shaved Virginia Ham with Parmesan and Apple Shavings and Olive Oil. I was excited to see the local ingredients. But in fact the ham was kind of boring. Luckily, the ham was followed by Tuna Sashimi with Daikon Radish Coulis and Cucumber Sorbet. The tuna would have been very good on its own but the cucumber sorbet made it special. Tuna sashimi on a non-Japanese menu has pretty much become a cliché. But the cold combined with a touch of sweet and sour in the sauce and wasabi on the daikon was great.

After the tuna we got Charred Kauwai Shrimp and Onions with Mango Mint Salsa. This was pretty much the best shrimp/avocado/mango dish that can exist. It was like Vegas - the perfect archetype of a cliché dish. The balsamic was a nice touch. Good but not special. It was almost a pattern, but the following dish again raised the bar - Sorrel Jelly with Crème Fraiche and Oscietra Caviar. There were creamy sour bursts of herby jelly and more bursts of salty ocean. Super good. They also gave us two spoons so we could split the caviar. Sweet.

Next up: Fricassee of Maine Lobster with Potato Gnocchi, Clamshell Mushrooms, Grapes, Pearl Onions, and Curried Walnuts. The lobster was high quality and interesting like a piece of art. I'm glad I saw it though I didn't quite love or hate it. It was just interesting. We also got Maine Diver's Scallop Encrusted with Black Sesame Seeds on Cauliflower Puree with a Veal Stock Reduction. The scallop was great. The sesame flavor was fresh new and interesting. The veal stock was warm and smooth, and the puree was also super smooth. Yummy.

Foie gras was up next - times two: Marriage of Hot and Cold Foie Gras with Homemade Pickled Cherries. First was Pan-Seared Foie Gras and Duck with Raisin Gastrique. Next was Chilled Goose Foie Gras with Sauterne Aspic and House Marinated Cherries. The foie gras dish (I would have written the plural of foie gras but I'm not entirely sure what it is) hit all the right notes and were well executed. We also got the Pan-Seared Lobster with Lobster Stock, Rosemary Cream, Garden Vegetables, and Garlic Flan.  The Lobster was good but the garlic flan was special and made the dish great.

The dishes kept coming: Barolo Red Wine Risotto with Aged Parmigiano and Shaved Black Truffle; Squab with Blackberry Garlic Polenta, and Blackberry Sauce; Duck braised with Asian Spices with Foie Gras, Wilted Watercress, Duck Consommé, and Mandarin Orange; and Colorado lamb Encrusted with Herbs, Baby Brussels, Garlic Soufflé, Tomato, Butter Sauce with Ginger and Garlic. and Parsnips au Gratin.

The risotto had a strong (and tasty) wine flavor. The Squab reminded me of Thanksgiving with the smooth/mashed starch and sour fruit components. Regarding the duck, Debbie thought the duck itself was very good and the oranges were a nice touch. The foie gras was excellent as well though to be honest the combination of ingredients in this dish didn't quite hang together as a complete plate. The lamb was very good and its sauce was special (no surprise as it was made of butter). the brussels sprouts were crisp and fresh, and the . parsnips were like a crunchy though not really enjoyable macaroni and cheese. Debbie pointed out that the parsnip just wasn't cheesy enough.

For those readers who have made it this far, a bit of self-pity. If you're feeling full just reading about this meal, imagine what it was like to eat this much food. But this is the extent to which we go to help you the reader experience these meals vicariously. Not a true sacrifice you say? Ok, I guess we have nothing to complain about.

Dessert was a blur. A tasty blur. For Debbie's birthday we got Mint Ice Cream with a Chocolate Marzipan message; Warm Chocolate Cake, and Crème Anglaise; Lemon Meringue with Raspberry Sauce; Passion Fruit Panna Cotta; White Chocolate Ice Cream with Dark Chocolate Sponge Cake and Chocolate Sauce; an Apple Tartlett; Butter Pecan Ice Cream with Caramel Sauce; and Coconut Ice Cream with Chocolate Coconut, and Macadamia Coating. Much of it was quite delicious.

Overall the meal was a mix of some really delicious dishes, some decent dishes, and kitsch. There are many restaurants with a shtick. And ultimately it doesn't bother me, even if it's cheesy as long as the food rocks. And when the food isn't good, then the "traditions" become an affectation. I'll admit the "traditions" at the Inn at Little Washington sometimes bordered on a little wacky, but the food did come through in the end. For example, the proprietors apparently love their dogs. Maybe it's that I have a pair of cats, but there was a Dalmatian theme all over the place. The aprons had spots as did all the chef pants. The combination of the dogs, the motto on the wall, the church-like entry scene... ...it ended up being character as overall there were several dishes we ate that were really memorable. The fact that the kitchen did two separate tasting menus for us so we could try double the dishes was really generous and flexible as well. And even if the chef was on premises though not in the kitchen, the meal was excellent. Though given the several hundred dollar premium they charged us for eating in the kitchen, you'd think the chef could at least have put in an appearance. I've never eaten at a restaurant where they charge extra for this. Not cool. Still, the food was very good. And to be quite honest, I'd recommend the trip out to the Virginia countryside for the hot chocolate alone. Luckily, there's a lot more than great hot chocolate at The Inn at Little Washington.

 


     
     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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Tastingmenu is focused on superlative restaurant experiences from two perspectives: behind the plate and behind the stove. Tastingmenu is written by Hillel (professional eater) and Dana (up-and-coming professional chef) in Seattle, Washington.


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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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