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
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
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
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
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
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.
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 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
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
Encrusted with Herbs, Baby Brussels, Garlic Soufflé, Tomato, Butter Sauce with
Ginger and Garlic. and
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
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
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
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.