Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Inn at Little Washington - 01/21/2010

309 Middle Street
Washington, VA 22747
(540) 675-3800‎

The words hotel food don't typically inspire confidence, overpriced room service or tired restaurants who know they have a captive audience and reduce their effort accordingly. However my visit to DC proved to be the exception to the rule; all the restaurants I planned to visit were in hotels. First up, the Inn at Little Washington, a romantic luxury hotel nestled in the a quaint colonial Virginia town surrounded by unspoiled countryside.

The restaurant is headed by the self-taught Patrick O'Connell who serves regional American cuisine with a whimsical twist. Chef O'Connell has longstanding ties to local farmers, originally built out of necessity, these ties afford him access to the freshest local produce. Arguably one of the best restaurants in the country, The Inn at Little Washington has won numerous awards. In recognition of his talents, Chef O'Connell was asked to cook for Queen Elizabeth when she visited Richmond.

Arriving in Washington, VA the town feels like an anachronism, but after two hours of winding unlit roads, the Inn just feels incredibly inviting. The staff rushed out to the car, greeting us warmly and brandishing umbrellas to ward off the snow. The foyer is decked out in wood with a fireplace up a half flight of stairs which leads to a small dining room with maybe 15 tables. When we arrived the restaurant was about 75% full, not bad for a Thursday night.

We started off with what might be the most interesting cocktail menu yet. There were only three drinks but each was completely unique to the Inn.

Alexander on the Ganges
Combining Hendricks Gin with cucumber, coriander, lime, dill, and yogurt, the restaurant bills it as a raita cocktail, though I found it more like a cucumber martini with a hint of yogurty tang.

Library of Congress
The only drink I have ever foundn that uses tobacco, the drink had a pronounced herbaceousness to go along with the alcoholic heat.

Bread - French Baguette and Rye with Pecan and Currant
I don't typically care for rye bread but the sweetness of the fruit was perfectly offset by a dusting of Kosher salt on the crust.

I can't remember the last time I was offered one set of amuses for the table. I only complain because they were so delicious that I didn't want to share.

Risotto Ball with Balsamic - Interesting use of balsamic to add a twist to the crisp hearty risotto.
Beet Purée with cranberries and horseradish - A surprisingly complex amuse, the flavor evolves, with the bite of the horseradish creeping in gradually to cut the initial cloying sweetness of the beet and cranberry.
Rock Shrimp with Guacamole and Red Pepper Remoulade - Didn't get to try this one but Kevin liked it
Lamb Carpaccio with Hummus - Perfectly tender lamb which would have been delicious enough on its own, but the hummus added a superb textural body.

Amuse: Apple and Rutabaga Soup - with Cheese Puff
A delicious starter the apple added a pronounced tang to the hearty savory soup, the perfect way to warm up in winter and the soft chewy gougère added a pronounced zest to the finish.

01: A Tin of Sin - America Ossetra Caviar with a Crab and Cucumber Rillette
Haton et Fils, Champagne, Blanc de Blancs, Cuvée René Haton, Damery, Premier Cru, Brut, France (N.V.)
A beautiful start to the meal, the caviar had a classic salinity which was delicious if one-dimensional on its own. However the cucumber added a crisp textural contrast and the crab added a creamy sweet body superbly softening intensity of the caviar.

02: A Quartet of Island Creek Oyster Slurpees
Bodegas O'Ventosela, Ribeiro, Gran Leiriña, Galicia Spain
I guarantee that you won't find these slurpees in any 7-Eleven. The first oyster combined passion fruit and tequila cutting, the syrupy sweet fruit with woody alcoholic heat. The second combined the clean brine of the oyster with a bracing crispness from the cucumber slurpee. Next up was a the most traditional, with a tangy balsamic cocktail sauce. Last up was a wasabi slurpee that was surprisingly sweet on the attack but finished with the classic wasabi flavor.

03: Maine Diver's Scallop - Sautéed with Capers, Brown Butter and Lemon with Tiny Tomato Gnocchi
Viñedos de Ithaca, Priorat, Odysseus, Catalunya, Spain
Scallops and brown butter is a classic pairing, but the sweet aromatic butter can often overpower the scallop's natural flavor. Though I don't typically like capers, I thought these had just the right amount of acidity to draw out the salinity of the scallop. The tomato gnocchi was a fun little side, adding a sticky chewiness to the otherwise lean dish.

Supplement 01: Chilled Petals of Veal Tongue Ravigote - with Fresh Horseradish
Jermann, Pinot Grigio, 2007
Just as I prefer ordinary beef to veal, the same is true when talking about their respective tongues. Beef tongue has a snappiness and complex meatiness with a hint of unctuous organ meat. In my two experiences with veal tongue, the texture has been a bit flabby and the flavor one dimensional, similar to a canned smoked ham, leaving the accouterments to provide most of the flavor. My favorite part of this course was the crisp flat bread which tasted remarkably like Papadam.

Supplement 02: A Marriage of Hot and Cold Foie Gras - with Sauternes Jelly and House Made Fig Marmalade
Martin Schaetzel, Tokay Pinot Gris, Marckrain, Grand Cru
Fairly typical presentations of hot and cold foie gras, but with nothing to tie the two together, these are just competent preparations of foie.

04: Potato Wrapped Tuna Wellington - with Caponata Ravioli and Sauce Béarnaise
Domaine de Bel Air, Chino, La Croix Boisée, France
One of Chef O'Connell's trademarks is replacing components of a traditional dish, in this case, substituting potato and tuna in the classic beef wellington. I recently had a combination of fried potato and fish at Lazy Ox, and found that the delicate raw fish didn't stand up well to the weight of the potato. However the cooked tuna had enough substance to pair nicely with the crispy shell, yet remained fairly tender and juicy. Stuffed inside the ravioli was caponata, the acidic mix served to cut the weight of the Wellington and Béarnaise.

Supplement 03: Curry Dusted Veal Sweetbreads - with Homemade Apple Sauce
La Rioja Alta, Viña Alberdi Riserva, 2002
The sweetbreads proved to leaner than normal, exhibiting the typical offaly charm but with a drier texture. The addition of curry and apple sauce proved intriguing, adding a spicy sweetness while the ham added a lingering smoky salinity.

05: Pan Seared Four Story Hill Farm's Pekin Duck Breast - on Butternut Squash Risotto with Caramelized Endive
Cellar Cecilio, Priorat, L'Espill, Catalunya, Spain
A phenomenally prepared duck, the tender meat was imbued with an untiousness from the thin layer of fat. The creamy risotto provided a hearty Autumnal base while the lush bitterness of the endive was absolutely critical to make the denseness of the other two parts managable.

06: Our Lilliputian Passion Fruit Dreamsicle
There is something quintessentially childlike about popsicles, but at the Inn popsicles aren't just for kids, the cool vanilla and lively passion fruit combined perfectly with the toasty coconut which provided a nuttiness and textural contrast.

07: A Duet of Soufflés: Warm Hazelnut and Frozen Raspberry
Cellar Xavier Clua, Garatxa, Terra Alta, Millenium Dolce, Catalunya, Spain
After the playfulness of the popsicle, the soufflés seem downright dull. Like the foie gras, the two soufflés were competently made but combining them didn't add anything to the experience. They were equally good on their own or combined together.

Petit Fours
Our last course came in a cardboard replica of the restaurant, and consisted of a delicious mix of chocolates, cookies, and fruit preserves.

Given the old colonial feel of the place, you'd expect a very proper dining experience, but the staff is genuinely warm and the chef makes a point to inject a lively air to the food. A couple of the dishes are truly exceptional but even those that didn't wow me tasted delicious, they just lacked the elan so obviously present in the best courses. I'd highly recommend a visit and the risk of an icy death on a winding unlit back road so be it is a small price to pay.


Dave -nibbleanibble said...

What a fine dining experience, the Lamb Carpaccio with Hummus looked quite delightful.

Epicuryan said...

It was a wonderful dinner though the drive was quite harrowing. I actually wish the lamb was a full course instead of a canape, would make a great appetizer.