INN-credible INN-dulgence: A Meal of a Lifetime At the Inn at Little Washington

“Eating at the Inn at Little Washington is like watching a show,” a server told us that a diner once commented.

What’s a show without popcorn? That was chef-owner Patrick O’Connell’s response.

His twist? Truffle popcorn, no less. Popcorn tossed in truffle oil, with fresh truffle shaved on top by a white-gloved waiter.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, sets the scene for a beautifully staged dinner at the Washington, Va., restaurant.

O’Connell says he was “supposed to have become an actor,” and now each night the restaurant allows him to be “producer, director, set designer and lead player,” according to his website. He and the inn have won numerous awards, stars and accolades in the past three decades – four stars from the 2011 Forbes Travel Guide, the Five Diamond Award from the American Automobile Association, five James Beard Awards, and winemaker Robert Mondavi called O’Connell “the pope of American Cuisine.”

What appears to be a historic inn was a gas station back in 1978 when O’Connell decided to open the restaurant. Joyce Evans, a British set designer, actually decorated the inn, we were told.

“I bought a shack at 21; I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up,” O’Connell said. “I believe that everyone has a geographical spot, and as soon as you find it, everything falls into place.”

Obviously, his geographical spot is Washington, Va., the very first town in America to be called Washington, which was originally surveyed by George himself in 1769.

“There’s something about country life; staying warm and dry and having something to eat,” he said from his kitchen at the inn after our indulgent dinner.

The kitchen includes two coveted chef’s tables that can be reserved – at a premium price, of course – and an enormous Vulcan range that arrived a little over a decade ago after being built to order in France.

I also arrived at the Inn at Little Washington a little over a decade ago for the first time, to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. We returned for our 30th anniversary last month.

I must say, once every 10 years is just not often enough for a meal as exquisite as what they serve.

It was even better the second time.

We were led to probably the best table in the house – with the exception of the chef’s tables – a cozy, cushy corner, with a salmon-hued fringed lamp shade above. The decor is as rich as the food, with lush tapestries and velvety, wine-colored banquettes and chairs. But as beautiful as the interior is, O’Connell’s culinary creations take center stage.

The ingredients alone are enough to entice – fois gras, caviar, squab, lamb confit, shishito peppers, shaved black truffle, veal sweetbreads, salsify puree, Lilliputian shrimp dumplings – many from his own garden out back or from nearby farms. (He promoted “farm to table” long before it came en vogue.)

But it is the way Chef O’Connell puts them together that is sublime.

It certainly is way more than just “something to eat.”

O’Connell told me that he opened his restaurant “not with any business plan in mind, but with a passion in mind.”

Food is his passion – lucky for those who have the privilege of dining there.

A sampling of his masterpieces:

  • Carpaccio of herb crusted baby lamb with Caesar salad ice cream
  • A marriage of hot and cold foie gras with sauternes jelly and quince marmalade
  • Fricassee of lobster with potato gnocchi, green grapes and curried walnuts
  • Maine day-boat scallop sauteed with tomato gnocchi, capers, brown butter and lemon
  • Truffle-dusted Hawaiian yellow tail saute on rutabaga puree with artichokes and chanterelles
  • Bitter chocolate-dusted Border Springs lamb loin with salsify puree on early autumn ratatoulle

And, not only is the chef creative, he’s got a great sense of humor, as proven by this selection:

  • Pepper-Crusted Tuna Pretending to be a Filet Mignon, capped with seared duck foie gras on charred onions with a burgundy butter sauce.

There are more … which is the problem. What to order? The choices are so difficult because everything sounds amazing.

When presented with three choices of foie gras, I knew I’d have to have at least one. Black truffle appears on the menu several times, kicking up even the most ordinary item a notch or 10.

Macaroni and cheese with Virginia country ham and shaved black truffle was a second-course item I would’ve have loved to have tried. Another diner reported it was incredible.

Shaved black truffle also turned our very first tidbit into something amazing, as I mentioned at the start. The popcorn, served in its miniature popcorn box, was delicious with our champagne.

Next, we were served A Shot of Liquid Autumn – a tiny cordial mug filled with apple rutabaga soup. A hint of maple syrup is the taste treat’s secret ingredient. A miniature cheese biscuit accompanied the silky slurp.

Caviar Wafers – potato chips sandwiched around Ossetra caviar and creme fraiche – came standing on end on a piece of slate; shiny, black stones were strategically placed to aid in the display. The restaurant’s maitre d’ noted they glued the stones to the platter so patrons could not mistakenly snack on them.

After we enjoyed our little nibbles, it was time for the big decisions – our first, second and third courses.

Finally, with a little help from our very pleasant waitress, I decided on:

  • Chilled Maine Lobster with Cucumber Sorbet Shipwrecked in the Vegetable Garden; seared duck fois gras on a salad of frisee, house-made bacon and lamb confit with a poached egg from our hen house and shaved black truffle; and curry-dusted veal sweatbreads with homemade applesauce, Virginia country ham and pappardelle pasta.

My husband Bruce chose:

  • A melange of spicy big eye tuna with avocado, mango, crispy shallots and sake-yuzu sorbet; blueberry squab, a grilled breast of young pigeon marinated in blueberry vinegar on a zucchini crepe; and milk-fed organic veal loin with bone marrow custard, caramelized fennel and fennel puree.

We asked the staff to choose the accompanying wines. I wasn’t quite ready for another glass when my duck fois gras dish arrived. “How about just a little splash of red,” our waitress offered.

After a meal like that, there’s really no room for dessert. But with the desserts offered, there’s really no way turn them down, either.

More decisions. Sweet, sweet decisions.

The painter’s palette of autumn sorbets or the warm chocolate bread pudding with almond ice cream perfumed with black truffle? The triple cream cheesecake with roasted figs and champagne-concord grape sorbet or the southern butter pecan ice cream sandwich with bittersweet chocolate and hot caramel sauce? The warm local granny smith apple and quince tart with calvados ice cream or the cocoa nib napoleon with caramelized bananas, chocolate mousse and coconut sorbet with caramel lime sauce?

Another choice is the fromager’s cheese selection on a “mooooo-vable” cart.

It’s a cow actually, a wooden cow named Faira with a tray full of cheeses on top. There is a “resident cheese whiz,” who helps with the selections.

Well, as much as I do like cheese, it’s no replacement for chocolate.

I decided on the ice cream sandwich; Bruce decided on the cheese cake.

But then, out came a gorgeous white pedestal platter. Sitting on top was a chocolate package, with gold leaf ribbons, and a marzipan ribbon with, in more gold leaf, “Happy Anniversary.”

It was too beautiful to eat.

But we did.

Our waitress sliced it open to reveal a green pistachio and white chocolate checkerboard of ice creams.

We canceled the ice cream sandwich, but we still let her bring us the cheesecake with grilled figs.

I was glad we had a bit of a walk back to our inn.

We didn’t order cocktails, because our waitress had offered the bubbly for our anniversary. But the cocktail menu is as creative as the dinner menu. A brief history of the how cocktails came to be named is explained on the menu, and the cocktails are divided into “Flutes,” “Straight Up” and “On the Rocks.”

I’m sure I would’ve gone with the Warm Welcome, listed under “Flutes.” Green apple and sacred basil puree with a dash of St. Germain elderflower liqueur topped with Inn at Little Washington brut certainly would’ve been a warm welcome!

The Virginia Vesper, a “Straight Up” cocktail may have been my second choice: local Watershed gin and Cirrus vodka shaken with Lillet Blonde.

A couple of the “On the Rocks” choices sounded tasty: La Gitana manzanilla fino sherry, Bushnell VSOP calvados, lemon verbena syrup and fresh sage all are mixed together for the Andalucian Apperitif; The Four Horseman is Barbancourt Eight-Year Rhum, Luxardo maraschino, grapefruit syrup and fresh lime.

Despite every wonderful morsel of food, the piece de resistance of the evening was when Chef O’Connell invited us into the kitchen after our meal. We shook his hand, chatted a bit, and he showed us around the kitchen.

“Next time,” he said, “You’ll have to sit at the chef’s table.”

Great idea.

I am already looking forward to Chef O’Connell’s encore.