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The Inn at Little Washington
It may surprise you to know that no less than 28 towns in the United States carry the distinguished name of Washington. But, Little Washington -- lying about 70 miles west of Washington, DC -- is proud to distinguish itself among its other namesakes. It was the very first Washington to be named after a young surveyor named George who mapped out the city in 1749. (He was a surveyor before becoming a president).
But even though the small Virginia town carries a big name, it is the Inn at Little Washington that has carried on the tradition of designating this "first" Washington as the destination beyond DC. It is at once a lodging destination and a dining must.
A detour off US Highway 211 to the Inn immerses the visitor in a world of luxury and relaxation where the day-to-day grind is left at the door. Period. In fact, you know you've reached the Inn at Little Washington because there is no sign, no indication that you are there. Subtlety is their specialty (save for perhaps the prices), and guests seeking refuge are not disappointed.
Upon arrival, travelers are greeted at their cars by hotel employees in a way that is reminiscent of grandparents bursting out of the house at the first sight of their children and grandchildren. You feel just like those kids.
Unfortunately, the Inn's "grandparents," owners Reinhardt Lynch and Patrick O'Connell, were not there during our visit, but for good reason. They were in Georgia picking up their fifth double, Mobile five-star award given for excellence in both their hotel and their restaurant. Indeed, a casual glance at almost every wall of the Inn indicates that they are no strangers to awards, the most prestigious being the James Beard Foundation's 1993 award for the best restaurant in America. That's as good as the Oscar for Best Picture in the world of food.
To enter the Inn is to be transported to another place and time. The Victorian design, assembled by a London-based set designer, creates an intimate ambiance and a welcome respite for the road-weary traveler. The two-story sitting room, presided over by a huge portrait of French writer and bon vivant Brillat-Saverin and graced with an over-sized marble fireplace, is a comfortable place to sit and take in the complimentary afternoon tea, miniature scones, and tartlets provided for guests of the Inn.
The narrow staircase, just off the sitting room, leads guests to most of the eleven rooms and suites. Another suite and room are located in a building across the street from the Inn. While not terribly large, many of the rooms offer a gentle blend of modern-day conveniences: heated towel racks, bottled Ty Nant water, air conditioning, with a nod to the past: late nineteenth century furniture, fabrics, and wallpaper styles.
Prices are primarily determined by the size of the room, but even the smallest rooms command a heart-stopping amount. Depending on the night (week nights are less expensive), a room will cost anywhere from $370.00 to $890.00. This includes a lovely breakfast of pastries, croissants, fresh fruit, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and coffee or tea. A separate breakfast menu is also available, but that is not part of the room price.
It would probably be safe to say that the main reason people come from all over the world to visit the Inn at Little Washington is, simply, the food. It's exquisite, imaginative, and delicious. But again, take stock of your credit card balance before indulging as the four-course, prix fixe meal costs from $128.00 to $168.00 per person (not including wine, tax, and tip) depending on the night of the week you visit. Saturday night is the most expensive. Still, in this fairy tale setting it hardly seems to matter.
The meal begins with a couple of small tasting items brought to your table shortly after you are seated. These might include a sesame-crusted puff pastry turnover filled with barbecued rabbit, or little toast rounds topped with a smoked oyster and crowned with toasted almonds and a curried creme fraiche.
Next comes the positively addictive homemade bread. The poppy seed rolls are thick, chewy and slightly sour. But the "piece de resistance" (literally) is the slice of tiny rye bread studded with currants and nuts and topped with poppy seeds and kosher salt. It doesn't help that the exceedingly attentive bread supplier manages to sashay by the tables so often that you lose count of just how much of the filling carbohydrates you're ingesting. It is, however, a sweet pleasure, and I am still trying to devise a way to import these special loaves directly to my home.
One of the best things about a meal at the Inn at Little Washington is the large variety of choices, despite the fact it's a set menu. For starters, one can choose a shrimp risotto (lovely grains of arborio rice topped with two pieces of in-the-shell shrimp, oyster mushrooms, and Virginia country ham) or, the crispy seared foie gras (served on a small wedge of grilled polenta and perched atop a thin piece of local ham surrounded by a black currant sauce). Each dish provides a glimpse of the clever hand of Executive Chef Patrick O'Connell. Other starters include a lobster napoleon, or the Inn's ode to the diversity of salmon in the "salmon five ways" starter which includes everything from poached to raw to smoked salmon.
Starters are followed by a demitasse of soup. This could be anything from a white bean soup to a rosemary-infused apple cider. While it's nice to have a break in the action, the soups tend to be a bit rich.
Mercifully, there are only three selections from which to choose for the next course: two green salads or a sorbet. The salads represent everything that's good about today's leafy inventions. The Belgian endive is accompanied by slices of poached pear, dried prunes, spicy cayenne-coated walnuts, and blue cheese. The coarse greens are topped with a peppery watercress that has been mixed with a light vinaigrette, tiny pieces of crispy bacon, and miniature croutons. It's a lot for one salad, but the sweet, tangy, and spicy flavors meld together beautifully. The chopped romaine salad with oven-dried tomatoes is mixed with a creamy garlic dressing, reminiscent of a Caesar salad, though it's a bit heavy on the mayonnaise.
Equally impressive was the extensive wine list. No less than twelve-thousand bottles grace the Inn's cellar, amounting to just under nine-hundred different kinds of wines. The wine steward is like a character out of central casting -- French and oh-so-passionate about his wines. He is, however, no character at all (though he is French). He knows his wines and quite ably steered us to the perfect wine on each occasion.
In addition to the six pages of Burgundy offerings, the wine list includes an entire page of wines from the best wineries of Virginia, an extensive California list, and choices from each of the regions comprising both the Rhone and Bordeaux. There is, it seems, a wine for every food that appears on the menu.
If the food is the reason people venture to this out-of-the-way haven, the main courses are the reason they come back. The barbecued, boneless rack of lamb in a pecan crust served with airy strings of fried sweet potatoes tastes as if it's been marinating for a month. The medallions of lamb are as tender as a piece of butter and flavorful from crust to center. The filet mignon of rare tuna topped with duck foie gras is a salute to O'Connell's genius. The pairing of the thick, meaty fish and the delicate foie gras is a combination that brings out the best of both meats, even if one is by land and the other by sea. The beurre rouge that surrounds the star ingredients offers tastes to behold: sweet, rich, and intense. It's a perfect way to bring the dish together, not to mention leave the diner begging for more.
Several other seafood dishes appear on the menu, including a roasted rock fish served with cous cous, a Maine lobster accompanied by grapefruit and orzo, and an Arctic char ( a cold water stream fish) that's encrusted in seasonal black truffle pieces and wrapped in a potato lining.
Beef tenderloin with garlic polenta, veal medallions with wild mushrooms and fettucine, roast venison and greens, and an unusual veal "sandwich" consisting of veal and veal sweetbreads served with oyster mushrooms, country ham, and an onion-plum confiture round out the menu.
As if that wasn't enough, a dessert menu follows offering no less than thirteen choices. The signature dish is a Rhubarb Pizza. Fresh rhubarb soaked in a strawberry sauce is placed in a single layer atop a very thin round of croissant pastry and baked. The ginger ice cream that accompanies it is brought to the table separately so that the hot-from-the-oven "pizza" won't melt the ice cream. The dessert that leaves people talking is the Seven Deadly Sins, a sampler of tortes, tarts, and chocolates. Variations on standards, such as a rosemary-scented creme brul»e and a Jack Daniel's bread pudding, help lend excitement to the mind-boggling array of choices.
Finally, coffee or tea is served and is accompanied by a tiny picnic basket filled with chocolates and dime-sized, melt-in-your-mouth butter cookies. It's a feast few can walk away from without that too-full feeling. But what a nice feeling it is. And how nice it is to know that all you have to do is follow the velvet-lined banisters to the second floor, enter your room, and fall asleep in a splendor that erases any memories of home.
Main & Middle Streets
Washington, VA, 22747