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Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Inn at Little Washington

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2011 #2, Washingtonian 2010 #11, Washingtonian 2009 #8, Washingtonian 2008 #6
Neighborhood: Washington, Virginia

The Setup

Both Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas and I were planning a surprise for one another, her for my birthday, me for the holidays. I was at her house when I noticed on her laptop the Washingtonian Top 100. Worried that we might be planning the same thing, we agreed to say where we had gotten a reservation on the count of 3: “1…2… The Inn at Little Washington!”

The Vibe

The Inn, the celebrated and historic restaurant, sits an hour and a half outside the city proper, so it takes a little effort to get out there. But when you do, what a treat. Washington, VA is a charming two street town full of old colonial homes and friendly people. At the northern end of the town is the Inn, a mammoth building that on its exterior, fits in really well with the rest of the town.

The inside though is like some magic wonderland of opulence. This is the very picture of what I imagine high-end French dining rooms were like in the Escoffier era. Tables are generally far from what another (though the two-tops in the Garden Room are basically on top of one another), and each has a fringed red lamp hanging over top of it. The room is kept dimly lit but there are plenty of open windows to the garden outside. Everything is patterned with Louis XIV style curlicues or rococo stylings, and everything is luxurious and the very epitome of “eating up,” “hospitality” and “feeling pampered.” And if you want a real treat, ask for a tour of the “most beautiful kitchen in the country.” Words can’t understate how captivating the surroundings are in terms of “this is what luxury feels like.”

The service though started off real bumpy: for one they wrote the wrong name on the personalized menu, which wouldn’t nearly be as upsetting, if not for the curious way they did it (the equivalent would be like if my name were Mary-Kate Smith, and they wrote welcome to the Mary party!). For another, our first course came without its wine pairing, a fact that wasn’t noticed until we had already finished it; of course, that meant the second pairing came 10 minutes before its own dish.

Still, midway through, the service took a 180, leading to amazing touches of warmth and friendliness from the sommelier who told me that she apologized that everyone kept tripping on my foot (which I had lazily been sticking out from underneath the table) and told me she would put a note in that I liked to stretch out; to the maître d’fromage who not only was incredibly knowledgeable and helpful, but also was incredibly charming and told some of the best cheese jokes ever; to the fact that the valet had our car already running and warm when we left the restaurant. Incredibly nice.

The Food

To start the night, were three amuse bouches: first, a beet macaron with salmon mousse replacing the cream, second a bloody mary gelee, and the third a foie gras mousse between chocolate necco wafers. These were fun and inventive, with the foie being our favorite for its combination of savory and sweet.

Under the theory that this was a special occasion, and having this write-up in mind, I convinced Texas to go for the tasting menu with pairing (a decision which gave her substantial sticker shock, but she decided she was game for it, though likely helped by the fish to meat ratio). While she was busy growing increasingly uncomfortable with what she had just agreed to came our first bite: truffled popcorn, light fresh-tasting popcorn which had black truffle shaved tableside onto it. The Inn is nothing if not generous about the amount of black truffle it uses; a good third of what was shaved ended up on the tablecloth. The popcorn was better than your average movie theater bag, which had nothing to do with the truffle (though that certainly made it that much better), but instead resulting in perfect popping and lightness.

If that wasn’t enough, next came the final amuse bouche, what Chef O’Connell calls “liquid autumn”: a shot glass of warm apple-rutabega soup. The taste and look was reminiscent of butternut squash soup, but sweeter and with more substance on the back end. The soup does in fact remind you of a beautiful October day, with its warmth and its lean towards seasonal ingredients; it was rich without becoming overpowering. This soup was so good that the next day we bought the cookbook (though of course, we’d find out the recipe is online).

Continuing the trend of extravagance was our first real course, called "A Tin of Sin": ossetra caviar in a tin on top of a cold crab and cucumber rillette, paired with a Boizel brut champagne (the one that came after the meal). The caviar was refreshing, a characteristic augmented by the crisp, cold, and tasty cream underneath. Even Texas, who self-admits that her palate isn't refined enough for caviar, had to begrudgingly admit that the salt of the caviar was balanced out by the smoothness of the rillette.

Perhaps the dish of the evening (Month? Year?) came next: day boat bay scallops lightly sauteed with shishito peppers, charred onions, and house chorizo. Oh my, where to start? Perhaps with the immaculately seared scallops which left a beautiful char on the outside that provided the perfect crispy, caramelized foil to the tender insides. Or maybe it should be the peppers, which were smooth and slippery and wonderfully soft, like a poached pear. Or the way the whole dish was altogether light and simple, but exceedingly satisfying and complex. Paired with a 2008 Igreco Filu greco bianco, it was by far the best thing I had that night; even the most cynical scallops hater would be converted by this dish. I can still taste the satisfying mix of textures and savory flavors right now.

Next up was a filet of sauteed black cod with shrimp dumplings and micro mushrooms on a lemon vodka sauce (paired with a 2006 Fontaine-Gagnard chassagne-montrachet). This dish probably suffered a bit from being right behind a dish of such magnitude like the scallops. Why do I say that? Well for one, in retrospect the ingredients were all solid. The fish filet, like the scallops, was seared beautifully, with a similar crunch to it. The dumplings were way better than many seafood dumplings I've had before, and the mushrooms were quite lovely. But there was no beautiful symphony here, as the pieces just didn't meld together as much as it did for other dishes before and after.

The fourth dish was a fricasee of Maine lobster, potato gnocchi, peeled green grapes, and curried walnuts. This was another dish where the individual components were just awesome, though with more harmony than the preceding one. The lobster was incredibly done, soft and tender and succulent. In any other dish, the little chunks of lobster would have carried the day. Alas, it shared the spotlight with the potato gnocchi, which were like eating little pillows from heaven. Indeed, even the grapes played a glue role, providing a sweet counterpoint and a third texture to play with in your motuh. Perfectly paired with a 2006 Marc Sorrel hermitage blanc from the Rhone valley, this dish was also one of the high points.

Next up was a play on beef wellington, but with the meat replaced by seared tuna, wrapped in potatoes and served with caponata-filled ravioli and bearnaise sauce (paired with a 2007 Evening Land pinot noir from Willamette). The bearnaise was probably the highlight for both of us; for me a recollection of dinners from my childhood, for her a wonderful new flavor. The tuna was well-cooked, seared evenly on all sides. There was just something missing from this dish though, something that would have taken it from good to great.
Last of the entrees was braised veal cheek on top of a risotto milanese and gremolata (paired with a 2007 Montecastro reserva tempranillo). For Texas (the ethical eater), they quickly replaced the veal with short ribs, which made for a similarly authentic experience. For both of us, the texture of the meat was amazing, falling apart at the strands like well-braised meat tends to do; as Texas put it, "it was like they had taken pulled pork and put it together into a single piece." The braise was a little heavy for me, but the risotto was spot-on and the meat was perfect. 

Normally palate cleansers are unremarkable and utilitarian, forgotten as soon as dessert comes around; this was not the case. Instead of the bland stuff normally presented at other restaurants, The Inn provided us a pineapple-lemongrass sorbet with pink peppercorn granita. This was not just useful, but refreshing, with hints of sweet and spice that tasted almost like summertime. At times, it felt like this was actually just a first dessert.

Luckily, The Inn gave us the benefit of an actual dessert, which also might have been one of the highlights: a warm chocolate bread pudding with almond ice cream topped with shaved black truffle (paired with a 1994 Blandy's madeira port). Upon asking her about it, Texas's reaction was immediately, "Oh my god. It was so good." First the base of dark chocolate provided a needed level of balance between savory depth and sweet high notes. Then the tart underneath provided a wonderful crunch which complimented the smooth and warm gooey of the pudding. And then the ice cream, the literal creme de la creme, combining into such a luscious, superlative high point. This was a combination of simple pleasure and hedonistic indulgence, the tastes of almond and truffle combining into a complex but cohesive taste.

The Verdict

Deserving of the pinnacle of "one of the best in the D.C. area." Some missteps here and there, so maybe not the rarified air that the hyperbole might otherwise suggest. But when it's good, it's capable of making the extremely superlative seem commonplace.

Food Rating: **** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 5 Hearts
Dress Code: Business
Bar Rating: Quiet Drinks
(out of 5) (more than $100 for two)
The Inn itself is expensive to stay at, and by the time you finish your meal, you'll need a place to stay (rather than brave the nearly two hour drive back to the city). So make a night of it and book a room at the Gay Street Inn, a bed and breakfast a short walk from The Inn with charming, quaint rooms, and two of the friendliest innkeepers we've ever met.

The Inn at Little Washington on Urbanspoon


lacochran's evil twin said...

I am seriously considering a first trip to The Inn at Little Washington for my birthday in March. *sigh* Always sounds so nice...

mary stewart said...

Good food and good accommodation. The place is among Zagat's highly topped ranked place. It is comparable to UK's hotels near paddington station. If I do say so myself.

Ernest Kinnard said...

An hour and a half outside the city proper? So is there any good tourist spot near the hotel? The place seems interesting enough but if I have business meetings in DC, I guess this wouldn't be an ideal place to stay if it would take that long to drive from there.