A gastronome’s take on Virginia’s top culinary destination.
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Chef Patrick O'Connell in the kitchen at the Inn at Little Washington.
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The unassuming façade of the Inn.
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The Inn's signature Tin of Sin.
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Pepper crusted tuna.
Photo by François Haubtmann
A look back at Lisa Antonelli Bacon's indulgent 2014 trip to the Inn at Little Washington.
Imagine going someplace where the only activity offered is eating. We’ve all been on outings where food and drink are the star events—cooking lessons at a resort, for instance, or a food-centric weekend at a destination like Colonial Williamsburg or The Homestead; places where sports or spa services fill in the gaps between culinary adventures. But where on earth is the dining experience so extraordinary that you happily proffer the equivalent of a weeklong beach house rental for less than 24 hours of doing nothing but eating and unwinding? The Inn at Little Washington, of course.
Geographically located 1½ hours west of the big Washington, but far removed in every other measure, the Inn has inspired the devoted and the curious to pack a bag, fuel up, and drive curvy, hilly country roads to get to the tiny village that was mapped by George Washington himself, population: 135. In those days, General Washington saved his big thinking for the battlefield. There is nothing grand, nothing pretentious about the town, and the Inn seamlessly blends in. It is the working parts that distinguish it.
Rushing in from the cold on a blustery Sunday evening, my friend and I were steered toward a crackling fireplace by a gentleman in a crisply tailored suit. Suddenly, we had in hand flutes of Prosecco tinged with muddled basil and apple. I’m not sure where they came from, because the staff works with such fluid choreography that you only register their appearance by what they’ve left behind: amenities, food, quaffs, all appearing before you know you want them. There was but one regret: Patrick, said the gentleman, had been called to Chicago for the funeral of fellow star chef Charlie Trotter.
There is no reason to come to Little Washington if you don’t know who Patrick is. He is referred to by all—from the young men who crumb the dinner table to the chief emissary who greeted us—as simply “Patrick.” The 68-year-old Mr. O’Connell—cookbook author and celebrity chef—is the founder and proprietor of the Inn, and creator of what even the snippiest of reviewers agree could be the most heavenly gustatory experience of a lifetime. You can almost hear celestial trumpets blare.
It would be folly to try to illuminate his many achievements and honors here. Knowing this is enough: The Inn was the first establishment in the history of the Mobil Travel Guide to receive five stars for both restaurant and accommodation; likewise, AAA’s 5 Diamond Award. His most recent honor, the Grand Visionary Award bestowed by the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, lands him in the company of Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, White House reporter Helen Thomas, and singer/songwriter Donovan Leitch. Patrick (we’re comfortable calling him that) is one of the most lauded chefs in the country, and he has created an oasis—a place so unexpectedly exquisite—in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.
A short walk through the garden brought us to our lodging for the night: the Claiborne House, named for the late New York Times critic, food writer and editor Craig Claiborne, who once unabashedly proclaimed the Inn was where he had “the most fantastic meal of [his] life.” Furnished in a colorful blend of British colonial, colonial Williamsburg and royal guest quarters styles, we had to ourselves the entire two-bedroom house, which included a kitchen stocked with water, sodas, a luscious fruit bowl with peanuts and tiny breads, and yummy cookies.
Food is the star at the Inn, and tea would be our introduction. “If you don’t specify a tea from the menu,” our valet explained, “we bring Patrick’s blend.” Accompanying it were petite finger sandwiches of salmon and cucumber, two-bite scones with ramekins of lemon curd, clotted cream and apple butter, wee macaroons and tartlets, and bite-sized ham biscuits ... enough to fortify and entertain us until the main event: dinner.
Dinners are as much productions as events. Fringed, fuschia Fortuni lampshades over each table create the imaginary boundaries of a stage, casting a mellow spotlight exactly where food is to be presented. “It is an event,” says Chris Castle, whose nameplate reads “Ringmaster.” Patrick (cue trumpets) has a sense of humor. “Because we’re so far away from everything, people plan, people strategize. They get the pedicure, the babysitter .… it should be an event.”
Somewhere between the first amuse bouche (cider-braised pork belly and apple purée; a tiny, cylindrical potato chip filled with onion and garlic mousse, tipped with American Osetra caviar; and a bite of Madeira-poached fig, Virginia country ham and Don Barton’s blue cheese), and the second unanticipated treat (a shot of rutabaga-and-apple cream soup “with a raindrop of maple syrup”), it became apparent: We’d gone from event to high theater.
Our most difficult challenge was to choose between the four-course prix fixe ($198 per person) and the Gastronaut’s menu ($248 per person; with paired wines, $348 per person), an eight-course tasting experience. Both include the Inn’s signature Tin of Sin, a Petrossian caviar tin layered first with Peekytoe crab salad, covered with thin slices of cucumber and topped with one perfect layer of American Osetra.
For a second course, foie gras came prepared two ways: Half was a silky pâté, creamier than butter, denser than mousse, with tiny cubes of sauternes gelée and a scant spoonful of fig marmalade; the other half, a generous portion of pure foie gras, seared to a crispness so delicate that it pops a little when bitten, then melts over your tongue. (Trumpets, please.)
From eight main-course options, we chose curry-dusted veal sweetbreads with local apples, Virginia Country ham and pappardelle, and pepper-crusted tuna (“pretending to be a filet mignon,” says the menu) capped with seared duck foie gras on charred onions and burgundy butter sauce. The elaborate combinations sound over the top, perhaps even risky marriages of many ingredients. But when you taste them, the synergy is apparent. They are daring and unquestionably delicious.
If you’d rather drink dessert, certain substitutions are allowed: Grand Marnier or Calvados, for instance, or Courvoisier. But consider: Anyone can turn out a bottle of Bunnahabhain or rustle up some Remy VSOP. But not just anyone can concoct a ricotta cheesecake and local figs poached in port with balsamic ice cream.
Two-and-a-half hours (which passed like much less) after being seated, we had learned the secret of how it is possible to indulge in so much food without the misery of overeating: Many different foods, conservatively but adequately portioned, come in a steady trickle, not a bloating binge.
Back at the Claiborne House, we mused: What could we possibly want that we had not already had? Since our arrival, our every want, every need had been anticipated by a staff that is hyper-attentive, appropriately friendly and just familiar enough to predict what a guest might want. There didn’t seem to be anything left to want, to need, to ask for. Free of the duties of deciding what to eat, we only had to figure out how many layers of clothing we’d need for the next leg of the journey, beginning early in the morning. Simple, said friend. Call the front desk.
But we needn’t have given it a thought. Propped on my pillow was a card, answering the question before I’d posed it: “Tomorrow’s Forecast Temperature High 57 degrees,” the card read. And someone had checked the box for “Sunny.”
Accommodations at the Claiborne House start at $2,950 per night. Rooms in the Inn start at $460 per night. Rates subject to change. TheInnAtLittleWashington.com