The Inn at Little Washington

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I am not a patient man. In my world, immediate gratification takes too long. Yet it took me forty years to get to The Inn at Little Washington. Forty years of reading about it, contemplating its fabulousness, and kicking myself for not taking the time to journey an hour west of Washington, D.C. to sample the cuisine of Patrick O’Connell.  (To be accurate, with D.C. traffic being what it is, the drive can easily take two hours. Perhaps that has had something to do with it. )

Accolades have been never-ending over that time — Five Diamonds from the AAA; five stars from Mobil (now Forbes); two Michelin stars, more Wine Spectator awards than you can count; best restaurant in the Washington D.C. area seemingly forever; cooking for Queen Elizabeth — you know, the usual for a small country caterer who made good in a town of 158 people.

Sometimes, a whole decade would pass (hello 1990s!) and it would slip off my radar a bit. Then I’d pick up some food or travel magazine and there it would be, accepting medals and beckoning again — one man’s very particular vision of luxury; a chef’s fantasy come to life of what the ultimate in American fine dining could be. But then some plans would be derailed, or life would intrude, and before I knew it, two generations had passed without me getting to see what all the shouting was about.

What O’Connell started in 1978 began rather modestly. At a time when Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower were taking the West Coast by storm with their farm-to-table renaissance, and Le Cirque was defining the ne plus ultra of big city dining, O’Connell and his then partner, Reinhardt Lynch, decided to convert their catering business — operating out of a converted gas station — into a charming country inn. They were definite Francophiles in the Tower/Waters mold, but where Chez Panisse was a bunch of hippies cooking great food in a college town, theirs was a more proper sensibility. The linens were starched and the place settings were just so. Thus it remains to this day, and the attention to detail here makes this place as different from Chez Panisse as Judy Dench is from Joan Baez. But that starchiness fades as soon as you approach the doorway. The formality of the premises may be set to impress, but the welcome is as warm and sweet as shoofly pie.

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The design is Downton Abbey meets Colonial Williamsburg, with more than a touch of English flamboyance — which makes sense when you learn it was done by a British stage set designer. Chintz, portraiture and floral prints are everywhere — so much so that you’ll want to break out your hunting jacket and jodhpurs.   (I didn’t ask, but their fabric-cleaning bill has to be through the roof.) Everyone is all smiles as you approach and every guest, even the regulars, seems to soak up and bask in the special-ness of the place. The decor may be over-the-top Anglophile, but the cuisine is resolutely French, and what is so astonishing is how O’Connell (a chef with no formal training) has been able to evolve with the times and present a menu that is both classic and modern.

Perfect, warm bread is served as soon as you order. The butter the right temperature and just soft enough — barely resistant to your knife and an immediate indication that someone in the kitchen is paying attention to the smallest details. Amuse bouches are offered, and whatever shows up will take your breath away. Does a gougère get more spherical or precise? Can a cold artichoke soup be anymore intense? Oysters come with a quartet of frozen fruit “slushies” scoops — each one a sweet and acidic counterpoint to the briny mollusk beside it. No matter what menu you order from — “Enduring Classics,” “Gastronauts,” or “The Good Earth” — you can be assured of four exquisite courses for a set price of $218/per person. (Really more like six to eight dishes once all the amuses and various edible doodads are thrown in.)

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Besides those Wellfleet oysters — each as plump and briny as this shellfish can get —  the Classics menu brings forth a carpaccio of herb-crusted Elysian Fields lamb loin (pictured above) — nine medallions of magenta-colored raw lamb upon which sit three scoops of “Caesar Salad Ice Cream.” The ice cream is flavored with garlic and Parmesan, and once you get past the surprise, you realize it is simply a cheese-infused aioli in a frozen, emulsified guise. This is O’Connell playing with his food (and keeping up with the times), but he does so without affectation and with a firm sense of flavor.

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More classically rooted is the duet of bread-crusted rabbit loin (above) with braised chestnuts, apples, and prunes — highlighted by the sort of dense, rich reduction sauce that makes you wish they served it by the spoonful. Following on the Classics menu was Pekin Duck Three Ways — pan-seared breast, sausage and confit — served on sparkling sauerkraut that would do an Alsatian proud.  On the “Gastronauts” side, things lighten up a bit as they featured the season’s first white asparagus poached in cream, and presented with a dollop of Royal Osetra caviar, followed by foie gras with port-soaked raisins atop a rich, savory Catalan custard, and then a simple rectangle of grilled marlin decorated with peeled grapes and a curried hollandaise. This is not cartwheels-in-the-kitchen cooking, but the rendition of each dish was as on point as French food can be. Of all the mains though, the one that got our attention was a simple parsley-topped, very rare lamb loin, served with a crépinette of lamb merguez sausage, presented like a lollipop at the end of a rib bone. It was elegant yet simple, minimalist and precise, and gave the slightest of nods to modernist cuisine without giving in to the absurdity of it.

Image may contain: 2 people, including John Curtas, people smiling, indoor(I have mad respect and total man-love for Patrick O’Connell – there, I said it.)

A single meal, forty years into a restaurant’s run, hardly gives one the depth of knowledge needed to summarize a chef’s cooking. But my scant evidence told me O’Connell takes great pride in his proteins, and that he has almost perfect pitch when it comes to letting ingredients express themselves. As with all accomplished French chefs, it is the marriage of great food and wine that informs his dishes. And, as with the great, long-lived restaurants of France, a broad, deep, and carefully curated wine cellar is at your disposal. Choosing those wines will take some time though, since the eighty page list is a treasure trove of name brand bottles and obscure offerings. High rollers will enjoy all the big hitter verticals of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa cabs (at the usual choke-a-horse prices), while mere mortals will have a field day matching this wine-friendly food with plenty of selections under a hundred dollars. If you’re willing to venture into the world of Rieslings and Italian whites, there are bargains aplenty. Markups for non-trophy reds run in the 100-200% range over retail, which is modest by destination dining standards. Corkage is charged at fifty dollars for your first bottle, and seventy-five for the second, but they happily waive the charge if you purchase at least one 750 ml bottle (at any price) from their list.

Much is made of the cheese cart here and the attendant puns (e.g., “You won’t Brie-lieve our selection.” “Havarti had that one?”)  but the array is impressive and served at peak ripeness. The fact that it’s presented on a rolling cow cart (that even moos!) only adds to the cheesiness of the presentation. It all might be a bit much for the over-serious epicure, but I was rather fondue of it.

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Desserts are more soothing than surprising. There’s no faulting the warm Granny Smith apple tart with buttermilk ice cream (above), or the lemon tartlet. The one curiosity — “Apparently A Pear” — disguises a bracing blackberry sorbet beneath a golden meringue crust, the whole ornament bathed with a warm, melting sabayon that dissolves the crunchy exterior and any remaining resistance you have to the old-fashioned charms of this place.

Along with great food and wine, it is that old school charm and comfort that The Inn at Little Washington has been selling since January 28, 1978. There is a soothing quality to a meal here that very few, if any, restaurants in America can duplicate. You are cosseted from the moment you approach the front door until you bid adieu three hours later. In this era of bare tables, pin lights, interminable tasting menus, Instagrammable dishes and media-strutting chefs, it is a throwback in all the best ways. And it seems the qualities it brings to the table are now captivating a third generation of diners. On the weeknight we ate there, Gen-Xers and Millennials outnumbered the aging Baby Boomers in the very full dining rooms.  Hospitality like this never goes out of style, and it won’t be another forty years before this aging Boomer experiences it again.

IALW Opening Night Menu only 28JAN1978

THE INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON

309 Middle Street.

Washington, VA 22747

540.675.3800

http://theinnatlittlewashington.com/

 

2017 – My Year of Dining Deliciously

The end of 2017 is nigh, and all kidding aside, it’s been one of the best years of my life — personally, professionally, and gastronomically.

All those troubles of the past 20 years: the relationship troubles, the career problems, the financial difficulties and the overindulgence in various vices seemed to fade away this year — and many, many positive things came into focus for me.

Marriage and maturity will do that to you. (For the record: yours truly is proof positive that you’re never too old to grow up.)

With so many “issues”  disappearing in my rear-view mirror in 2017, it’s time to look ahead. More to the point, now that we’ve grown up, what do we want to do with the rest of our life.

Before we get to that, let’s review some of the highlights of the past 365 days:

We went to Rome for a Roman wine tour. (All that one week in Rome did was whet our appetite for more Italian travel.)

We went to France, twice, which only whetted our appetite for more France.

Amongst all this travel, there were side trips to Canada, Chicago, Atlanta, Arizona, Germany and Switzerland.

In between all that, we even had time to carve out a North Carolina ‘cue quest.

For the 23rd year in a row, we ate in more Las Vegas restaurants than we could count, and distilled them down into the 6th edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants.

(This edition, unlike previous ones, contains a number of essays about my life as a galloping gastronome, as well as some overall observations about the Las Vegas restaurant scene, past, present, and future. If you still haven’t ordered your copy – and you know you want to – you can do so by clicking here.)

For the umpteenth time we wrote the Chef of the Year and Restaurant of the Year articles (among others) for Desert Companion magazine.

For about the 100th time, we went out of our way to remind the world what a piece of shit the Eater Las Vegas web site is.

But enough ax-grinding, let’s get to our year in food. Sadly, most of the highlights took place out of this country, or out of the state of Nevada.

Memorable Meals of the Year (in no particular order):

La Bouitte

Allen & Son

Le Grand Vêfour

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire

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Edulis

La Mère Brazier

Restaurant Eugene

Topolobampo

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Lameloise

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Kaiseki Yuzu

Specific standout dishes/meals of 2017:

Oysters of the YearLe Dôme:

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Photogenic Dish of the Year – Summer fruits salad at Jean-Georges Steakhouse:

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Steak of the Year – the aged-on-the-hoof beauty from TXOGITXU – Basque beef:

Runner up: the Charolais côte de boeuf at Le Sauvage in Dijon, France:

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Japanese Meal of the Year – Kaiseki Yuzu (see above)

Sushi of the YearYui Edomae Sushi:

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Pizza of the YearContento Pizzeria and Bar:

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Vegetarian Meal of the Year – Twist by Pierre Gagnaire (see above)

Deer of the YearWaldhotel Sonnora, Dreis, Germany:

https://vignette.wikia.nocookie.net/disney/images/0/06/Bambi_-_Render.png/revision/latest?cb=20160614120622(Sorry, Bambi)

Beef Bourguignon of the YearRestaurant Caveau des Arches, Beaune, France:

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View of the YearCanoe, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (see pic at top of page)

Decor of the YearLe Clarence:

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, sitting, table, living room and indoor(Minimalist and understated, just like ELV!)

Gamiest, Rankest, Earthiest, Dirtiest Dish of the Year – AAAA Andouillette a la Chablisienne:

(It tastes exactly like what it is: the insides of a barely-cleaned intestine.)

Italian Meal of the YearFerraro’s:

(Gino Ferraro: the consummate restaurateur)

Cheese of the Year – a mimolette so old Louis XIV probably sampled a slice:

Barbecue of the Year – Toss up: Picnic/Allen & Son (see above)

Beer of the YearThe Exchange Brewery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario:

Eclair of the YearBreizh Café:

Cheese Cart of the Year – a turophiles dream at Hostellerie Des Clos in Chablis, France.

Wine List(s) of the YearLe Pot d’Etain:

Runners up: Les Climats:

…and La Bouitte:

Image may contain: 1 person(Wine lists are a two-fisted handful at La Bouitte)

Vegetable Dish of the Year – Winter vegetable melange at La Bouitte:

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Fish of the Year – no fish dish haunted my dreams more than this omble chevalier at a little roadside restaurant outside of Annecy, France called Auberge du Roselet:

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Cold Cuts of the YearCesare Casella’s artisanal prosciutto at Carnevino:

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Most Intense Dessert of the YearSebastien Polycarpe’s clay-baked pineapple at Restaurant Guy Savoy:

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Bistro of the Year – Le Comptoir du Relais, Paris, France:

Coffee and Doughnuts of the YearTim Hortons:

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Yes, it was a helluva year for sheer travelocity and intrepid epicureanism. But amidst all the gourmet jewels, there were some zircons that stood out. and managed to pee in our cornflakes

Lowlights of the Year:

Alinea – To put it as succinctly as possible: Anyone who appreciates the gastronomic temples of Europe can see what a joke this restaurant is. Strictly for Midwestern rubes and impressionable Instagrammers,  and the writers who speak to them.

Momofuku – I love what David Chang has done for Asian food in America. But his restaurants are not nearly as good as they think they are.

Terrible Italian – Bad Italian food continues to pull ’em in in Las Vegas. If I had a dollar for every yokel who tells me how much they “love” Piero’s, Cafe Chloe, Battista’s, Chicago Joe’s, et al, I’d have a wine cellar full of grand cru Burgundies. It pains me to say it but Maggiano’s and Buca di Beppo are better than most of our locally-owned Italians.

Food writing in Las Vegas – Can the Review-Journal get any worse? Oh, yes it can. It can cover chain restaurants and “cocktails of the week” while continuing to aim its appeal at the Sun City crowd. Someone needs to put this dead horse out of its misery.

Our Moribund Corporate Hotel Culture – This is the thing that depresses me the most. The heyday of the Vegas restaurant revolution ended for good around 2010. What the great celebrity chefs wrought (Spago, Emeril’s, Le Cirque, Picasso, et al) the big hotels are now either running into the ground or milking for all they’re worth. There hasn’t been an original thought in a Vegas F&B office in ten years. There hasn’t been a new, food-forward/chef-driven place since Bazaar Meat opened in 2014. Instead of cuisine, we get whatever re-packaged crap they can slap Gordon Ramsay’s or Giada’s name on. There are still restaurants on the Strip that I adore (and buy my book and you can read about them ;-) ) but I’ve been falling out of love with the Strip for years now, and nothing I see is going to re-kindle the flame of passion I once had anytime soon.

Summer Truffles – If one more chef puts one more tasteless summer truffle on my plate (always with a BIG smile like they’re doing me a favor) I’m going to get a concealed carry permit, strap a .38 to my thigh, and put a bullet through the plate. There is no excuse for these dreaded, bill-padding fungi, and you insult my intelligence (and taste buds) by expecting me to be impressed.

Truffle Oil – See above.

Octopus – If I never see a piece of cephalopod again it will be too soon.

Scallops – Ditto.

Drinking Wine/Drinking in General – I took Carnevino to task this year for its obscenely-priced wine list. It is the most egregious offender, but is by no means alone in playing the rape-the-tourist/price-gouging game — e.g. the Wynncore – an entire hotel whose F&B price structure would make P.T. Barnum blush, and the $30 gin and tonics at Jaleo. In the past 20 years (ever since they learned they could “sell” Vegas and a world-class eating and drinking experience, our hotels have turned the town into one, gigantic edible tourist trap. We should be ashamed of ourselves. I can barely bring myself to order anything but a glass of wine these days….or some cheap vermouth…in any of our Strip hotels. Spend a couple of days in any wine region, anywhere in the world, and you’ll see how fucked up drinking is in Las Vegas.

Which brings me to my conclusion…at the conclusion of this most significant year.

As you know, we’ve been struggling with what to do with this web site for the past year or so. It’s becoming harder and harder for us to get enthused about restaurants I have visited dozens of times, and, as I just mentioned, there isn’t a lot of excitement on the horizon. I try to gear what I write to people like me, or those who may have been like me 30 years ago when I was hungry to learn all I could about food, dining out, travel, and the world of restaurants. I like to think of my readers as a black belt foodie audience, but within the realm of Las Vegas restaurants, there is less and less that I can teach them.

Right now I’m pondering whether to write more about my travels (next up: Spain, Italy, Normandy and Scandinavia), or maybe even expand into home cooking. Unbeknownst to many, I used to be an avid home cook, and people love recipe websites more than they do restaurant reviews. There will definitely be a change in graphics sometime in the new year. (I’m quite aware that the look of this site is cluttered and dated and it’s all my fault.) The new look will be simpler — more Drudge Report than Bon Appetit — as soon as I can find a graphic designer.

Until then….

Happy New Year from the Curtas BBQ Boyz!

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Travel Rant #18 – De-Planing With Your Carry-On Bags

surely you cant be serious don't call me shirley GIF by Top 100 Movie Quotes of All Time
Your plane lands. It’s been a 5 hour flight. It’s late. All everyone on the plane wants is to get off the friggin’ plane. SO WHY DOES IT TAKE EVERYONE SO LONG TO GRAB THEIR BAGS AND GO?
 
Since you asked, I’ll tell you why: It takes soooo long to de-plane (love that word) because people are either too stupid, too lazy, or too polite to do it right.
 
Here’s the scene: You’re in the middle of the plane. Everyone is filing out. Everyone is waiting too long to reach up and grab their goddamn bag THAT’S IN THE BIN RIGHT ABOVE THEIR HEAD. They (especially the people on the aisle seats) could do this WHILE every one ahead of them is filing out, but NOOoooooo….EVERY. SINGLE. PERSON. waits until everything has cleared out ahead of them before completing the simple task of reaching up and grabbing their precious carry-on.
 
Sooooo, you’re on an aisle seat, the woman beside you is standing up; you’re standing up; both of you have been standing up for at least five minutes. A couple of more minutes drift by at the pace of a glacier when you notice the entire plane ahead of you is empty and she’s not moving. You’ve actually been trying to give a little ground to her so she can scoot out ahead of you. But she lifts not a finger until there’s not a goddamn soul on the plane ahead of her. At that point she says, “I just need to get my bag,” — the bag which has been right over her head — waiting to be grabbed — for the past 10 minutes.
 
Seeing a blank expanse of jet aisle before you, and completely out of patience with this dolt (and the numbskulls you’ve watched do the same thing for the previous ten minutes), you do not meekly recede back into your seat row while she proceeds to hold up another 75 people. Instead, you break into the the open field (bumping her slightly with your man bag). At that point, she let’s out a loud “Excuse me, sir!” — letting everyone on the plane (including your spouse) know that you had pushed past her rather than do the ultra-polite thing of waiting for her to finish something she could have done a long time ago.
 
Once we get out into the terminal, the same lady is all sarcastic, “Merry Christmas, sir” to me, as she walks past me, and the wife catches up to me and SHE be like all “Why were you so pushy and rude to that woman,” and I be like “BECAUSE PEOPLE HAVE TO QUIT BEING SO FUCKING POLITE AND JUST GET THEIR GODDAMN BAGS AND GET OFF THE GODDAMN PLANE,” and the wife be like all annoyed and such at me for the whole LYFT ride home….
 
….and I still, for the goddamn life of me, can’t figure out why it takes people so goddamn long to grab a stupid carry-on and get off a goddamn airplane.
 
Thanks, I feel better now.