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


309 Middle Street.

Washington, VA 22747



Why I Love France

There is nothing more precious to a food lover than to experience a cuisine, or a dish, or an ingredient in its native habitat. Whether it’s clams in Ipswich, a Cuban sandwich in Habana, or tortellini in Bologna, the holy grail of gastronomes is to be in a place known for a certain type of food, and to consume that food where it originated.

People who count their Michelin stars, or jump from the latest hot spot to the next miss the whole point of eating well. Eating well is not just about dining in restaurants — although great restaurants are essential for bringing a cuisine into focus — it is about diving deep, and about learning about distinctions and differences while you’re paddling above the surface, or submerged beneath it.

People are fond of saying that the best of any cuisine is found in people’s homes. Ask any Italian, and they’ll swear by their Nonna’s pasta e fagioli over any version in any restaurant. Go to Germany and what you get in their restaurants is basically the same food they serve at home. (Only in their tonier restaurants do they venture into fancier, French-influenced dishes.) I haven’t traveled south of Mexico, but I think it’s safe to say that South American cuisine in all its multi-cultural forms takes almost all of its cues from what people grew up with — restaurants there (and almost everywhere) being a distillation of what people eat in their houses.

For what are restaurants, really, but a place to get sustenance when one is away from home?

Street food is something different entirely. Street food is by and large peasant food — quick and easy ways to sustain a busy worker through the day. Food writers the world over have gone to great lengths to elevate kebabs, noodle soups and all sorts of meat pies to “gourmet” status, but what they miss are the cultural underpinnings of these things as quick and easy ways to quell hunger and provide fuel for our furnaces. High-end sushi may be a “thing” in Tokyo and New York, but it started as a way for Edo (Tokyo) workers to grab a quick snack on the go. Only in the modern era (and by “modern era” we mean the last twenty five years) have braggadocios gastronomads elevated fish on rice to the fucking ridiculous.

Table and chair restaurants — from the Far East to the American Southwest — do one thing: cook the foods of their homeland for strangers. Many of these customers are natives (surely their harshest critics), but some are travelers looking to sustain themselves on whatever voyage of discovery they happen to be on. Being strangers in strange lands, though, one can never hope to understand a cuisine like a native. Unless you are fortunate enough to have friends who live where you travel, you have little hope of experiencing a beef bourguignon from a French housewife, a Cornish pasty from a Welsh coal miner, or cuy (pronounced “kwee”) from a Peruvian farmer.

That’s where France comes in. In France, restaurants are, in and of themselves, a cultural landmark. French food, more than any other, achieves it apotheosis in restaurants — restaurants as humble as a sidewalk cafe to a haute cuisine palace. Food may be a passion in Italy, but in France it is a religion. Indeed, French cuisine (more specifically the “French gastronomic menu”) has been recognized by UNESCO as one of the world’s great cultural artifacts.

The French are prouder of their food than any other country on earth. From the humblest cheese to the most fantastic dessert cart, the average Frenchman knows his country’s food (and restaurants) have set a standard for the rest of the world to follow. To be sure, there is terrible, corporate food in France. There are lazy brasseries and slip-shod bakeries and acidic wines and all forms of half-assery that seeks to profit from France’s reputation without putting in the work.

But there’s also more great food in more little corners of this Texas-sized country than in most of the rest of the world put together. A lot has been written about French food being under siege. Fast food, global economic pressures, and the world-wide cult of immediate gratification has endangered many things about the French way of life. But the depth of knowledge in France about its cuisine is profound, and the currents run deep. Yes, there are Hawaiian fishermen who know the bounty of their sea backwards, and Iranian epicures who can tell you everything there is to know about caviar, but no country on earth has spent centuries celebrating its food — from the humblest peasant fare to feasts fit for a king — like France has.

What France did, starting over two hundred years ago, is institutionalize (and publicize) the (previously very private) act of eating meals. France turned the act of eating out into a form of theater, and to this day, its restaurants are a daily celebration of food in all its forms. A restaurant meal in France is a way to “restaur” yourself, but it is also so much more. What restaurants in France represent, is a form of socialization, indeed, civilization at its apex.

What do I love most about French food? Well first, it is that menu — a light to heavy escalation of everything from the color of the wine to the weight of the calories. (Fun fact: service à la française originally meant serving everything at once, buffet-style. It was only in the early 19th  century that service à la russe – serving things in individual courses – became popular in France.)

Everything about the French menu is a ladder with each rung representing another form of advancement up the food chain. There are white wines to start, and the freshest, briniest shellfish to get your gastronomic juices flowing. From there you graduate to soups, and legumes, and cooked fish before ascending to the plats principaux (the main courses). Through it all there is bread (the best on earth), and at the end are desserts — dessert being a French word that the French understand better than anyone.

So, let’s take stock: the best bread, the best shellfish, the best butter, the best wine (sorry, Italy), the best sparkling wine, a way with small birds that is the envy of cooks the world over, and a myriad of soups, stews, and beef dishes to beat the band. And did I mention the cheese? What’s not to love? Well, I can hear some naysayers kvetching about the lack of street food. True, the French don’t do street food all that well, but for the occasional crepe, but when there’s a sidewalk cafe on every corner, full of chocolat, cafe au lait and croque monsieur, why eat standing up? Eating standing up is what farm animals do.

Modernists love to point to the course-by-course progression of a French dinner as hopelessly outdated — preferring instead to extol the virtues of some new Nordic wunderkind or 30-course slog through some chef’s “vision.” But what they miss is the intellectual debt all fine dining owes to the French menu. Until the French figured out the natural progression of how we should eat, meals the world over were pretty much a free-for-all. The reason you start with oysters at Arzak has more to do with Le Grand Vefour than anything Ferran Adrià did.

So I return again and again. For the 10th time in a few days, to take another bite out of the country that first captured my imagination as a law student reading Gourmet magazine — back when I could only dream about visiting  all those wonderful bistros, brasseries, and temples of luxurious dining. But visit them I have, from Alsace to Lyon to the French Alps I have explored this country, and I haven’t tired of it yet. Paris holds many charms for me, as it has for so many Americans, but what I enjoy most of all these days is tasting the countryside, the places where the wine and the cheese and the ouefs meurette are made. What is most compelling of all, now that I’m in my sixties, is seeing where this cuisine came from, and continuing to learn why it is the greatest food on earth.

ELV note: I will be traveling to France in a few days (Paris-Chablis-Beaune-Burgundy) and will not be posting anything on this site until mid-December. Please feel free to follow my epicurean adventures on Twitter (@eatinglasvegas) or Instagram (@johncurtas). Bon appetit!

A couple of apropos quotes:

“French food is like jazz: it begins with theory, technique and organizing principles, and comes alive through playfulness, spontaneity, and, ultimately, extemporization.” – Richard Olney

 “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain


Tasting the Traube Tonbach

ELV note: We know the title of this web site is “Eating Las Vegas,” but we also know that you know that we do not confine ourselves simply to the pleasures of dining in Sin City. Indeed, we travel the world, calibrating our palate to the cuisines of its greatest chefs, the better to give us (and you) a baseline from which to judge all great restaurants. Below is our love letter to the enchanting hotel we visited late last year in Germany’s Black Forest (“Schwarzwald” – pronounced SCHVARTZ-vald). We hope you get a chance to visit there someday, but even if you don’t, we hope you will take some pleasure in living vicariously through our travels, and through these words and pictures.

There’s a lot to do at the Traube Tonbach. Spas, swimming (indoors and out), skiing, hiking, exploring the picturesque valleys and towns of Baiersbronn, all await you, all while taking in some of the crispest, cleanest, pine-scented air in the world.  If you’re the shut-in type, you’ll find nothing to complain about either. The 153 rooms are enormous, the bathrooms even more so, and it seems everywhere you look (out of giant, wood-trimmed windows) you see one stunning, forest view after another.

Calling the Traube enchanting is an understatement. From the traditional Tyrolean garb of the crackerjack staff:

… the oversized, Black Forest decor, everything about it has a formal-yet-friendly precision that seduces you from the moment you sink into an overstuffed chair or start sipping a crisp glass of Riesling. You can be as laid back or active as you wish at the Traube Tonbach, but what you really ought to be doing is eating.

Harald Wohlfahrt’s Schwardwaldstube (pictured below) has held three Michelin stars since 1992. The name means “Black Forest Room” and the thickness of the wood, the chairs and the linens give not a clue as to the lightness and freshness of his cuisine.


The room only seats 40 customers, but so precise is the food, you get the feeling that there are at least that many cooks in the kitchen. Wohlfahrt told me (through an interpreter) that his cuisine has become more international over the years, and like most chefs in this league, he now plays with flavors from around the globe. Some might fault him for letting these flights of foreign fancy overtake him, such as when he accompanies beautiful poached Gillardeau oysters with ponzu jelly, shredded beetroot and horseradish, plus a chives vinaigrette, but to my mind, everything harmonized the way it’s supposed to with highfalutin fusion food. What Wohlfahrt’s elemental, not-bashful cooking told me was that I was in a bigger, bolder, German version of a French restaurant, not a dainty Gallic one.

“Not bashful” would be my same description of the Swabia-meets-Bologna construct of  Wohlfahrt’s ravioli. Stuffed with a moist, dense, “confit” of calves head, and garnished with sweetbreads, and tongue — it was elegant and earthy, not an easy feat in any language. Festooned with truffles, it was part French, part Italian, and definitely Deutsch, and genuflected to all three cuisines without surrendering to the heaviness of its pedigree.

 From there, our meal proceeded seamlessly through meaty slices of wild turbot in an intense, sea urchin nage, through local “homegrown” venison in a juniper sauce that tasted of a hunter’s bounty, if he happened to be a Michelin-adorned superstar. This is cold weather, nip-in-the-air eating at its finest, I thought to myself — food that matched the evergreen forest surroundings as much as the heavy, carved wood upon which we sat.
 As wonderful, and of-its-place as our game and fish repast was, it was my wife’s vegetarian meal where the kitchen really proved its mettle. Six courses of jaw-dropping variety that were even more stunning than the proteins — variation of carrots in a black tea emulsion, grilled pineapple and confit of fennel in a Ricard Pernod/passion fruit stock, and a potato-mushroom ravioli with caper jus and chanterelles — any and all of which could make you forget about meat altogether. This sort of high-wire, multi-dimensional, vegetarian cooking proves how exciting vegetables can be when placed in the right hands. As with my meal, every course was a show-stopper, but the highlight was an egg white souffle encasing a reinserted yolk with a white truffle sauce so intense I had to check my pulse.

About the only clinkers in the meal were the desserts, that seemed terribly overwrought — almost as if the pastry chef was trying too hard to keep up with the pirouettes taking place on the savory plates — and a serious service lapse towards the last quarter of the meal, when everything seemed to slow to a crawl. To be fair, there were several large parties in the restaurant, all of whom were spending way more money on wine than we were, so that may have backed up the kitchen. By the way, this was the third Michelin 3-star meal I’ve had in the last year — the others being at Meadowood in Napa Valley and Auberge de L’Ill in Alsace — where the highly visible and solicitous maitre’d seemed to disappear from the dining room for the second half of the meal. Perhaps this is the 21st Century job description: show up, look good, kiss hands, and then vanish. Or perhaps these impeccably groomed face men have second jobs posing in department store windows. Either way, it strikes a small, discordant note where there should be none.

As for wine, the list is extensive (750+ labels, 36,000 bottles) and shoulder deep in great German and Alsatian Rieslings.  Markups were more than fair — especially compared to New York and Las Vegas — with dozens of great bottles for 100 euros or less. My rule of thumb when star-grazing in Europe is to look for bottles in the 50-100 euro range, and I’m consistently amazed by the quality at those prices. I took the wine pairing with my degustation, and it, along with our young sommelier (who didn’t disappear from the room) was superb.

The Schwarzwaldstube would be a fitting crescendo to anyone’s visit to the Traube, but we worked in reverse order for our two day stay. Dinner number two found us again across the street from the main hotel (at the original, heavily timbered inn that now houses the “Black Forest Room,” an international restaurant (that we didn’t try), and a traditional restaurant (the Bauernstube) that we did. Those timbers, low ceilings, plaster walls and wooden benches give the Bauernstube (pictured above) a distinctly 18th Century feel, but this being the Traube, the linens are as thick and crisp, and the table ware every bit as formidable (if several clicks more casual) than at its starred sister restaurant down the hall. They share the same wine list, and the food is every bit as satisfying and rib-sticking as you would expect southwestern German food to be.

Being strangers to Swabian cuisine, we didn’t know what to expect, although we suspected that the six mile hike we took earlier in the day was probably a good idea. As with every German restaurant, the difficulties of the language are always looming to surprise you with a disconnect between what was described, what you thought you ordered, and what shows up. For example: three, fist-sized stuffed ravioli are described as a “snack” on the menu, but what appears could fill up a sumo wrestler.

(In a similar vein, a chef once told us he mistakenly ordered a plate of butter as an appetizer in a German restaurant.)

Undaunted by our “snack,” we sallied forth with the rest of our meal and found everything to be as enjoyable as a meal of golf ball-size sweetbreads (used to “garnish” a perfect blanquette de veau, no less), tennis-ball sized liver dumplings, football-sized noodles, and brook trout can be. The trout tasted as if it had jumped right from the stream onto our plate (because it almost did, we were told), and, filling or not, those dumplings, veal and sweetbreads are two dishes I’m still dreaming about.


My parents told me decades ago about the wonders of German breakfast buffets in upscale hotels, but it wasn’t until I forced myself into an early awakening on my second morning here that I saw what they were talking about.

“Get here early,” one of the staff told me, and so I did, bleary-eyed and still wrestling with my weightlifter’s repast of the night before.

What I confronted was more temptation than any one man should face while he’s still digesting Swabian dumplings: Every bread and pastry imaginable, right out of the oven. Miles of meats, cheeses, fruits, jams, and jellies. Scores of butters and spreads. Eight kinds of milk. A dozen fresh-squeezed juices. Every kind of smoked fish you’ve ever heard of and more sausages than you can shake a stick at. Carved beef, cured ham (four kinds!), smoked ham, eggs out the wazoo and half a dozen local honeys. Aged fromage from all over Europe, and did I mention the pastries and meats?



And the wurst was yet to come!

 Forgive me, but I’ve waited twenty years to use that joke in a food article, so you’re stuck with it.

Everything from the coffee to the head cheese was exemplary, and the finest of its kind of any buffet I’ve ever been to. It was so good it restored my faith in overeating.

My parents were right: The Germans do breakfast better than anyone. Their hotels and 3-star restaurants concede nothing to the French, either, with everything correct down to the last detail. Michelin is right too: this magical place is definitely worth a special journey.

Our dinner for (two tasting menus + one wine pairing) at the Schwarzwaldstube came to 461 euros including a generous tip. (Yes, they tip in Germany, usually around 10%.) The Bauernstube dinner was 108 euros, and I don’t remember what the breakfast buffet cost, but it’s worth anything they want to charge for it.


HOTEL TRAUBE TONBACH since 1789 – Familie Finkbeiner KG
72270 Baiersbronn im Schwarzwald, Germany, Telephone +49 (0) 74 42/4 92-0, Reservations +49 (0) 74 42/4 92-6 22
Fax +49 (0) 74 42/4 92-6 92,,
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