Sunday, October 9, 2011

Fantasy Food -- The Inn at Little Washington

There are only a few things you can do that will qualify you for a meal at the Inn at Little Washington.  One is to turn 50.  Another is to graduate from high school.  And yet another is to get a new job in the 2011 economy.   And because my mom recently accomplished the last one, a few weeks ago we went back to the Inn at Little Washington for a celebratory dinner (congratulations Mom!)

The Inn is located in “Little Washington,” also known as “Washington, Virginia,” and it is about a 2 hour drive from Washington DC.  Or, as I like to think of it, it is ½ hour outside the range of my favorite radio station. 

Driving 4 hours in one evening is a big commitment, but the Inn at Little Washington is worth it.  In fact, this is the one restaurant I would tell someone to fly across the country for if necessary.  Besides, something happens as you drive out into the countryside.  You begin to feel relaxed, distanced from hectic city life, and your anticipation of the meal begins to build.  Then, from the moment you pull up into the Inn’s cobblestone driveway, you are reassured that every possible want or need will be taken care of.

The décor inside is very plush.  It is opulent and rustic at the same time.  We’re talking overstuffed chairs, old-fashioned fringed hanging tulip lamps, and patterns covering everything from floor to ceiling.  In comparison to DC’s new crop of swanky and modern restaurants, the Inn at Little Washington is of another time and place.  Yet its old-school vibe is not stifling, but refreshing.

Reading the menu will send shivers of greedy anticipation up your spine—foie gras, lobster, truffles, you can have it all—and I did!  The first of my four courses was a “marriage of hot and cold foie gras with sauternes jelly and local pickled peaches.”  Usually I prefer hot foie gras to cold terrines, but here the terrine was the star.  Rich and creamy with balanced “liver” flavor, its pickled peaches and sauternes jelly added both sweetness and bite.
Hot Foie Gras

Cold Foie Gras
My favorite dish of the evening, however, was the mac and cheese.  When I took a bite of this pasta, I didn’t taste the comfort food of my childhood, I tasted truffles.  The pasta was covered in them.  I’ve never had so many truffles in my life.  And even though you might not expect it, the humble macaroni deserved those truffles.  The combination of creamy cheese (not too sharp) and earthy mushroom was heavenly.  Beneath the line of pasta was crispy country ham, and the whole thing was encased in a parmesan crisp.  But honestly, truffles and cheese— I needed nothing else.

Truffled Mac and Cheese

But there was still the lobster!  Pan roasted (read:  buttery) with a creamy flan and greens, the generous portion was sitting in a pool of creamy “tomato butter” that I could have licked off the plate.  It was served with an adorable miniature cassoulet.
Lobster with Tomato Butter

Miniature cassoulet

I also have to post about my mom’s entrée, the “tuna pretending to be filet mignon.”  At this point you may think I’m venturing into hyperbole, but this really is one of the best dishes I’ve ever had.  Patrick O’Connell, the chef of the Inn, pays through the nose for the top quality tuna, which he pairs with foie gras.  Take a bite of the two together, dipped in the burgundy butter sauce, and you will realize that he has surpassed the filet mignon he was imitating.

Tuna Pretending to be Filet Mignon

My mom and aunt both ordered the same dessert we had the last time we were here.  It is listed as a Southern butter pecan ice cream sandwich, but really, it is butter pecan ice cream stacked in between wafers of hardened caramel.  When it arrives at the table, the waiters pour hot caramel sauce all over it.  My mom and aunt’s only complaint was that they remembered having their own pitchers of caramel and chocolate sauce last time.  However, I’m sure all they had to do was ask, and their own pitchers would have appeared.

Southern Butter Pecan Ice Cream Sandwich

Seven Deadly Sins
I had the “7 Deadly Sins,” a sampling of 7 desserts, which included a miniature ice cream sandwich.  I also asked for a small sampling of their checkerboard ice cream terrine—a mix of pistachio and vanilla ice creams coated in chocolate and chopped pistachios—to replace one of the selections I knew I wouldn’t like.   

Overall, the terrine and the mini ice cream sandwich were by far my favorites, so next time I would order a full size version of one of those.

Checkerboard Terrine of Ice Cream

At the end of the meal, the Inn sends you home with a few candies and cookies, which come in a box that is an exact replica at the Inn.

We also went home with something else:  oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies.  We remembered buying them at the gift store the last time, but this time the store had closed by the time we arrived.  The restaurant offered to bake us some, so we left the restaurant with our own fresh, personal batch.  It doesn’t get better than that.  And the cookies are, not surprisingly, amazing.  What I would give for those recipes…

Next time.  As we began the 2 hour drive back to DC, contented beyond belief, the three of us began to dream about the day we might return to this magical place.  One of us had better get started on that Nobel Prize.

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