November 13, 2012 | Travel Feature
Great Expectations: The Inn at Little Washington
The flowers are serious, the décor over-the-top, the tasting menu full of fun.
A few days before the power-guzzling, ocean-raising, life-snatching storm threatened, two friends and I plotted to make one of my longtime dreams come true. We would rent a car and drive to a corner of rural Virginia I’d never seen. The skies were just filming with grey as we arrived at the fabled Inn at Little Washington.
His chefs never heard of Craig Claiborne. Voila! The Claiborne House.
Ten days later, given the shattering loss and suffering the storm delivered, it feels frivolous to be immersed in tales of truffled popcorn and relays of caviar. But we will mop up and rebuild. Those of us untouched by disaster will stop feeling guilty. Even the bruised among us will start thinking of romantic escapes again. We will plan honeymoons and anniversary getaways and, yes, adulterous escapades. You will want to be sure the long detour from here to there is worth the time and money.
These explosions of flowers are arranged by an artist who moved to Virginia.
Before the Storm: the Inn at Little Washington
I expected sybaritic. I anticipated sumptuous and excessive. For decades I’ve read the raves and heard the whoops celebrating the Inn at Little Washington in some rural Virginia crossroads, but as our seven hour drive turned onto narrow roads between thatch-cut fields to enter the small Virginia village, nothing quite prepared me for the theatrical ebullience. The ancient chateau welcome, the amazing, amusing mix of exaggerated English fringe and tassel, tapestries, Fortuny shades, wooden floors recycled from a French manor, hand-printed papers on the cove ceilings, explosions of flowers. And the unabashed whimsy. I certainly didn’t expect the cheese cart to arrive on the back of a wooden cow that went moooo.
Exuberant Victoriana was created by a London Theatrical designer.
What began in 1978 as a modest country kitchen in an abandoned gas station has evolved into a luxurious 18 room inn in a collection of cottages with gardens and its own farm. I don’t think our host Patrick O’Connell will be offended if I say his fussed-up little fiefdom reminded me immediately of Michel Guérard’s ever-expanding fussed-up little fiefdom in the Southwest of France at Eugénie-les-Bains.
We were late for tea but the welcoming attendant pretended we were on time.
My fear that Wednesday – Wednesdays are cheaper than weekends and easier to book -- was that we might miss the deadline for tea and be forced to have a cocktail instead. “No, you’re just under the wire,” the maître d’ lied, looking at his watch, raising his eyebrows and smiling as we settled at a garden table next to the koi pond.
When weather permits, guests may dine in the garden where we had our tea.
For me, it’s never about the tea. I really don’t like tea much. It’s about the canapés and cookies. I ordered an infusion of mixed Indian spices. The tiered tray that arrived looked promising. I started with the smoked salmon “shingled with cucumber” on house rye. Amazing rye. I liked that the local ham was not too salty and brooded for a few seconds that the biscuits were not very crumbly. But then, what do I know about biscuits. I am not Scarlett O’Hara. Maybe crumbly is my Northern concept of a biscuit.
Too bad Claiborne couldn’t join us. The gossip would have been as juicy as the duck.
Once I got going, I had to taste everything: Blueberry tarts and pecan tarts, coconut cookies, and a buttery swan cookie. (The house logo, that swan is everywhere.) I piled lemon curd on my miniature scone. Fancy tea seemed an insane exercise before a 7:30 dinner. An attendant led us through the garden and across the road to our cottage, “The Claiborne House”.
A new generation of chefs don’t know Claiborne created serious restaurant criticism.
“I was shocked when I discovered my chefs had never heard of Craig,” Patrick O’Connell said, explaining how this restored 1899 clapboard cottage, with its baronial trappings inside, had morphed into an homage to the powerful New York Times restaurant critic who had come here for his birthday. “He even managed to come again in a wheelchair for our 30th Anniversary celebration,” the chef marveled.
This year’s biography by Thomas McNamee revived interest in Claiborne’s role.
There, in a silver frame, was cherubic baby Craig, and toddler Craig with his mother in another, a collection of books from Claiborne’s library on the shelves. A pile of my books sat on a mahogany table. I didn’t recognize the cover of “Blue Skies, No Candy” in its British edition. I noticed “Delicious Sex” was missing. I wondered if that was intentional. A Southern nicety to protect guests from accidentally flipping to “28 Delightful Things To Do with a Penis.”
A rat-a-tat of amuses include these savory Bloody Mary tartlettes.
I need a nap. But first we must get a tour. The living room. (“Would we like a fire laid for after dinner?”) The kitchen with champagne chilling in a bucket, coffee ready to activate should we need a caffeine shot before breakfast. The dining room. A peek at the garden. Then up the stairs to the master bedroom, surprise…“The Gael Greene Room” (well, for the night anyway). My friends are installed across the hall, each of us with our own 5-Star Forbes Guide worthy bathroom.
Next to my bed is a photographs of me a silver frame. Across the way is a silly picture my guy took of me on our first camping trip. I take a fast shower, wash my hair, climb into the very tall old-fashioned bed, kick the cashmere throw to the floor and set the clock to nap for 17 minutes.
A cutout of Julia dominates the cookbook department of the shops across the street.
I like our corner of the dining room, a banquette with pillows, roses, freesia and pale hydrangeas in a lush bouquet. I laugh seeing my face in a mink trench coat and the tagline, “What becomes a Legend most?” I’m falling in love with Patrick now. Our minds sizzle in tandem. Of course I was meant to be a Blackglama mink Legend. Inside is our ten-course menu with a greeting from Julia Child: “Everything in moderation…including moderation.”
Flurries of black truffle are shaved onto the popcorn by our white gloved captain.
Truffle dusted popcorn may not be new. But a waiter in white gloves shaving cascades of black truffle into the red and white striped movie popcorn box is a nice addition. Sparkling wine is poured. Parmesan crisps are delivered in a silver toast holder. I don’t need my little flashlight to take photos because the giant bell-shaped shantung lampshades with nine inches of fringe throw light on the table, leaving us cosmetically shadowed.
A luscious cucumber lobster roll with a tiara of American osetra caviar.
A preamble of unlisted “amuses” arrive. I like the Bloody Mary jam tartlets. And lobster rolled in avocado thins atop cornbread with a pompadour of caviar is magical. It’s big enough to divide it into different parts. A nip of caviar, a round of lobster and avocado, with and without its cakey bread.
Rutabaga apple soup and a chive gruyère gougère is “A Shot of Liquid Autumn.”
“A Shot of Liquid Autumn” pairs warm apple and rutabaga soup laced with Vermont maple syrup in a glass and a large chive Gruyère gougère. My companions are grape nuts. For them a sommelièr is pairing wines, many in half bottles. I am sure the crew here is drilled to be warm and cuddly. But she is beyond effervescent. If she were a balloon, she’d be stuck to the ceiling. My mouth is accustomed to judging and enjoying many tastes, but it doesn’t do well on many varying sips. I’m happy with my glass of a spirited red.
Caesar salad ice cream, capers and herbs dress up a marvelous lamb carpaccio.
I brace myself, expecting to loathe Caesar salad ice cream plopped on wide ribbons of lamb carpaccio salted with capers. I don’t like parmesan in hairy filaments either as it is here, mounded fluff on the edge of the plate. But the dish is not sweet at all, just wonderfully cheesy and salty, so good I must finish even the last ribbon. We’re not halfway through the menu. Probably a little less bread would help. But I love the house made rye. On its own in thin slices, it tastes deliciously of salt.
Smart little cubes of tomato gnocchi punctuate this Maine day boat scallop offering.
Not everything tonight is equally brilliant. Maine day boat scallops are just scallops, undistinguished in flavor – perhaps not enough lemon, the butter not browned enough -- though I find myself savoring small cubes of tomato gnocchi. A small filet of cod sautéed with lemon vodka sauce is too cooked for me and also rather lackluster, though I like the “Lilliputian pork dumpling,”delicately scalloped and stuffed with a mince of pork, shrimp, mushrooms and scallion.
The pappardelle, tossed with ribbons of ham, local chanterelles and Blenheim apricots, is more virtuous than thrilling. The Inn was sourcing its neighbors long before local became an urban obsession, simply because there was not much choice. Yes, the noodles will be homemade, the mushrooms are local and the ham will be cured according to the chef’s specifications. It’s good enough but…my toes are not curling.
Meaty duck breast contrasts with the almost organic taste of flageolets from the garden.
“Now to prove we have all our ducks in a row,” announces our jokey captain as the duck is served. Thick slices of breast, rare and meaty with a thin layer of fat under the skin, sitting on wild rice pilaf with rectangles of seared foie gras and a sweetness of grilled Virginia fig. Amazingly, I’m hungry again. Then, when small flageolets from the garden arrive in a covered dish – their organic beaniness playing against the voluptuousness of the duck – it’s a great high.
There’s a pause. We must collect ourselves. After all, we’ve come so far to this legendary gourmand outpost, and we must have cheese. It’s not possible that we choose between cheese and dessert. We must have both. Indeed, the cheese has just arrived in exquisite readiness on the back of the wooden cow.
What is your favorite cheese?” asks the captain, identified as “The Cheese Wiz” in our menu.
The quality of the cheese is no joke even though we’re giggling at Faira the cow.
I shake my head to wake my brain. Vacherin, is my first thought. Reblochon, St. Marcellin. He scoops up a serving spoon of a soft runny Epoisses, that tickles my nose and fills my mouth, reminding me that in a better world there would be no cholesterol and I would have cheese every morning and night. I ask for a local cheese too. Without hesitation he nominates Grayson, made by “our neighbor, Helen Feete at Meadow Creek Dairy.” It’s semi-soft and mellow, quiet and sense-stirring.
A palate cleanser follows: pineapple and lemongrass sorbet and a red pepper granita. And of course, I’m just kidding about skipping dessert. It isn’t just the seven hours we drove to get here, it’s the 20 years of wanting to come.
A day without chocolate would be a day without sunshine.
The promised “parade of desserts” includes warm and tangy lemon meringue tart and a crispy chocolate something or other – the waiter pours on a veil of dark chocolate. The three of us finish it off. There’s a perfectly fine apple tart, very homey, not unique in any way. It remains. Each of us is given chocolates, candied grapefruit peel and cookies in a small paper replica of the inn to carry away.
Chef-owner Patrick O’Connell wears his signature Dalmatian spotted apron and pants.
O’Connell is standing in the parlor in his white jacket and signature Dalmatian-spotted chef’s pants and apron, waiting to show us the kitchen. He asked his decorator, Joyce Conwy Evans, a London theatrical designer, to give him the Dairy Room of Windsor Castle. It’s a sweeping stage with a walk-in fireplace at one end, a giant portrait of the chef with his pet Dalmatians, and two chef’s tables for guests, separated from the heat and noise of the kitchen by a glass wall. A few of the cooks in their black toques and spotted pants are still cleaning up. You could stage La Traviata here.
It began with a griddle and a burner. Now Queen Elizabeth would feel at home.
Of course I’m ravenous for breakfast. Glorious food is like great sex, the more you eat, the hungrier you are. Tables in the narrow conservatory are all taken, but light from the garden pours onto our table just inside the serenity of the dining room.
The light from the garden illuminates an exceptional breakfast.
Nothing surprises me now at breakfast. Not “a flight of juices,” four to be precise, not a dozen different homemade jellies and preserves, nor the excesses of the bread basket, muffins and croissants. Or course we will have yogurt with the Inn’s own granola and berries. That’s to start. It comes with the room.
A flight of fruit juices. What do you want? Staff are trained never to say “no.”
But I long to run wild through the à la carte selection too, each $25 additional. How can I leave Virginia without tasting seared Gulf shrimp and grits? Or brioche French toast with blackberry sauce? Or silver dollar cottage cheese pancakes with fresh blueberries? “A trio of classic American breakfast favorites in miniature” seems the perfect compromise.
For $25 extra, 3 minis: oatmeal soufflé, quail egg benedict, eggs soft as hollandaise.
It comes with house-cured bacon and country sausage – heaven forbid, I almost spent 24 hours without bacon. The trio comes with a quail egg Benedict, oatmeal soufflé with rum soaked currants and maple syrup, and eggs scrambled exactly the way I like them -- resembling a slightly thickish Hollandaise. What’s missing? Hash browns. No, they’re right here. I almost overlooked them. Anything else? Hey, no cinnamon bun!
We’ll take care of that on the way back to New York. But that’s another story.
Middle and Main Streets. Washington Va. 540 675 3800. Dinner is $158 per person Monday through Thursday, $168 on Friday and Sunday, and $188 on Saturday. The 10-course tasting is an additional $50. Lunch is not served.
Room rates include afternoon tea service and House continental breakfast. Rooms $425 to $635. Suites $705 to $995. The two bedroom Claiborne House $2450. Saturday night stays $245 extra. Fridays $145 extra. Sundays $75 extra. Months of May and October $100 additional per room per night. Inquire about holiday rates.
I tried to reserve a standard room, but O’Connell insisted the three of us stay as his guests in the Claiborne house because I was one of the Culinary Pioneers honored at their 30th Anniversary. I paid for my dinner.
Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2012 All rights reserved.
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