Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Coming Home to Chef Patrick O’Connell’s Country Inn

The seasons have changed several times since my last visit. The Inn at Little Washington is framed with late summer flowers and the air is pleasingly warm.

Although it is just 65 miles from densely-populated Washington DC, the Inn seems to exist in another time and place. Think Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, where magic, mythical figures and high adventure rule the night. Having spent the day hiking Shenandoah’s Old Rag Mountain – a strenuous scramble over prehistoric boulders – I am more than willing to succumb to the fantasy.

I am greeted affectionately at the door, as if I’d never been away, and taken to a table in the garden to enjoy a cocktail. Francois serves a sparkling rose wine accompanied by tangy parmesan crisps. The garden is a welcomed respite from the day’s hike, and there is a certain symmetry to the sparkling rose, the lovely flowers and the bubbling lily pond.

When I’ve finished my cocktail, I am escorted back to the dining room for my meal and seated at the same table where I dined during my last visit – a perfect corner location to view the drama unfolding before me. Sophie presents me with the evening’s menu. It reads “A Warm Welcome to Mr. Barritt,” and my eyes widen when I note the “Culinary Types” logo emblazoned at the top of the menu. They’ve done their homework. I am both astonished and flattered.

It is the Inn’s 30th anniversary year. I’ve chosen the Chef’s Tasting Menu with paired wines in order to experience as much as possible of Chef Patrick O’Connell’s famed cuisine. I munch on extraordinarily fresh Tempura Green Beans from the chef’s own garden and gaze in wonder as the procession of exquisite edibles begins.

A Tin of Sin tempts me with briny caviar atop a crab and cucumber rillette, ingeniously presented in an actual caviar tin. The salty black gems pop with the bubbles of the Andre Tissot Cremant de Jura Brut poured by Meredith, the sommelier.

A chilled pink watermelon soup – spiked with tequila – and the color of strawberry ice cream, conjures up refreshing thoughts of a lively summer picnic.

A Quartet of Island Creek Oyster Slurpees, is nothing short of a gastronomic thrill – bracing oysters topped with icy dollops of passion fruit, cucumber puree, wasabi and traditional cocktail sauce. It is accompanied by smooth, chilled Sake.

A sweet Seared Maine Diver’s Scallop is bronze and luminescent white and sits in a pool of Garden Minestrone. A crisp, Potato Crusted Tuna Wellington, with a lively Caponata Ravioli and Sauce Bearnaise is a sassy, post-modern take on the classic dish.

The elegant focal point of the menu is as striking as a trompe l’oeil painting. Pan Seared Four Story Hill Farm’s Pekin Duck Breast offers succulent rare pink slices fanned over a glistening golden sweet corn pudding. Braised cherries add a dramatic, risqué flourish.

As a single diner, I know well there can be moments of self-consciousness in a restaurant when one eats solo, but never once do I feel that I am dining alone. The staff is charming and attentive. I chat with Meredith the sommelier about my encounter with a black bear on the hiking trail that afternoon. Shortly, Sophie returns and says, “So, I hear you met a bear today?” She is from Yorkshire, and we trade anecdotes about historic sites in Virginia. I feel celebrated, honored and right at home. It is easily one of the best dining experiences of my life, where food, service and environment converge in one sublime and joyful experience.

To my left, Sally Murray – resplendent in red – and her husband have come from Alexandria, Virginia to celebrate her birthday. We strike up a conversation over his Napoleon of Heirloom Tomatoes, and they are musing about whether a chef might become bored after thirty years at the same task.

There is still more on the menu. Blushing pink Strawberry-Basil Bubble Tea is sweet, spicy and effervescent. Served with a straw, I almost feel compelled to slurp like a youngster. The sweet finale is a Limoncello Soufflé – light airy, lemony and crowned with a perfect round of frosty lemon ice cream. At last, I am presented with petit fours in a tiny wicker picnic hamper. It is then that I get the question I’ve been hoping for all evening – Would you like to visit the kitchen? I try not to appear too eager, but calmly stand, button my jacket and follow Sophie.

The double doors to the kitchen are swept open to reveal Chef Patrick O’Connell standing at the center of the room. He is tall and stately and wears a long kitchen apron decorated with Dalmatian spots, an iconic pattern at the Inn. He greets me with a generous smile and we spend a few moments conversing, while the refined, purposeful, and choreographed activity of the kitchen plays on all around us.

While I have often heard him referred to as “Patrick,” I address him as “Chef,” the term of respect we used at the French Culinary Institute. He is well-briefed on my background. “I hear you write an online column,” he says, and at this point, I am feeling a bit like I am in the middle of an extraordinary dream.

I decide to put forward the question Sally and her husband have been speculating over. “After thirty years, do you ever get bored?”

He laughs and says that such a thing would be impossible. “No half hour is the same.”

Chef O’Connell talks to me about creating a feeling of “home” at the Inn and his desire to assure that each guest has a “flawless experience.”

“You do that quite well,” I respond.

He tells me that when he began the Inn in 1978, his inspiration was the cuisine of France and he worked to adapt the techniques to achieve an American sensibility. He asks me about my writing. Do you write about New York restaurants, or recipes? I explain that I write about people and food and that I am most successful as a writer when there is a person at the center of the story. I look for the connection between people and food. He seems to approve. Too many reviewers think of the food as a product, he tells me. They don’t think about the connection between the person and the creation.

He inquires as to whether I cook, and I confess that I am probably the best trained amateur to work his way through the French Culinary Institute. He tells me that Dorothy Hamilton, the founder of FCI is expected to dine at the Inn later in the week. He describes another of my favorite instuctors, Anne Willan of La Varenne, as a powerhouse.

Chef is kind enough to pose for a picture, and after that, I decide it is time to leave him to his work. There are still many more dinners to prepare and many more guests to indulge. I’m reluctant to go. I feel right at home.

I leave the Inn grasping the menu, a talisman of all that has transpired. The Virginia summer night sky is lit with a thousand brilliant stars and at that moment, my little universe does indeed seem flawless.

Recently I traveled through the Virginia countryside, discovering the local food, history and hospitality of what is called “the birthplace of the nation.” I dined at The Inn at Little Washington on Wednesday, August 20, 2008.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Maryann said...

Tw, I was really struck by how they put your logo on your menu. That's just wonderful detail.It sounds like a lovely place. I wouldn't mind trying the oysters :)

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I can't imagine a more perfect experience -- gracious service, warm hospitality, amazing food, and a peek inside the kitchen with a welcome by the chef!

veron said...

Oh my God, oh my God you had a picture with Patrick O' Connell! I don't know what I find more thrilling that you went to their kitchen and had a chat with Patrick or the fact that they did their research and put your logo on your menu. Such attention to detail. I do miss the Inn and want to return once I pull myself away from the macarons. :)

bakerslove said...

What a beautiful post. I found your blog and am just delighted. Thank you and keep blogging!

Rochelle R. said...

What a marvelous experience. It sounds close to perfect- a personalized menu and a chance to chat with the chef. Wow! The limoncello souffle sounds delicious.

Giff said...

Nice red carpet treatment. Lovely story TW. :)

Brent said...

What a mouth watering blog. The Inn reminds me of the American Hotel in Sharon Springs, NY

Cakespy said...

Oh my goodness!! What a lovely experience to have had. The logo and nice touch of having your name is such a great detail! And it sounds like things just got better from there on!

~~louise~~ said...

You Lucky Man!

One of my all time very best favorite cookbooks was written by your prestigious host, Chef Patrick O'Connell.

It sounds like you had a glorious time, T.W. Dining alone does indeed have it's rewards. The snapshot is the icing on the cake.

Thanks for sharing...

Carolyn said...

I just jumped over from Martha's Blog. I wanted to say Hi and nice Blog.

Stop by and visit me sometime.....


Carolyn said...

I just jumped over from Martha's Blog. I wanted to say Hi and nice Blog.

Stop by and visit me sometime.....


JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

This sounds like an absolutely wonderful experience. As a native of the Washington DC area, I have always wanted to try The Inn at Little Washington. My dad and step mother were just there this year and sang its praises, much like you!

I love all the little details they did to make you feel welcome and special. I think that is wonderful!

Kathy said...

What a wonderful meal! I like the sound of those oysters.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Deek, good luck with your project.

Maryann - there were so many special touches, but that certainly did it for me.

Lydia - the kitchen is like a dream - it was rebuilt a few years ago and it extraordinary.

Veron - I wish you were there!!! You were on my mind the whole time!

Bakerslove - thank you so much for visiting!

Rochelle - the souffle was delicate and creamy - I love lemon desserts.

Giff - Chef Patrick has said the visitor should feel like the star in a movie, and it certainly seemed that way. It's a real tribute to the way they treat their guests.

Brent - Thanks for visiting. I will have to look into the American Hotel.

Hi Cakespy - if only it weren't so far from NYC - I'm almost ready for a autumn visit!

Louise - Isn't the cookbook beautiful?

Hi Carolyn - thanks so much for visiting, and your nice remarks. I look forward to visiting your blog!

Jenn - I think it is a one of a kind experience. I really admire their philosophy, and how well they practice their art.

Kathy - Oysters win me over every time, and the toppings were just outstanding!

~~louise~~ said...

Yes, T.W. the cookbook is so beautiful that the person who borrowed it has yet to return it. Thanks for reminding me.

If you get a chance, drop by my blog. I left a small award for you.