Recently, I had the pleasure of eating at The Inn at Little Washington, one of America’s great restaurants and a destination that should be stamped in every serious foodie’s passport.
|The view from the road on the way to The Inn.|
Patrick O'Connell, the owner and chef is a self-taught cook who learned by doing and reading cookbooks—lots of cookbooks. He opened the Inn in a former garage in 1978, and his star has risen ever since. He and his restaurant have won about every food and cooking award offered in this Country. He has even cooked for the Queen.
We ate in the kitchen, something I have never done outside of my own kitchen, which of course doesn’t really count, not by a long shot. Again, this is not just any kitchen, especially in terms of scale and beauty. It is huge! And if the kitchen were a character, it would be one of Lord Grantham’s cousins on Downton Abbey. Our table was next to a massive gothic hearth that would look at home in one of Henry VIII’s castles. This makes sense as the kitchen is apparently modeled after the Dairy Room in Windsor Castle and the large copper and bronze hood (handmade in France) is made to resemble King Arthur’s joisting tent. Our table offered a commanding view of the kitchen and the preparation of the fabulous meal we were about to enjoy.
Perhaps from watching too many shows like Chopped on the Food Network or from reading too much Anthony Bourdain, I expected, or rather anticipated, the kitchen to be a simmering cauldron of chaos, with pots clanging and cooks yelling at each other, while scrambling around like rabbits. To my surprise, the kitchen was quiet, quiet enough in fact to hear the Gregorian chants that O’Connell plays over speakers. Everyone went about their tasks with a quiet but focused determination.
Food was placed in containers that were clearly marked and if there were any dirty pots or pans, they must have been magic and invisible because I didn’t see any. The kitchen seemed to be an extension of O’Connell’s personality: calm, gracious, and competent. His is completely in control of his kitchen and his food.
|Eggplant from the garden.|
O’Connell is a former drama student, and he puts those skills to good use. O’Connell has been called the “Pope of American Cuisine,” a title that O’Connell has taken to heart while at the same time poking good-natured fun at it. For example, when the door to the kitchen is ceremoniously opened, you are introduced by a member of the staff dressed as an acolyte waiving a chained thurible, with O'Connell standing behind him along with the kitchen staff in their chef’s whites (which are actually dark blue) lined up at attention.
Inscribed within the ornate crown moldings in the kitchen are five words that O’Connell says are a tongue-in-cheek homage to Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s, The Five Stages of Grief. They are: anticipation, trepidation, inspection, fulfillment, and evaluation. It was explained to us that anticipation is how one feels upon arriving at this storied restaurant. Then there is the trepidation as to whether it will live up to one's expectations. Then, inspection as one examines and tastes the beautifully prepared food. Fulfillment as it meets, and then exceeds, one's expectation. And finally, evaluation or the downloading of memories of what was truly a great meal.
While traveling on the crowded road of modern American food culture, with its hairpin turns and exits ending in cul-de-sacs of failed expectations, it is comforting to know that one can find a place like The Inn. A place where disciplined creativity combines with attentive but relaxed and gracious service, where one can enjoy food with all five senses fully engaged.
Well, enough of such nacreous prose, most of you probably want to know what we ate! And here it is! The Gastronaut’s Menu, a ten-course tasting menu with wine pairings:
Black Truffle Dusted Popcorn
A "shot" of tomato-orange bisque
A Tin of Sin: American Osetra Caviar
with Peekytoe Crab and Cucumber Rillette
Jaen-Pierre Legret, Blanc de Blanc, Cuvée Spéciale, Talus-Saint-Prix,
Champagne, France (N.V.)
Chilled Mane Lobster with Tomato Water Gazpacho Gelée
Kiralyudvar, Tokaji Furmint Sec, Hegyalja Hungary (2011)
Seared New England Day Boat Scallop
with a Mélange of Summer Vegetables and Creamy Garlic Grits
Viñeos de Ithaca, Garnatxa Blanca, Odysseuys, Priorat, Spain (2011)
Seared Antarctic Sea Bass in an Asian Inspired Broth Perfumed with Ginger
Marie Barnard, En Virondots, Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru, Burgundy, France (2009)
|Obviously this is not a pheasant.|
It is actually a Thanksgiving Day
turkey from a few years back.
I forgot to take a picture of this course!
Breast of Pheasant with Sweet Corn Pudding, Succotash and Virginia Mushrooms
Dusky Goose, Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon (2006)
Barbecued Jamison Farms Lamb
with Miniature Grilled Vegetables and Harissa Hollandaise
Shane Wine Cellars Sarah, Valenti Ranch, Anderson Valley, California (2009)
Pineapple Lemongrass Sorbet with Pink Peppercorn Granita
Bitter Chocolate Marquise “Taillevent” with Pistachio Ice Cream
Blandy’s, Island Bottled Malmsey, Madeira, Portugal