“There’s a cow on the loose! Call wildlife control,” Cameron Smith playfully shouts. Many of us associate hushed tones with “fancy” dining. And it doesn’t get much fancier than a meal at the three-Michelin star The Inn at Little Washington. But most restaurants of its caliber also don’t employ a “Cheese Whiz,” (a.k.a. fromager) who makes his way through the restaurant with a wheeled bovine (her name is Faira) that carries his dairy-based selections of the day.
It’s all part of the daily balancing act of whimsy and serious French-inflected cuisine that chef and proprietor Patrick O’Connell oversees in sparkling detail. There’s the Monkey Lounge, decorated in chimps and apes, just outside the restrooms, but the dimly lit, plush main dining room is sumptuously staid until Smith and Faira enter. Even the mannequins placed at every other table to ensure social distancing seem to exist to transport diners to a more refined time.
So what actually happens when a diner penetrates O’Connell’s storied realm, described on the restaurant’s website as “a wondrous cocoon of luxury?” I checked it out to inform readers exactly what it is they’re getting for $265 a head before beverages (the wine pairing is an additional $180), tax and service charges.
A Dinner to Remember
The experience begins with a drive into tiny Washington. Its centerpiece is 309 Middle Street, a former gas station that had a dance hall above it. There’s nary a vestige of its former life as valets whisk you from car to lobby. The hostesses are already expecting you. They called a week in advance to make sure there are no dietary restrictions in your party. They present you with a menu printed with the names of the members of your party. There are actually two bills of fare: the Gastronaut’s Menu and The Good Earth, featuring omnivorous and vegetarian choices, respectively.
The meal begins with a series of gifts from the kitchen. The first amuse-bouche does exactly what it promises with individual potato chips shaped into tiny cannoli and filled with sharp, creamy pimento cheese. Bread service follows, with sunny-yellow butter surrounded by salt under a glass cloche. The server proffers both individual loaves and slices, which are replenished throughout the meal. The final surprise is a pea soup that tastes as much of the ham that infuses it as the compounded flavor of the peas themselves. A parmesan cigar rises jauntily from one side of the tiny glass bowl. It’s only then that the procession of five courses, plus a palate cleansing sorbet, commences in earnest.
A “Star-Kissed” tuna and foie gras confit awash in black truffle vinaigrette
O’Connell pulls out all the visual stops with his first course, pictured above. As Stephen Sondheim wrote in Gypsy, “you’ve gotta get a gimmick,” and serving tuna in a can surrounded by seaweed is one that’s bound to delight. To be honest, the fish itself acts as a meaty filler for the interplay between the lush foie gras and earthy truffle.
Carpaccio of herb-crusted Elysian Fields baby lamb loin with Caesar salad ice cream
I’ve been hearing about the Caesar salad ice cream for years. I love savory ice cream and was drawn to the idea of O’Connell’s version. But in fact, it’s not exactly savory. A sweet edge makes it a little more of a mind bender than simply putting dressing into an ice cream machine. Buttery croutons and saline capers take the gorgeous rounds of lamb more to the side of appetizer than dessert, as does a feathery nest of Parmesan.
Grilled black kingfish with shallot confiture and red wine reduction
Fried onions make everyone happy, from Burger King to fine dining. They’re as much a centerpiece of this dish as the tender morsel of grill-marked kingfish that they crown. The lip-sticking combination of shallot confiture and rich red wine reduction is another touch that will delight diners with a sweet tooth.
Pepper-crusted loin of venison on a tangle of tart greens with pickled cranberries and Sauce Robert
Deciding between the venison and duck breast with figs braised in Madeira was no easy feat, but my server correctly advised me that it’s harder to find venison on menus. The impeccably pink meat is served in a pool of Sauce Robert, a mustard speckled demi-glace. The sauce ties together the tangy greens and cranberries with a necessary dose of butter.
Apparently a Pear
Coconut sorbet with a passionfruit and ginger granité doesn’t so much cleanse the palate as prime the diner for the spectacle of dessert. “Apparently a Pear” is a trompe l’oeil cheesecake filled with poached pears resting in a puddle of crème anglaise that’s as much of an attraction as the centerpiece itself.
At the end of the meal, diners are presented with a keepsake envelope with their personalized menus, as well as a cardboard replica of the inn filled with sweets, including buttery shortbread and pâte de fruits. It’s a beautiful way to extend the luxury into the next night. // 309 Middle St., Washington
For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.