Many people have a bucket list. Some may take the time to meticulously write down the things they want to do before they die in great detail and take pleasure in crossing off each item as it has been completed. Other’s bucket lists are more amorphous. A collection of loosely developed ideas kept in the back of their minds. My bucket list is a cross between the two. There are certain ideas that I have and goals that I want to achieve in my life and then there are the concrete things that I need to do before I kick the bucket. I have been fortunate to have completed some of the ‘must do” items on my list such as dining at Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire in Paris, climbing the Great Wall of China (11 times), riding an elephant into the Thai jungle, eating a seven course snake dinner in Vietnam, chewing on crispy fried scorpions in Beijing, apprenticing in the best restaurant in the world, The Fat Duck in England, cooking for Julia Child’s birthday dinner in Maine, and “stage” at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Yountville. Also on my list is dinner at Patrick O’Connell’s famed Inn at Little Washington. As of last night I am able to say that this item has been completed.
We left Philly, cheese steak in hand, around noon on Sunday and began making our way to Virginia. The majority of the ride was pretty uneventful and what we have come to expect over the last two plus weeks of traveling. As we got closer to Virginia however, my anticipation (and anxiety) about dinner grew. I first learned about Patrick O’Connell and the Inn at Little Washington after leaving Chef Allen’s restaurant in Aventura. I decided to head north for the summer to work in Maine at the Goose Cove Lodge. The chef at the time, Robert Evans, had just completed a two year stint working at the Inn. His experience was evident in the food we were cooking — precise, calculated and mindful of where the ingredients came from. His technique was flawless and his approach to each ingredient was almost religious. Ever since this time, I knew I had to visit this place.
We arrived at the hotel around 4:00 pm. We quickly changed and drove to the restaurant for our 5:30 pm (yes, 5:30 pm) reservation. The drive was beautiful. The Inn is located in Washington, Virginia, a tiny village in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We drove through rolling hills, passed many farms, pumpkin patches, vineyards and wineries. Finally, we reached our destination.
The Inn is stunning. The outside looks like a colonial home complete with a two level front porch. We entered and were taken aback by the beauty. The interior is richly appointed with layers of elaborate wall paper and tapestries, antiques and comfortable, intimate seating areas. The beautiful furnishings continue into the restaurant with luxurious damask table coverings, sparkling silverware and gorgeous china. Everything worked effortlessly together but, as I will soon describe, could not over shine the dining experience.
We were quickly shown to our table which was located, not in the main dining room, but on a back porch overlooking the garden. It was a beautiful room with a gorgeous view. Although the dining room was full, we were the only ones on the porch. Perhaps the fact that I told the maître d’ that we were bringing an infant had something to do with this (they really know what they are doing). Or maybe it was due to the reservationist looking up my name to see that I was in the business, a detail that was pretty apparent by the “right this way Chef DeRosa”.
Nestled into a cozy corner, we opened the menu which was personalized with our names. After reviewing the sumptuous offering, we decided on the “Gastronaut’s Menu.” This ten course tasting menu was nothing short of amazing. After a few amuse-bouche, the courses began.
Truffle Dusted Popcorn
A Tin of Sin: American Osetra Caviar with Peekytoe Crab and Cucumber Rillette
Lemon-Lime Lobster Largesse: Chilled Maine Lobster with Caramelized Endive, Citrus-Sake Gelee
Maine Day Boat Scallops Saûteed with Tomato Gnocchi, Capers, Brown Butter and Lemon
North Pacific Cod in an Asian Inspired Broth Perfumed with Ginger
Pappardelle Pasta with Chanterelle Mushrooms, Blenheim Apricots and Ribbons of Country Ham
Pan Seared Duck Breast with Wild Rice Pilaf, Seared Foie Gras and Caramelized Virginia Figs
Pineapple-Lemongrass Sorbet with Pink Peppercorn Granita
A Miniature Blueberry Crisp with Limoncello Pudding Cake and Berry Rapture Frozen Yogurt
Our more than helpful server precisely suggested wine pairings with each course which enhanced our experience. As we ate our way through this spectacular menu we kept thinking that we had eaten our favorite bite until the next course was presented. This is a dinner that I will not soon forget.
This amazing meal was toped off with a tour of the kitchen. Having read about this kitchen for some time, I could picture it in my mind even before I entered. As the manager escorted me through the dining room, I knew this would be a memorable moment. The doors opened and I could hear opera coming from the hallway. Yes, the kitchen was executing a full dinner service in harmony to classical music. I was introduced to Chef Stephen Lyons, the Executive Sous Chef, and my tour through the perfectly manicured heart of the restaurant began. We chatted as if we knew each other for years: food, ingredients, textures and flavors. He asked me to come with him on the line to show me the mis en place, food, grills and ovens and how they write menus based on the brigade system. As we progressed through the stations walking “behind” the young chefs, each one responded “oui chef” in concert, all thoroughly aware of their surroundings and our presence. We continued discussing stories of life, children, living in small towns, working for celebrity chefs and laughed at common kitchen banter. I was throughly impressed with the finesse of the young women chefs in “garde manger” and their expert handling of each plate. It seemed as if the food danced it’s way onto the plates with careful precision. Sometimes we forget that in a world driven by economics, people who are truly passionate about their craft are magical in their approach to perfection.
The team at the Inn at Little Washington are true masters of their craft. From the friendly valet, to the smiles at reception, to the attentiveness each service staff displayed, to our knowledgable and overly patient server. And the Pièce de résistance — the kitchen and their warm hospitable way of allowing a visiting chef to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Thank you for a memorable evening and an inspiring journey through your home…