The façade has the requisite white columns expected in the Old Dominion, and a handsome door held for you by a smiling young man in black livery. Step into what can be described as a full-press sensory adventure decked out with richly layered fabrics on walls and ceilings, tapestries, fireplaces with polished mantles, oriental vases, antiques of muted splendor, and original oils more Constable than Wyeth.
Your primary reaction won’t be awe – there’s that, too – but keen anticipation: You’ve come to dine. So follow the hostess across a dense carpet on a wide-board floor from a 17th century French chateau. You have driven from wherever to Washington, Virginia, older than its namesake on the Potomac 67 miles to the east, a well-preserved bit of the historic piedmont graced with beautiful Colonial brick houses and a view of the Blue Ridge reminiscent of the Yorkshire Dales.
Here are period chairs to ease into, and an icy glass of champagne at the ready. “Everything has a story at the Inn,” says the man who created it, chef Patrick O’Connell, “just as it might in someone’s house.” He wears the signature Dalmatian print apron and has taken a break from his fabled kitchen. “Everything’s unique. The goal is to take you to a place you’ve never been.”
The knowledge that this was once a general store and auto mechanic’s shop doesn’t interfere with his vision or temper the amazement that the strikingly original menu engenders. He started the Inn in 1978, which became a literal overnight success, and bought it soon afterward. It was inundated by diners eager to come all the way from Big Washington and beyond; it has received the highest professional accolades, from the AAA and Mobil Travel Guides to Zagat’s Washington DC Restaurant Survey and the James Beard Foundation.
“What movie set do you want to be in?” Patrick asks. This one’s a grand souffle of Atonement and Babette’s Feast, although he and his helpmate, London set designer Joyce Evans, would probably find such comparisons lame. The recent $5 million remodeling of kitchen, eight bedrooms, six suites, and two guest houses has maintained the aura of age and privilege traditional at the Inn, Evans’ only client. All the furniture has been shipped from England, for instance. “The place has become a folie in the best sense,” Patrick adds, laughing. “The food by itself wouldn’t be enough.”
In the kitchen are silver chalices and an incense burner, droll visual metaphors for what Patrick refers to as “the temple.” Here the holiest of holies is prepared on a massive new center island range in British racing green, under a brass and copper canopy, by sous chefs in the same black-and-white aprons. All dishes must pass beneath the chef’s critical eye before being released to expectant diners.
Take a seat at a corner banquette in the dining room, under a fringed lampshade, and unfold a big, crisp, white napkin. The first course is a culinary contrast: four fresh Island Creek oyster “slurpies” on the half-shell, each topped with different ices – cucumber, passion fruit, wasabi, and cocktail sauce – and brimming with the essence of ocean. Another is the explosive Mediterranean medley of crispy Rouget in gazpacho with an olive tapenade crouton.
This is followed by an elegant Napoleon of wild mushrooms in a kind of froth of mushrooms, butter, and shallots. The stacked layers of phyllo, wild mushrooms, and fresh herbs look like it has been snowed on by a Parmesan cloud and conveys a delectable seasonal earthiness in an enduring Inn standard. The pan-seared Peking duck breast comes from nearby Four Story Hill Farm and is served on one of the many white plates specially designed for particular dishes, this one deep, with broad shoulders, accentuating the four slices of duck breast fanned on a bed of creamy corn pudding and surrounded by a dark reduction of braised cherries. The triumph of this particular creation is the distinct, “real” taste of very different, very fresh components.
Various bubble teas made of fruit plucked almost within sight emanate from Little Washington. This day it’s strawberry, a perfect, palette-resuscitating transition to the final indulgence: homemade mint ice cream draped with chocolate streamers. This lays the taste buds happily to rest and completes an intimate acquaintanceship with local ingredients transformed through the minor miracle of French country cooking and American inventiveness into something entirely, yes, unique.
“It’s never static here,” Patrick has said. “I think of the Inn as a garden, always being pruned and tweaked, elevating everything to the same level. Just as you can’t create an environment you don’t want to be in, you can’t serve food you don’t want to eat.”