I love my family, I really do. But there are times when I wondered what it would be like for the “Hungry” Hubby and I to be by ourselves on Thanksgiving weekend – sharing a tranquil time far from the madding crowd.
I have already made the plans for the getaway when the HH’s sister announced that she was having a big Thanksgiving party – 42 people to be exact. You know how that goes – you invite someone and then they have a friend or family in town and you end up inviting the whole lot.
And here we are, her closest family, missing from the festivities.
I toyed with canceling my reservations at the Foster Harris House B&B and dinner at The Inn at Little Washington – but how can I give up two mornings of four-coursed breakfasts and an evening of Patrick O’ Connell’s grand cuisine all for a little twinge (okay it was more than a twinge) of guilt.
I almost did…but not because of guilt. When I found out my brother-in-law was preparing his famous Pernil al Horno –that Puerto Rican roast pork dish – visions of crispy pork skin started crackling in my head and for a moment there was doubt about what I really wanted.
But the call of the countryside won out, so packing a variety of cheese, crusty Tuscan bread and a great bottle of Joseph Phelps Insignia we escaped to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountain on Thanksgiving day.
The Foster Harris House is a charming turn of the century Victorian structure. More than one friend had recommended the place to us but it was not until I saw the scrumptious breakfast pics on T.W.’s blog, Culinary Types that had me finally convinced. We were met at the door by the B&B’s proprietor, John Macpherson, who so graciously showed us around before leading us up to our cozy room.
The next morning, HH and I got up early to take in the beautiful view sprawled majestically at the B&B’s backyard. The wind had a frosty bite to it, but we managed to stay outside long enough to refresh our lungs with clean mountain air and marvel at the tranquility of gently rolling hills and artistic sculpture of ancient trees casting imposing shadows on the land.
A breakfast of warm scones, perfectly poached egg over flaky puff pastry and cream of wheat brulee was a welcome respite for my chilled bones. Prepared so meticulously by John, it was served efficiently by Dianne – the other half of the innkeeper couple. She deftly refilled our coffee, switch plates out and reset our table in between courses at the same time carrying a lively conversation with our group.
After a filling breakfast we decided to take in more of the breathtaking scenery by taking a leisurely drive known as the North Wine Loop. I was not even going to mention the lunch we had at a certain tavern. Our meal was a big disappointment but I learned a funny lesson. Beware when you order wings at a restaurant, they might not always be what you expect. A platter arrived with what looked like wings from the prehistoric era. Hmm… didn’t I just see lots of vultures hovering all over earlier during our drive and more than a couple of hunters with their monstrous pickup trucks? HH told me it might be turkey wings. I took a tentative bite – well it tastes like chicken! We finally asked our server what they were and were relieved to find out that they were chicken legs scraped back to expose the bone and deep-fried.
Heading back to the B&B, HH couldn’t wait to find some espresso to clear out the disdainful taste of lunch, I was feeling a bit disgusted myself and opted for a soda to refresh my taste buds. Oh, how I prayed that I wouldn’t get sick – that would surely suck!
As the hour struck 5 pm, we got ready; my stomach was primed as well as it could ever be. We stepped out into the nippy cold evening for a much anticipated dinner.
The magic of The Inn at Little Washington (TIALW) began the moment we pulled into their driveway. A doorman opened my car door while another opened a door to the Inn. Two hosts greeted us at the foyer. I gave the name under which the reservation had been made and as a host took our coat, another led us to a warm wood- burning fireplace while he went to make sure that our table was ready.
It did not take long before we were guided beneath opulently gilded ceilings and by breathtaking luxurious walls on the way to our table. As we settled into our chairs, the host handed us our menus. I nearly fell of my seat as I opened my menu, I barely heard our host asking us if we wanted some champagne- on the house – to which I answered yes.
The Daring Baker’s Logo was emblazoned on each side of the menu header. What in the world?! Do these folks have people working in the CIA, after all Langley isn’t that far.
Our main server introduced herself (why oh why could I not remember her name) and welcomed us warmly to the restaurant. Another server showed up with four spoons of Amuse Bouche; soon after, a basket of Parmesan wafers suddenly appeared as our fluted champagne glasses were filled with a rose blush bubbly. As I was perusing the menu, my nose caught a familiar pungent smell and was puzzled when I saw the retro-style carton of popcorn held out before us.
“Please enjoy some truffled popcorn with your champagne.” A white- gloved waiter proceeded to liberally shave a black Burgundy truffle over our popcorn. “ We love to use this truffle when it is in season.”
OH MY GOD!!! I have absolutely not tasted popcorn this superb! Truffles’ aromatic appeal defies description and it lends itself so sensually to every single dish it adorns -each kernel of popcorn was coated with its heady scent. I glared at HH when he scooped up a pinch of truffle shavings to eat by itself. We remembered our friend who told us how they were taught to open a champagne bottle quietly in the movie theatre as this sparkly drink goes so well with popcorn. I wondered how I could recreate this at home: truffle oil, definitely, some coarse salt and parsley and could have some grated Parmesan in it too.
Oops…I have not decided on dinner yet.
HH and I were determined not to order the same courses. Our server was extremely knowledgeable of the menu and helped us decide on what to order based on our culinary preferences.
For our First Course:
HH had the Marriage of Hot and Cold Foie Gras. Both had a luxurious melting mouth feel. The wine jelly worked as a perfect foil for the cold-terrine version. The grilled black mission figs added some sweetness and acidity to the perfectly seared hot Foie Gras.
My plate of Carpaccio of Herb Crusted Baby Lamb was a revelation of the balanced herb flavors of tarragon, thyme, oregano and basil. The outer layer is seared, which I think gives a greater flavor compared to the traditional raw version. Rosemary, an herb long used for lamb dishes, is infused very delicately in mustard form to complement rather than overpower the paper thin shavings of tender and moist meat.
For our Second Course:
HH had Macaroni and Cheese. Seriously, he did. But this was not your common macaroni and cheese. A lot of people have tried one glorified version or another but this I think is the best. Macaroni pasta coated enticingly with a creamy sauce of Parmesan and aged Gouda, airy slices of Virginia country ham serving as an ideal foil for the quintessential comfort food. But it doesn’t stop there… shavings of black truffle puts an already superb dish over the top.
My own Porcini Dusted Scallop was a bit of disappointment. It was still good, and the HH loved it. But I felt the red wine butter sauce had a very strong ginger taste. The cauliflower puree was not as exquisite as how I remembered it years ago. I think the original version – truffle-dusted – is a lot better.
For our Third Course:
HH’s Pan-roasted Maine Lobster was deliciously tender and succulent, its citrus reduction of grapefruit and orange serves as a perfect counterpoint to the entire dish. Our server explained that pan roasting a lobster preserves more of the shellfish’s flavor because it is not lost to boiling water as how it is commonly prepared.
I seem to be partial to herb crusted lamb tonight. My parsley crusted lamb loin couldn’t have been better prepared . It was cooked as ordered – medium rare. The simple flavor of the lamb was paired with a burst of flavor from the accompanying morsels of seared foie gras. This combination invoked acrobatic flips of my tongue as I shuddered at the sensuous onslaught of flavor and texture.
And for our Dessert…
HH couldn’t be stopped from ordering a painter’s palette of Seasonal Sorbets even if I tried to convince him to order the Seven Deadly Sins that was a sampling of the Inn’s most decadent desserts. Unfortunately, he did not like the sorbets too much, not because it was not good but because he personally did not like coconut or cinnamon as a flavor. The mango did not taste too much like mango either. The whole setup on a painter’s palette was adorable though.
I have to leave the best for last… a Warm Apple Tart served with Buttermilk Ice Cream. This simple dessert almost made me cry with how good it was! Starting with its extremely flaky and feathery crust that crackled with each bite before melting so seductively into my mouth, it ended with tender slices of apple so expertly seasoned with cinnamon and sugar and bathed in a mysterious glaze that felt like velvet on my tongue. My belly was already straining with fullness halfway through my tart but I refused to waste even a morsel of this ethereal dish. There was one bite left and I pleaded to the hubby to take it before I commit more gluttony by finishing it. He gladly obliged.
Earlier we asked if we could have a kitchen tour and after dinner, the host came by to get us. I asked if we could take pictures. And he enthusiastically said “ Of course! In fact we encourage it!”
He led us through more richly decorated hallways before a double door opened up to reveal the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous and lavish kitchen I have ever seen. Tall, coffered ceilings, shiny copper hoods and an entire wall of windows – this was Patrick O Connell’s theatre where each and every dish is so perfectly choreographed. The man himself was there on the hot plate but he took time out to greet us and shake our hands. I remarked about the magnificence of his kitchen and the er…lack of chaos. It was the calmest kitchen I have ever seen! You barely hear pots and pans banging on the grate or stovetop – or people yelling for that matter. There was a funny reference to Gordon Ramsay in the course of our conversation, but I did not remember what it was. Chef O’ Connell said, “ I heard you were in the food business, what exactly do you do?”
That question caught me off-guard, but I said that I still worked in computers but I have an online pastry shop that specializes in Parisian Macarons. He seemed very interested in that and asked me why I chose these particular cookies. I said that I was disappointed in Richmond’s lack of a good dessert place, also learning from the great Pierre Herme was very inspiring in the use of quality ingredients. He nodded approvingly at my reply.
I knew he was a busy man so HH and I reluctantly said our goodbyes and the Pope of Fine American Cuisine wished me luck in my business.
I was in a trance as I floated out the restaurant – sated not only in my belly but in my soul – the experience was nothing short but surreal.
The next day, I was still obsessing about the popcorn and the apple tart. While waiting for breakfast in the living room, I was perusing Patrick O’ Connell’s first cookbook, I almost zoned out everyone in the room as my eyes zeroed in on the apple tart’s recipe. Now I couldn’t wait to get home…there is work to be done in the Test Kitchen!
After another delightful breakfast, we bid farewell to John and Dianne and headed on our way.
TIALW uses Virginia ham from a place in Culpeper, Va called Calhoun's and we were wondering if we could make it a stop on our way home. We did not have much problem finding it, thanks to my Iphone’s GPS. The place was packed, but we did manage to purchase a couple of ham steaks, slices, ham hocks, and sides (thick fat bacon). I couldn’t wait to try the Inn’s Mac and Cheese!
On our way through Virginia’s countryside on scenic Route 522, HH caught me in a state of deep thought and asked me what I was thinking of.
I have a deep-rooted childhood attachment to apple pie. If it’s on the menu, I’ll order it regardless of the fancy soufflés or mousses that may be competing for my favor
The Inn At Little Washington is not only about the food, it is about the experience. Their staff is extremely professional, each movement is perfectly orchestrated and has a purpose. There is none of the awkwardness that you see in other restaurants attempting the "frou-frou" but falls flat because they couldn’t pull it off. TIALW definitely pulls it off with cutting precision; they are masters of it! Their staff could read minds…seriously! They are there when you need them but retreats quietly into the background when you don’t.
A pilgrimage to a Culinary Mecca such as The Inn at Little Washington is an event that can reinvigorate the gastronomic consciousness. I come back fully inspired …and with winter fast approaching what better time to turn on that stove or oven and do some serious cooking!
Here are some of the dishes I have already tried from his books. They are absolutely worth the effort!