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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Dine with Me: Patrick O'Connell, Where is My Veal Tongue?

I apologize for this long post, a cardinal sin in blog-posting land, but I hope you will feel inclined to read about our experience at the Inn at Little Washington. It was a dream of ours for a very long time. How did it turn out? 

We were returning south to North Carolina from promoting Taste the Adventure, our Teen Trips to France and Barcelona up in Washington, DC and Maryland and Pennsylvania. Join us this summer! 

Taste the Adventure, Teens in Provence 2007

On the road and at schools and camp fairs we talk to potential students about how life is so much fuller and better around the table;  both the prep table and the dining room table. We mention how the rich old world charm of Southwest French cuisine complements the flamboyant and sizzling paella world of Barcelona. But as the rolling hills passed by the loud voice of exclamations drifted away. In the passenger seat, I stretched out my co-pilot legs and relaxed as the road meandered south from Pennsylvania on route 81 through rolling hills of northern Virginia. The wind blew, and all along route 81 were wind advisories.

Perhaps the wind blew in all the trouble?

It was a Monday night, the day before Valentine's Day, and we felt incredibly lucky to be going to the Inn at Little Washington. At all! How had we gotten in?

On the way north a few days prior, Rich and I talked about how the Inn at Little Washington had been on our list, and so I clicked on the website and the dining button took me to Open Table. My brain reviewed all the thoughts it used to think about the Inn; was it insanity or bravery to open an Inn of this caliber out in the middle of nowhere. It seemed sheer luxury and lunacy and fun!

But I had lost track of any current news on the Inn or on Patrick O’Connell’s break-up with Reinhardt Lynch or any trouble with the Washington Post and the Michelin star thing or the ratings thing or anything. I well, just thought, this will be fun! Perhaps they knew I hadn’t thought about the Inn at all in a number of years, in the same way that google knows of my interest in shitakes and miso and ads show up on my phone. 

On Open Table I was a bit surprised to see any availability at all. So if my google theory holds up, then had the Inn pegged us as a “not serious” level of diner when we walked in?

It turned out to be a very odd night at the Inn, one I am still mulling over a week later. And still confirmed as we received our menus, signed by Patrick O'Connell. Still no sign of why I received wagyu beef. Instead of veal tongue. 

I had, and still have the utmost respect for the show the Inn puts on, the magnitude of culinary skill, and the menu. As a graduate of the CIA in the early 80’s my education was steeped in veal bones and demi-glace and caramel walnut torte’s and Advanced Pastry Classes and Charcuterie with a capital C. 

With my husband, Rich, I own C’est si Bon! a Cooking School for the last twenty years. I've seen the back of the house, the front of the house, the side of the house, the chicken house, the bee house, and the garden, and what can go wrong is a heckuva lot. And I fully appreciate the dance done every single day in the food business. And I know how it has changed. At least for me. 

C'est si Bon! Cooking School seen from the garden

In Little Washington, we pulled up to the door, and thought it was unusually small. And a bit quiet for the Inn at Little Washington even on the day before Valentine’s day.  Ah, wrong door.

But once we turned around on the main street, and did arrive, the front door bellman led us out of and away from our car, and opened the right door to the Inn. We stepped into a magical, heavenly, beautiful, and quirky room, filled to the brim with the aroma of roses and lilies and gorgeous velvety petals. Truly seductive. 

Gorgeous and seductive entry to the Inn 

We were seated and I had full view of a historical chef’s portrait. I asked but never learned who he was. To begin we enjoyed the cocktail of the evening, a Manhattan made with blood orange and cucumber. Blood orange is one of our favorites OF ALL TIME. 

We were so excited and so the waiter said he’d be happy to include the recipe with our menus, which would be signed by Partrick O’Connell and mailed to us. 

So we settled in to some serious coddling. We had brought a bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin 2006 and met the Sommelier, spoke with her and asked her opinion of whether it should be decanted, and she thought no. 

We placed our orders. One of each menu please. 

Here and Now Menu 

Classic Menu 

We chose a bottle of Sauvenniere from their Wine List.

Our waiter continued to be superb, in that jovial “I am here but have vowed to not bother you, unless you have a witty remark, and then of course I will laugh.” His reactions always seemed perfect. I forget his name, which is too too bad.

The young bread basket dude also was excellent and it seemed he enjoyed pressing as many miniature perfect and poppily seeded baguettes and salty edged crispy thin-sliced hearty caraway scented nuttiness into our greedy fingers as we were to receive them. He told us he had been in the kitchen but now had been on the dining room floor for 5 days. We asked him about the bread starter, how old it was, etc, and he said they don't keep a starter, but they do replenish it every day. Wait, what?  I don't think he had a clue as to what a levain, a bread starter, is. I have tried to find out since returning home if the Inn does indeed keep a starter, but have not found out.

The amuse bouche were outstanding.

Amuse Bouche, Gougere and Potage

And maybe my favorite dish of the night was the 2nd amuse bouche we were served. A braised cube of pork belly swaddled by a kimchi pancake, and sitting in a puddle of chili lime dipping sauce. 

Pork Belly Amuse Bouche

I was totally happy to be led in the taste experience to come and not analyze, poke, or examine. I didn’t want to work at enjoying. I prefer to let the kitchen surprise, delight, and my job, to bliss out, I take very seriously!  

My menu listed veal tongue, which I love and partly chose the Here and Now menu because I love veal tongue, now and then, and also here and now.

So when the lovely young female server, gracefully positioned the wagyu beef in front of me and told me in the utmost detail how it had lived and frolicked and bathed and now ceased to wagyu but rested before me, I was still in. I was so IN, I didn’t realize I was OUT. The dish of lamb with the much heralded Caesar salad ice cream was positioned in front of my husband, and it looked, as Chef Patrick O’Connell might hope, astonishing. Totally. We looked up briefly at each other and smiled. Wow- this must be another  amuse bouche course – ascending in size as well as in number of servings, and our bouche were unbuttoned and excited! (Bouche is French for mouth in case you were getting the WRONG idea.)

As I ate I considered why;  why were we receiving this bounty of bouche’s? 

Was it because we were celebrating Valentine’s Day a day early, and the kitchen was relieved and excited too, happy to play and tease and surprise? Or simply, was this because I had mentioned on the phone, in a breathy rush of adrenaline because I was indeed talking to someone who was standing in the Inn at Little Washington at this very moment and surely there were other phone calls coming in, and I had precious little time to convey who and why we were coming to the Inn, at last. So I had said quickly that we were celebrating life, and love, and 40 years of being and tasting together. So they had been listening! It was as our hosts at Fairlea Farm Bed and Breakfast had prepped us, when they gave us their tips on how to have a very pleasant evening. They hinted that the Inn may do special things for us without ever being asked!
We mentioned being able to see the kitchen and our waiter said that yes of course and would we like to meet Patrick, well, of course, we would be delighted.

Our quaint bed and breakfast right down the street from the Inn. 

With so many stars in my eyes, and maybe some poppy seeds too, I wouldn’t have been good at keeping track of which course we were served and when, and also quite honestly at $218 per dinner, I didn’t ever worry they needed my help to figure this out. But it turns out that I was wrong.

After these dishes were enjoyed and consumed, and whisked away, we received our next courses. For Madame, sweetbreads. And for Monsieur, lobster. Now I looked up, her lipstick was smudged and how did I only just notice? The room quieted and I heard whispers from the old chef’s portrait looking over us from the next room. Was that lint on the carpet? I had not been paying attention.   

The ancient chef portrait

The sweetbreads were supposed to have been my third course, and now my heart began fluttering. It must be me who was wrong. 

Confusion overwhelmed me as I realized we had received our second course first. And had never received our first course at all.


My mouth began to quiver, and my eyes saw off in the distance, the dismay that would soon would arrive, and that I would have to admit. My brain was in the process of telling my eyes to look away. 

To their credit the Maitre’d hurried over before I could look away. I explained what I thought had happened, that we had received our second courses first, and no first courses first. Or ever. He seemed genuinely shocked. He said we would be served our first courses in due course.  

We ate our second courses, and then we were served our first courses.  Not perfect. But I thought all was returning to perfect. 

And that our next course would be perfect, too. I was served lamb and Rich was served. Sweetbreads. We were told he had asked for them. No. No we didn’t. I just had sweetbreads.

The same Maitre-d explained that we could enjoy an extra dish of sweetbreads on them, but alas we didn’t really want to. So, they whisked my lamb away explaining that they wanted us to eat together. We waited for Rich’s duck, and my lamb to return. While waiting they came again to the table, flustered a bit and apologized again, but made no mention of adjusting anything. They exclaimed that we would be served an extra course. That turned out to be cheese. It’s not really that difficult bring the cheese cart around, not that we had wanted them to do anything difficult. 

But the really sad thing is that once the conversation started about what to replace and how to fix, I was taken out of the dream, had a hard time going back in. 

Cheese did not make it ok, though I cannot emphasize how much I love cheese. 
The Cheese Cart and Big Cheese

The Epoisse was sublime and Blue Cheese were excellent. I felt sad that the cheese can't cut it when it is such a big deal, and a very expensive deal, to dine at the Inn at Little Washington. 

Like cheese, we did enjoy dessert, but our heart’s really weren’t in it anymore. We got taken back to see the kitchen, and the beautiful fireplace, and we passed by the wine cellar. Alas, Patrick was not available. But he would sign our menus and they would be sent to us along with the recipe for the Blood Orange and Cucumber Manhattan’s. 

In the kitchen at the Inn at Little Washington

The big fireplace at the Inn at Little Washington

The wine cellar at the Inn at Little Washington

We received our signed menus in the mail yesterday, and you would not know anything had gone wrong. There is no mention of Wagyu Beef. Just the illusive Veal Tongue that I never got to taste. Tongue in cheek, perhaps? They even included the beautiful cocktail recipe, hand-written, which I love that personal touch. The only quirk is an odd curlicue in the word, lovage. At least I think that’s the word. Lovage.

Perhaps it is I who owe the Inn an apology; an apology because I had put the plan to dine there on the back burner; probably for a good 10 years went by since I had thought (I admit this again if it will help) about Chef Patrick O’Connell. But in the time that I did think about him, it was with an almost daughter-like reverence for what he was doing. I know, a little ridiculous, but he was at one time, a mentor, in spirit. I haven't quite figured out what it all means. 

Unfortunately I left feeling like I had waited a long time for a not so great experience. I felt sad at the loss of not only the dream of dining there, but also the reality of it, and I wondered what had happened.

Patrick, what happened?  
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