Cigar Aficionado

The Inn at Little Washington, Rural Virginia

While some Virginians might like to think that it's a hidden country gem, there's a good chance you've already heard of The Inn at Little Washington. Between its fawning national press, endless industry awards and regular influx of urban sophisticates longing for rural sanctuary, The Inn at Little Washington is basically the secret getaway everyone knows about. Chef/Owner Patrick O'Connell's alliance with local farmers and artisanal producers reverberates among food enthusiasts, and the colossal hooded Vulcan range (with its striking "en provence" enameled detailing) is one of the seven kitchen wonders of the food world. Less publicized, however, is The Inn's smoking policy. It not only allows cigar smoking, but encourages it. More on that later.

The cuisine could be classified as very sophisticated country cooking. Most of The Inn's dishes are fortified with ingredients sourced directly from local farms, and it is, after all, set in the country pastures of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But it isn't the country cooking you might expect. O'Connell's more enlightened, Francophied vision of pastoral dining may contradict your idea of iron-skillet farmhouse feedin', and according to the stated mission, his farm-to-table philosophy took root long before the farm-to-table movement even had a name, so his direct connection to the land (and the high skill of the kitchen) makes the menu focused without being preachy, creative without contrivance.

Dishes can range from nose-to-tail butchery-chilled petals of Veal Tongue ravigote with fresh horseradish-to quirky refinement-potato-wrapped tuna Wellington with caponata raviolini. Miniature filets of black cod sauté and Lilliputian shrimp dumplings might make you redefine your definition of both cod and shrimp, and a pan seared Pekin duck breast cheerfully extracts the flavors of summer with sweet corn pudding and Montmorency cherries from the Inn's own orchard.

If dishes like this sound too delicate, make no mistake, the kitchen can whistle Dixie when it has too. Macaroni and cheese with Virginia country ham and shaved black summer truffle is as hearty and sentimental as pecan-crusted barbequed short rib or the Inn's lasagna of morels, country ham and asparagus. These are not merely incidental safety options for the cautious diner, mind you, but genuine expressions of the region as thoughtful and well-sourced as anything else on the mantle.

And while the tasting menu's price tag isn't exactly the best example of southern hospitality (Around $200 for a set 10-course tasting menu, $300 with the wine pairing, depending on the day), I nevertheless recommend the splurge. This way, you free yourself of any dining inhibitions and are resigned to the strength, whims and grace of the kitchen. If not, a less expensive six-course menu gives you the option to map out your meal.

Afterward, The Inn has an offering of cigars, should you forget to bring your own. Its bar-top humidor contains a small selection that ranges from Padrón 1964 Anniversary, to Arturo Fuente Don Carlos, to Davidoff white label. Light up in the courtyard, where you're allowed to puff in peace with a cocktail, spirit or coffee.

And while you're outside breathing in some of that bucolic air, mulling over the complexities of your meal and enjoying your cigar, you'll realize that you didn't even miss the ham biscuits.

The Inn at Little Washington
309 Middle St. (intersection of Main & Middle)
Washington, VA 22747

Seating Times
Monday-Thursday, 6-9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 5:15-9:15 p.m.
Sunday, 4-8:15 p.m.

"After reading this I almost left the Grand Cayman to head to Virginia!" —July 24, 2011 13:18 PM