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The Good Life

The Inn at Little Washington, Washington, Virginia

| By Alejandro Benes | From Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

If you've been looking for something to complement that extra special cigar you've been saving, try dinner at The Inn at Little Washington. Whatever your mood when you arrive here, you will probably feel a lot better by the end of the evening. That, and pretty much that alone, is the point here.

Located about two hours west of Washington, D.C., The Inn at Little Washington has a sliding scale of one to 10 to gauge the mood of each patron. "If you got a traffic ticket on your way out here," explains manager Scott D. Little, "that might knock a couple of points off your mood. A [rating of] five is a gentleman whose date has just walked out and left him at the table." The number gets communicated among the staff, who then offer the appropriate special treatment, in keeping with the philosophy of owners Patrick O'Connell and Reinhardt Lynch.

The serenity inside suggests little of the controversy that has swirled for years around the inn and the small town around it. CBS's "60 Minutes" and The New Yorker magazine have recently featured reports of the ongoing friction between the inn's owners and some of the townspeople over the owners' expansion plans and relations with some of their neighbors.

But there's no debating the quality inside the inn. Once you're seated, a glass of Perrier Jouet nonvintage Champagne is offered. The wine list is full of excellent, reasonably priced selections from the 14,000-bottle cellar. Now the edge is wearing off. Add half a point. The menu of eclectic American cuisine is presented and it is vast. The possibilities include a tasting dinner at $128 per person for just the food, and $178 with wine pairings for each of 10 courses. You can go for a seven-course menu (including cheese or dessert) or a vegetarian menu, each at $98 per person.

First courses might include the crispy seared rockfish with braised baby bok choy in a sweet-and-sour sauce or, if you want something truly different, a risotto with frog legs, roasted garlic and parsley. The frogs, you'll be told, were caught in the Everglades, the skinned legs sent overnight to guarantee freshness. As reassuring as that is, you would do equally well to choose the chilled and grilled black mission figs with Virginia country ham and lime cream, all swimming in a lake of cantaloupe coulis.

Follow with a carpaccio of roasted beets with citrus vinaigrette and orange salsa or the baby green beans in a mustard vinaigrette, and then prepare for the perfectly prepared entrées. Staying with the Virginia ham theme is easy with ravioli stuffed with ham and fontina cheese, served alongside a pan-roasted tenderloin of veal with chanterelles. A simpler grilled tenderloin of beef with red wine barley risotto will redefine your notion of filet mignon.

The vegetarian menu offers a "portabello mushroom pretending to be a filet mignon" and comes in a tomato-rosemary reduction that some might find a bit too concentrated.

Other non-vegetarian entrées include tuna, sea bass, duck, rockfish and rabbit, all of which are prepared beautifully by chef O'Connell and his kitchen.

The desserts are marvelous, highlighted by a Valhrona chocolate cake and a mascarpone cheese coeur (heart) à la crème with raspberries. The cheese course leads to the meal's perfect end, a great cigar. The inn has remodeled and built a living room with a fireplace and a cigar-friendly bar called the Monkey Bar. The cigar selection offers nine brands, including Fuente Fuente OpusX, Arturo Fuente Don Carlos Reserva and the Dominican Cohiba, all at fairly daunting prices.

With its award-winning history--it has won the James Beard Restaurant of the Year Award and the first five-star award for both food and lodging from the Mobil Travel Guide--many find the thought of dining at the inn a bit intimidating. But don't be concerned. The staff's mission, usually accomplished, is to guide you through the evening to a mood worthy of an "11." And if you plan to linger into the wee hours, the inn offers rooms (usually booked far in advance) starting at $290 a night. --Alejandro Benes

Alejandro Benes is a business executive in California.

The Inn At Little Washington
Middle and Main Streets
Phone (540) 675-3800
Dinner $98 and up per person, without wine

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