Bastille Day Sojourn to The Inn at Little WashingtonJuly 12, 2017
By Bill Babash, Chevalier, with Michael McHenry, Vice Conseiller Gastronomique, Bailliage of Greater Washington, D.C.
"Spectacular," "perfection," and "amazing" were just a few of the words that the 63 members and guests of the Washington, DC, Bailliage used to describe their July 12, 2017 sojourn to the Inn at Little Washington to celebrate Bastille Day.
The day began early as members and guests gathered for a 90-minute bus ride to Washington, Virginia, known as "Little Washington" to avoid confusion with the nation's capital 70 miles to the east. Festivities commenced on the bus as eager passengers awakened their palates with a snack box prepared by Maître de Table Restaurateur ZeQiang "JayZ" Wu, owner of Sushi Oishii in Gaithersburg. Chef JayZ had mobilized his team at 6:00 that morning to prepare ocean trout wrapped in thinly sliced radish; eel and sweet shrimp nigiri; a salmon, cucumber, and avocado roll; a crab roll with avocado; and an avocado, asparagus, and cucumber roll. A sparkling Sauvignon Blanc from the Bailliage's cellar – Lake Chalice Vineyard "Cracklin' Savie", NV from Marlborough, New Zealand – nicely complemented the sushi. Andrew Liang's well-reviewed Lavande Patisserie in Rockville provided sweet treats to finish the trip: lemon macarons, verrines of fresh berries with coconut cream and toasted nuts, and vegan chocolate chip cookies. Chevalier Ray Villarreal and Dame de la Chaîne Leslie Binns helped Chef JayZ serve the snacks and drinks on the moving bus.
As Bailliage members nibbled and sipped en route, the traffic of the city faded to a distant memory and the beautiful rolling hills of Rappahannock County on a sunny day came into view. Anticipation grew as the bus approached the historic village of fewer than 200 residents that has been home to Maître d'Honneur Chef Patrick O'Connell's Inn at Little Washington since 1978.
Chef O'Connell's team literally rolled out the red carpet for the Chaîne's arrival. Attentive staff greeted each disembarking passenger and ushered them into the Inn, where a welcoming glass of Champagne – Gimonnet-Gonet Brut Tradition, NV – from Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger awaited. Members and guests were enveloped by the opulent and sophisticated, yet always relaxed and often whimsical, décor throughout the Inn. The adjacent gardens and koi pond were a pleasure to explore on a warm summer day.
Chef O'Connell greeted everyone individually as he invited them into his spectacular, sunlit kitchen. Truffle popcorn was perfect while watching Chef O'Connell's talented brigade busily preparing the meal come. Members were enthralled with the precision with which they finished and plated hors d'oeuvres, as well as the behind-the-scenes look at how the many courses of lunch were coming together. There were tantalizing glimpses of lobster and many noticed the gorgeous roasted racks of lamb resting above the custom ranges. In a quiet alcove, caviar was being spooned out of large tins. This was going to be good!
Festivities moved to the adjacent salon, where staff kept Champagne flutes filled and passed the plentiful hors d'oeuvres: The "world's smallest baked potato" was a Dutch Pee Wee potato less than an inch long topped with sour cream and caviar. Crisp potato cannoli were filled with creamed pimento cheese and capped with chives. Summer tomato vol au vents captured the flavor of the season in a single bite. The "Necco wafer" featured crème fraîche and Royal Osetra caviar sandwiched between two potato crisps embedded with a parsley leaf. Amazing!
Members and guests then settled into the dining room overlooking the gardens, where lunch opened with cucumber gelée with Hendricks gin and dill crème fraîche. The gelée transformed the essence of cucumber from the Inn's garden into a wonderful new texture, with the hint of gin elevating the flavor. The creaminess of the dill crème fraîche contrasted beautifully with the gelée, enhancing both. The garnish of tiny buttons of fresh cucumber linked the dish back to its garden origins and a generous amount of Petrossian trout roe finished the dish with wonderful pops of saltiness.
Next was a mousse of foie gras with Sauternes gelée and cherry preserve. The sweetness of the gelée and tartness of the cherries were great counterpoints to the light texture and deep flavor of the mousse. The presentation in a golden egg perfectly suited this rich dish, as did the bold sweetness of the 2010 Domaine de Baumard Quarts de Chaume. This wine, from 100% Chenin blanc grapes, has a superb balance of acidity, sugar, and alcohol, making it one of the finest from the Loire Valley.
The next course was chilled Maine lobster with Vichyssoise purée and American Osetra Caviar. Lobster and caviar are the definition of luxury and the whipped vichyssoise purée garnished with lemon powder was ethereal, adding wonderful complementary flavors and texture to the composition. The detail in this dish amazed diners: Tiny pieces of lemon pulp delicately hidden by a single microgreen added a hint of tartness. A potato rosette, the size of a 50-cent piece, was composed of seven circles of paper thin potato, each smaller than a dime. The 2014 The Hive, Chardonnay from Ebony, a small family-owned and operated winery in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, offered bright and crisp flavor notes and a creamy texture that worked beautifully with the dish.
"Ebony and Ivory" followed – butter-poached Atlantic flounder perfumed with Pernod over black truffle purée. The presentation was stunning in its simplicity – a perfect fillet of flounder on a black plate, with waiters drizzling a sauce vin blanc accented with savory herbs onto diners' plates to complete the dish. The butter-poaching technique and hint of Pernod highlighted the wonderful flavor and delicate texture of this beautiful fish. The black truffle purée was a restrained complement to the flounder. The wine was the 2014 François Carillon, Puligny-Montrachet, from the Côte de Beaune, France. The terroir of Puligny gives its wines slightly more minerality that those from other Côte de Beaune areas. This, combined with toasty notes from aging in 10% new oak, made it a delicious pairing.
The racks of lamb that diners had spotted during their kitchen visit finally made their grand entrance into the dining room: Grilled king lamb chop perfumed with rosemary on lentils Dijonnaise with minted béarnaise. The double rib of lamb was spectacular. Cooked perfectly, it was perhaps the most tender that anyone had had. The creamy lentils with subtle mustard notes were a luxurious accompaniment. Waiters added a drizzle of red wine reduction to each plate and placed small pitchers of minted béarnaise on the table for diners to share. Either (or both) wonderfully accented the flavor of the lamb. The ruby red color and rich but bright flavorof Voliero Brunello di Montalcino 2012 was perfect with the dish. This Tuscan wine is 100% Sangiovese from 15-25 year old vines grown in clay soils on the northern side of Montalcino, and is aged in French and Slavonian (northeastern Croatia) oak casks for 30 months.
Dessert – a coconut Bavarian with a sour cherry "yolk" – was a masterpiece. The Bavarian was light and creamy with delicious coconut flavor. But it was the sour cherry "yolk" that wowed diners. The chef used a bit of molecular gastronomy to spherify sour cherry purée into a perfect deep-red replica of an egg yolk. A thin wafer of white chocolate defied gravity and rested gently on top of the "yolk." The "yolk" was not just a bit of culinary magic to amaze diners (although it was, and it did). Bursting the yolk freed the cherry purée to meld with the Bavarian, just as a poached egg yolk incorporates into its dish. Fresh cherry compote completed this grand finale to an amazing meal.
As diners were discussing the extraordinary culinary journey they had just experienced, waiters presented them with small boxes – delightful replicas of the Inn – filled with baked and candy treats to take home.
Bailli Judy Mazza thanked Maître d'Honneur Chef Patrick O'Connell for welcoming the Bailliage for the ninth consecutive year. She congratulated him on earning two Michelin stars, noting that the Inn is one of only three two-star restaurants in Washington, and that Michelin had made an exception to its normal geographic boundaries to include the Inn in its Washington, DC, guide.
It was a truly memorable day. Chef O'Connell, Executive Sous Chef Andrew Wright, and their team produced an incredible meal. Each element of every dish was exquisitely executed and gracefully served. But the Inn experience goes beyond the food. Chef O'Connell's passion for excellence and quest for perfection is embraced by everyone at the Inn and is evident in every detail: the red carpet, freshly swept moments before guests' arrival; the impeccably manicured gardens; fresh flowers everywhere; gracious hospitality … the list goes on. It is obvious why the Inn draws guests from around the world and why Michelin bestowed upon it one of its highest accolades.
Members are already anticipating a 2018 trip back to the Inn at Little Washington. In the meantime, the next event promises to be a one-of-a-kind experience. On September 17, the Washington Bailliage will join the Baltimore Bailliage for an exploration of Venezuelan cuisine at the highly regarded Alma Cocina Latina in the South Canton neighborhood of Baltimore. And save the date --on October 26, the Bailliage will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a gala celebration and induction ceremony at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington.