Tonight my wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary at The Inn at Little Washington, a restaurant that I have been to three times before dating back to 1981. Honestly, our first preferences were either Maestro or Laboratorio but both were closed this evening so a month ago we made the decision to give "The Inn" another chance. I should note here that six and one half years ago we celebrated Carol's 50th birthday at "The Inn" and it was a less than glorious memory. Still, given the exalted reputation, we felt it was worth still another chance.
Coincidentally this was a meal that prominently featured risotto and ice cream both of which I make myself, both of which I immodestly feel that I can make as well as anyone in the world. (I have a current post on the General Board about homemade hand cranked caramel pecan ice cream that I made on Friday. About a year ago I also posted a recipe for gorgonzola dolce risotto with toasted pistachios that, over time, has generated over 150 responses.)
At 6:15 we were seated in a dining room totalling about 80 or 90 seats that was already two thirds full. A printed menu commemorating our anniversary was given to us along with the wine list and our menus. "The Inn' has sumptuously luxurious rooms and public areas designed by an English set designer, featuring brocades, pillowed curtains, colorful wallpaper and inviting chairs and tables to just wallow in comfort in. This is a "set" that is very European in design actually similar to what would be expected in a Michelin two or three star in France, Germany, Belgium, England or the Netherlands. The single European restaurant that it reminded me most of was Gerard Boyer's in Reims, France which has three Michelin stars and, I should immediately note, is less expensive.
"The Inn" is $148 prix fixe for a total of four courses including dessert OR cheese on Saturday nights. The wine list is remarkable including thousands of bottles that they purchased at auction from Yannick Cam's Le Pavilion which have an appropriate 300 to 400% markup from when they were new. In fact many bottles on this list seem to follow a philosophy of annually marking them up a bit more knowing that eventually they will be sold. The result is that more than 90% of the bottles on the list of red wine are north of $100 with almost 50% over $200 and many of these at $300 to several thousand and up. Of course this is a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner. I chose a bottle of '97 Campasso Terrabianca Riserva for $130 which reflected about a 150% markup. When it was presented at the table it was NOT (I repeat NOT) decanted. When I asked to have it decanted I was told that there was no apparent sediment in it. I mentioned that I didn't expect sediment, rather I was just hoping that decanting it-without a candle-would help open it up and allow it to breathe. After all this was still a fairly young wine. Stemware was curiously, Spieglau, not Riedel. There were many "library wines" on the list such as '82 and '78 Chateau Soverains for $110 and $120. New these sold for a tenth or so of this. The '99 Soverain Cabernet is quite delicious for an $18 bottle ($12 at Total on sale) and I personally see no reason why they should feature 25 year old bottles in place of a more recent vintage-other than markup.
The amuse bouche consisted of single bites of each of four selections on a tray. I don't remember any of them other than a kind of quiche that was truly outstanding. The other three were just nondescript. Two kinds of bread were also served neither of which was on the level of, say, The Bread Line or even L. A.'s La Brea Bakery which Harris Teeter now sells. After this we were each presented with a thimble of duck broth or essence that was intense and quite flavorful.
There are six first course selections. We chose a "warm salad of grilled asparagus and fresh water blue prawns saute with sherry viniagrette" along with a melange of jumbo lump crab, mango and avocado in a tropical fruit coulis. Neither was extraordinary. Both were very good, perhaps the (what amounted to) timbale of crab, mango and avocado was excellent but the four stalks of green asparagus with crab meat and six year old balsamic vinegarred viniagrette was merely very good. (I was in Germany only a month or so ago lusting for white German asparagus which is the finest in the world. A dish like this would be less than mediocre next to German spargel prepared more imaginatively such as found in say one of the starred restaurants around Dusseldorf (Im Schiffchen).
For our second course we chose from the Vegetarian menu and picked "risotto with wild mushrooms and asparagus." This was excellent. NOT a "Great Dish" but excellent nevertheless. Equal to what could be expected in a better restaurant in Italy, correctly prepared but curiously using what I believe is generic arborio, not either carneroli or violane nano. In any case this was, again, excellent and overall the best course of the night. Both portions were fairly small I should add. Mine had six bites and my wife had seven. We both thought that they had taken one portion and divided it between the both of us. (A note here: Roberto Donna serves the best risotto in America. Overall it is BETTER and more imaginatively prepared at Laboratorio as part of a 12 course meal that costs 35% less. I expected for $148 something on Roberto's level and this, while excellent, was not.)
There is a restaurant in Toronto called North 44 whose specialty is a filet mignon of tuna. For whatever reason it is no longer on their menu (although it is available as a special and the restaurant is known for it) but it is incredibly flavorful and better than any similar dish than what I have had anywhere else. North 44's chef has won the Canadian equivalent of a James Beard Award as the best chef in Canada, in part for this dish which some credit him with inventing. This includes The French Laundry which also does this as a special. "The Inn's" version is described as "pepper crusted tuna pretending to be a "filet mignon" capped with seared duck foie gras on charred onions and a burguny butter sauce." This was very, very good. The foie gras was actually outstanding, as good as many starred restaurants in Europe. But overall this was a dish that did not shine, did not make me say "wow." It was merely very, very good, just nowhere in league with either the French Laundry or the world standard at North 44. My wife had pan roasted Maine lobster with ruby grapefruit, orzo and citrus butter sauce. This also was quite good. Also, it was just not exceptional. It was also not what I would call a "generous" portion.
Generally, all of the savories were quite good. Perhaps even excellent by 1985 standards. And this is the point: The Inn at Little Washington has been passed by other restaurants in the D. C. area that have long since eclipsed it. New temples such as Maestro, Citronelle and Roberto at Laboratorio have dethroned The Inn. By 2003 standards this was, overall, a very disappointing meal. When I consider the price, the incredible $555 price for two with one bottle of wine that was a "less expensive" bottle on their menu-this restaurant, for my wife and I, is one of the greatest disappointments-AGAIN-of any restaurant that I have ever been to.
To underline this let me talk about dessert: ice cream. I make ice cream using a hand cranked White Mountain freezer. On Thursday night I stood in my kitchen with five pots and a double boiler making caramel, a heavy cream base and sauteing pecans in butter. I've made homemade ice cream for 30 years and know what influences texture, flavor and richness. The Inn's white chocolate and butter pecan both use primarily milk with a bit of cream, not the more expensive and richer heavy cream in a 2 to 1 ratio with light cream or even milk. Nor do they use Lewes Dairy or Chrome Dairy pasteurized, nor do they use Guernsey which is even richer. Their ice cream was mediocre, frankly no better than Ben and Jerry's or Trader's Joe's Double Rainbow. The molten chocolate souffle would have been wonderful by 1980's standards but Roy's, the national chain originating in Honolulu has long since eclipsed this with their own wonderful version which The Inn does not measure up to.
"The Inn" does have an imaginatively constructed cheese cart featuring a number of artisan cheeses inclding the incredible goat cheese from Rucker Farms inearby Flint Hill. But this is extra or in place of dessert; not in addition to.
At 8:20 and $555 later (two entrees, wine, plus one glass each while waiting plus tax and 17% tip) we were through. When we left we noted that almost 1/3 of the tables were then EMPTY. That's right empty. Several of them around us were empty the entire time we were there. Most of the seats occupied when we first arrived at 6:15 had not been filled by a second turnover. My guess is that through the course of the night "The Inn" does average one person per seat. But with so many beginning dinner at 5:30 or 6:00 there seems to be no second seating if any. On a Saturday night to find 15 or 20 seats empty through the entire evening was quite remarkable. Also, because this is not an 8, 10 or 12 course meal but essentially four primary courses with several additonal tastes, dinner lasts about two hours, perhaps a bit more. Other tables around us seemed to be finished in a similar time. A meal such as at Maestro or Laboratorio that run three hours plus would be almost unheard of here. There are just not enough courses. Yet it costs MUCH more.
I should also note here that "The Inn" has a $300 suppliment for each of two chef's table in their state of the art showcase kitchen. This then puts the meal into league with the most expensive in Paris or Provence and several of the three stars. (This is also more than either El Bulli or The French Laundry by the way.) This is the standard that The Inn at Little Washington must be judged by. And it fails miserably. It IS a very good restaurant, well worth $250 perhaps even $300 total. But for $555 this meal was an absolute outrage. There are far too many better restaurants in the Washington area (or Europe for that matter) that cost a great deal less and are a lot more imaginative and, frankly, much better. Such as Laboratorio, Maestro and Citronelle-all three of which totally eclipse "The Inn." For myself and my wife this was more a study in how much a restaurant can charge-can get away with charging-for a meal before seats are no longer filled. Remember this $148 prix fixe was for four courses with an amuse bouche and a thimble of broth and a small "basket" of cookies to take with us. No other savories, no cheese, nothing more.
It is no wonder that so many seats were empty at 8:15 and some never had a diner at all. As far as I can see the glory of "The Inn" is past. After four attempts spanning twenty plus years I personally give up. There really is much better to be had in the D. C. area and at a much smaller investment. While the ambience is exceptional (as is the price) the food and the overall experience is not. At $555 this stands as the most expensive meal that I have had in America. It also stands, dollar for dollar, as the worst value of any meal that I have had anywhere on earth.
I should also note for those who are into shopping that in addition to providing rooms ($525 to $900 including several in a building one half block away) "The Inn" has also opened several stores across the street featuring furniture, gifts and other sundries to commemorate the visit. They curiously do not accept American Express, only VISA and Master Charge.