WASHINGTON, Va. - About the only thing that wasn't over the top at the Inn at Little Washington's celebration of its 25th anniversary last week was the very short man dressed as George Washington.
The idea of having this costumed "Little George Washington" greet guests as they arrived in the tiny Virginia town (population somewhere around 160) known as Little Washington, was just one example of the wit, theatrical flair and attention to detail displayed by Patrick O'Connell and Reinhardt Lynch, proprietors of the inn, widely regarded as among the best restaurants in North America.
The usual prix-fixe dinners at the inn, which sits in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains about 100 miles from Baltimore, run between $100 and $150 per person plus wine and tip. Last week's gala, a benefit for the anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength, had eight courses and seven wines and cost $1,978 per couple. About 160 people attended two dinners served on two nights.
The night I was there, Lynch and O'Connell beamed as they presided over the goings-on. Lynch wore an immaculate white suit. O'Connell wore a crisp white chef's coat and glittering silver lame pants.
Yet 30 years ago these two looked like "hippies," according to James J. Kilpatrick, the nationally known political pundit, who recalled in a speech at the gala that he had hired the bedraggled youths to do some yard work on his Rappahannock County, Va., home. Back then O'Connell and Lynch were looking for any kind of work, O'Connell said, because they had just purchased the building that is now a tony inn but then was a heap. "We needed money to make the payments," O'Connell said.
Yard work was not their strength, Kilpatrick said. For example, he said, the only way O'Connell knew of stopping Kilpatrick's riding mower was to drive it into a tree. But they could cook, a fact Kilpatrick's wife discovered when O'Connell whipped up a delicious soup for her from watercress growing on the Kilpatrick grounds.
Word soon spread of the culinary talent of the Little Washington twosome. They began by feeding the fox hunters of Rappahanock County, Kilpatrick said, and before long they were feeding President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, when the first couple was entertained by the Kilpatricks.
Kilpatrick's recollection of their journey from hippies to masters of haute cuisine was one of a handful of tributes to the men. John Rosson, the former restaurant critic for The Evening Star in Washington who was among the first to publicly sing the praises of the inn, said its emphasis on serving locally grown fare had subsequently drawn well-deserved attention to the region's farmers, wineries and other restaurants.
Bill Shore, head of Share Our Strength, remarked that the two men had a longstanding commitment to fighting hunger, even when the cause fell "below the headlines." The town doctor noted their interest in civic projects. And Lynch, who by a twist of local politics was recently dubbed mayor of the community, made Lynda (Wonder Woman) Carter an honorary citizen of the town. Carter, a woman who does look wonderful in an evening dress, served as mistress of ceremonies of the event.
The real attention-getter was the food. There were 10 dishes, chosen after great debate among O'Connell and the staff as the restaurant's greatest hits over the past 25 years.
But before the other diners and I sat down to feast on these courses, we were given "nibbles in the kitchen." These were a long way from cheese and crackers. Perfect ovals loaded with caviar were passed around, along with minute sandwiches of biscuits and Virginia country ham, and fresh rabbit - you didn't want to know how fresh - in puff pastry.
Then, Little George Washington sounded a gong, and the guests shuttled into the sumptuous dining rooms, which had been decorated by Joyce Evans, a London interior designer. Of the designer, Lynch said: "We asked Joyce to turn this old garage into a country house and we gave her an unlimited budget, and she exceeded it."
The first course consisted of three dishes. There was a serving of sorrel jelly with osetra caviar that was so creamy yet light that I had to rethink all the bad, medicinal-tasting prior encounters I had had with sorrel.
The single oyster on a half shell glazed with champagne sauce was outstanding, one of those milestone mollusks of life. Then the sweet red bell pepper soup with sambuca cream made me shake my head in wonder that anything that tasted so good could be made with a liqueur most folks would be afraid to pull out of a liquor cabinet. The wine with this course was a remarkable 2001 Chateau St. Michelle Riesling, Dr. Loosen 'Eroica' from the Columbia Valley.
Next came pizza, which was not exactly what you expect in a highfalutin restaurant, but then again, this was highfalutin pizza. It was topped with black truffles, fontina cheese and Virginia country ham and was carried to the table in a red cardboard box bearing the jingle "a slice is nice." The pizza was paired with a glass of a 1994 Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay.
The seafood courses, a fricassee of Maine lobster with curried walnuts and a truffle-dusted Maine diver's scallop on cauliflower puree, were the kind of heavenly fare you wished for back in the days when you were required to eat fish on Fridays. They were served with glasses of an Austrian wine, 2001 Anton Bauer Gruner Veltliner Grand Reserve, and a 2000 North Coast Barbera from Seghesio Family Vineyards.
It came time to rest our palates, and out came the lemon verbena sorbet flavored with homemade limoncello, a lemon liqueur. Then, with revived palates, we dug into a scrumptious slice of pecan-crusted barbecued lamb with black-eyed peas, my first black-eyed peas of what tasted like a good new year. The wine served with this course, a silky Jordan Vineyard 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Alexander Valley, was, we were told, the last of the lot in the winery.
The cheese course consisted of a crostini - thin slice of toasted bread -layered with warm vacherin cheese dotted with pomegranate seeds and served with 1999 Loire Valley Domaine de Baumard, Quarts de Chaume.
For dessert there were individual anniversary cakes wrapped in ribbons of marzipan and edible gold and filled with pistachio ice cream formed in a checkerboard pattern. The dessert wine was from Virginia, a 1999 Phileo from Barboursville Vineyards.
It was a lot of food, but the portions were small and the pace of the evening had been so smooth that I felt satisfied but not stuffed.
A few days after the celebrations had wound down, I spoke with O'Connell by phone. He was pleased with the fact that patrons had not, as sometimes happened in marathon meals, quit eating halfway through the courses.
He also talked about the importance of having a good staff, and said recruiting and maintaining good help has been one of the most pleasing accomplishments in the past 25 years.
Service has been a topic of great interest to O'Connell throughout his restaurant career, something he gives speeches about. The service in American restaurants, he said, is not going to equal the high level of service at the great restaurants of Europe until the job of waiter is viewed as a career, not a temporary job.
"Often the most important factor in a special-occasion restaurant like ours," he said, "is not the food. It is the waiter."