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Jul 6, 2003 12:03 AM

Anniversary At The Inn At Little Washington: $555 For Two & A Few Comments...

  • j

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.

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  1. Joe, I was excited to read your review of the Inn tonight, as my husband and I had a very similar experience when we visited just this past Wednesday. Food was good but not great (I have made better grilled asparagus salads myself....although not better ice cream), the price tag astronomical. I think we topped out at $520 (we had the wine-paired tasting menu, $208 per person midweek) and while we have spent slightly more in the US, that experience (the kitchen table at Tru in Chicago) was a gastronomic memory not soon to be surpassed.

    I think you make a very good point: 20 years ago, the Inn was turning out some of the best food in the country. But a lot has changed since then in the US restaurant scene, and I agree that the Inn is not sufficiently special to warrant the exorbitant prices.

    That said, I am glad I have experienced it. We went back to the kitchen to check it out after our meal, and was really amazed at the glorious green custom range (probably 20 x 20 square, with multiple cooking stations built in), and the home-kitchen feel. The service was amongst the best I have experienced in the "let us teach you" category. It was a nice night. But I have had similarly nice evenings for half the price.

    Thanks for your review, Joe.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Jen

      Jen, thanks for the nice words. If you have not been please try Laboratorio (table #7), Maestro (front of room by open kitchen) or Citronelle. Both Maestro and Citronelle are spectacular and theatrical while Roberto Donna at Laboratorio cooks Italian as well as anyone on earth. I honestly believe all three to be, yes, far superior to "The Inn" and remarkably a relative bargain. To have Roberto or Michel cook so well, so imaginatively and so close to your table or to watch the orchestrated and creative ballet at Maestro are real treasures of our's or any area right now. Everything that "The Inn" once was but is no more.

      If you make ice cream from scratch please try my recipe on the General Board for caramel pecan. I use a hand cranked White Mountain freezer with rock salt and ice but I think it's a good recipe (especially with Lewes Dairy or Chrome Dairy cream and milk and good butter) and would be really good made in any home made freezer.

      1. re: Joe H.


        Congrats on your anniversary ... hate to sound like a "newbie," however, where does one find recipes posted to the site?



        1. re: Joe H.

          Joe, your post reminds me that some time ago you asked, indirectly, about the herd out at South Mountain Creamery in Middletown, MD. I had a nice conversation with the family that runs the farm when I was out there last month, and unfortunately their herd does not yield milk that is particularly high-fat, as it's primarily Holstein with some Brown Swiss mixed in. The whole milk usually hovers just under 4% or so and, as the farmer put it, "What comes out of the cow is what you get." In other words, it all goes into the same tank, and they don't do any careful mixing to achieve a particular consistent level.

          That said, I can vouch for the excellence and richness of their milk, and their butter is splendid. I haven't splurged on a pint of cream yet (I think it was $6!), but one of these days I will just to make a batch of some sinfully rich ice cream. Maybe I'll go check out that caramel pecan recipe, although five pots on the stove does sound just a tad insane . . .


          1. re: Nate Martin

            Sooner or later I will stop by the South Mountain creamery. I heard about it from a list under "Golden Guernsey" and assumed incorrectly that they might have Guernsey cows. I know there's a farm near Northeast, MD that has Golden Guernsey products but they're not sold around here.

            The ice cream is the best I have ever had but then again it should have been considering the amount of heavy pasteurized cream and butter and making the caramel from scratch which can be quite tricky. I thinkwe forget just how good real homemade ice cream can be especially that which is made with a wooden tub and a hand crank using rock salt and ice. It's really far superior to anything in any store.

      2. Joe H.
        First off let me wish you and your wife an happy anniversary.
        I was so surprised to read your entrees,Lobster and Tuna are still on the menu.
        The exact same dish's were on the menu close to ten years ago when I worked there.
        Sure they are good but not out of this world good.
        And dinner at that time was 78.00 weeknights.
        I'll email you the recipe for the sauce for both the lobster and tuna if you would like.
        It is so easy I'm not sure if you will laugh or cry after spending that much money.
        Your sickly friend from N.Y.

        1 Reply
        1. re: RR

          Robert, how are you? It's good to know you're still following the board! Thanks for the offer and yes I would love to have them.

          I think The Inn has stood still since you were there. I believe it's $98 or $108 on weeknights now and $148 on Saturdays, possibly also Friday. As I mentioned they now have two chef's tables for an additional $300 each. But this is my point, Robert: they have become so expensive that they seem to be looking at every angle to draw money out of every guest. (Their prix fixe is more than Daniel, Le Bernardin, Gary Danko; their chef's table more than Trotter.) At the same time the food is not imaginative nor spectacular nor is there sensational plating, at least not by 2003 standards. When you were there this was probbly still "on top." But I should also tell you that I am not a big fan of The French Laundry either although I believe that overall the food there IS spectacular at times. Where "The Inn" excels (i.e. ambience) The French Laundry, for me, is really rather dull, almost plain in the feeling of its rooms. I think many of those who truly like "The Inn' are seriously impressed by this over the top ambience. You are set up to feel like you are really going to be pampered. "The Inn" is extremely successful in capturing this mood. I just feel that the price is too great and the food doesn't match the expectations.

        2. h
          Heidi Claire

          Here's a link with a very brief synopsis of a meal we had back in '98. Seems Similar in a much abbreviated version.


          1 Reply
          1. re: Heidi Claire

            Thanks, Heidi. A very interesting read especially the part about the best 18 hours of their life in one of the posts.

          2. Joe--The gist of your review seems to be something along the lines of : good food, beautiful setting, but not a good value.

            I really appreciate the level of detail and context that you shared in coming to this conclusion. It's very important that restaurants see this kind of detailed feedback.

            Incidentally, one of the best meals I've had in recent memory was at Palena. I think Ruta is really taking some risks with his cooking. And the three course meal is quite a good value considering the portion size and quality of the ingredients.

            5 Replies
            1. re: butterfly

              I've been to Palena but it is really unfair of me to criticize it. This was the third or fourth week of operation and our waiter seemed new not just to the restaurant but also to the business. The food was very good, though. Still, we really need to go back now that it is mature and fully experience it. Thanks for the nice words and recommendation of Palena. Really, another reason why Washington has come so far over the last decade or so as a major dining destination.

              I would have liked The Inn a great deal more if the total bill had been half. For $555 (including wine, tax and tip) FOUR people could have dined spectacularly at Maestro.

              1. re: Joe H.

                The service at Palena was still a bit quirky (though not unpleasantly so), when we went recently.

                But I wholeheartedly concur that the food was very, very good--and definitely represents a good "bang for the buck."

                Sietsema keeps raving about the cafe menu that Palena serves in the front room. I haven't had a chance to try it yet.

                Also, am I crazy, or did Palena used to be a Kenny Rogers Roasters? What a makeover!

                1. re: mouse

                  Yes, Kenny Rogers. I think Palena's real problem is its location. Mid town on Connecticut is not K street nor Tyson's.

                  1. re: Joe H.
                    hoosier daddy

                    Joe, if you consider the Inn to be not a good dollar value, tell us what is would cost to repordice your peacan ice cream using the ingredients you specified at your hourly wage rate x number of hours for preperation. I bet it is one very expensive product per qt or gallon. Good dollar value indeed!

                    1. re: hoosier daddy

                      Ice cream is more expensive for me to make because I have to factor in the cost of ice and rock salt plus Chrome Dairy/Lewes Dairy cream (neither of which is ultrapasteurized) is perhaps double the cost of regular whipping cream as is organic butter vs. regular butter. Plus, handcranking is 30 minutes of labor that could probably be offset with a motor but I still think White Mountain freezers are the overall best. Also, I'm packing the freezer in rock salt and ice, covering with burlap and freezing for an additional two or three hours. Again, more labor. But the result (and I apologize for my lack of modesty) is superior to anything in any store or any restaurant anywhere on earth. Yes, it's probably $10.00 or so a pint using "child labor."
                      Having said all this Four and Twenty Blackbirds in Flint Hill has superior ice cream to The Inn. (Kinkead's has great house made ice cream also.) I think much better especially their white chocolate. I've seen The Inn's recipes and I just think they are cutting some corners from what they publish in their cookbook-or the technique is different.

            2. Joe: thanks for the very informative review.

              We have been thinking about trying the Inn for some time now, even more so after our recent visit to Washington, Va.

              Now I'm really hesitant about taking the plunge -- even midweek.

              While you were at the Inn did you pick up your copy of the glossy IALW magazine celebrating their 25th anniversary? We got one over at the Sunnyside Farms market. Probably the only FREE thing the IALW has ever produced.

              P.S. Having shown up at Rucker Farm only to find them closed for a few days, I am even more deterimined to get back there soon for some goat cheese after seeing you call it "incredible."

              2 Replies
              1. re: Bob W.

                You should try The Inn-but on a weeknight. Much of my criticism is based on my level of expectations for the price. This is an excellent restaurant that is certainly the most imaginatively luxurious and indulgent of any in the U. S. and the equal of virtually anywhere in Europe. There is a style and comfort that really should be experienced. The food is also quite good, some of it approaching but not quite realizing true excellence. But, for me, it was not the best. Neither in D. C. nor was it the equal of what I have had elsewhere. Again, if I had paid, say, $300 total for this meal it would have been worth it and I would already be considering returning. What allows this consideration is The Inn's style more than its food.

                However, at $555 this was just not worth it. Frankly, I feel that it is outrageously expensive for what is delivered on the plate. Also, note that I mentioned Spieglau wine glasses. For these prices I would have expected Reidel Vinum Extreme not a stem that costs $5 or 6. Service should be perfect. A $130 bottle of wine should have been decanted. The service should have been "Michelin correct" with forks always placed on the right of the plate-new silverware brought prior to every course leaving nothing used behind from the previous. Service was excellent but it was not two or three starred service. (Remember this is a restaurant that promotes this level of experience.) There should have been a fifth course or an additional taste of another savory. Not just a thimble of broth (albeit delicious duck broth) and four bites off of a tray (again, albeit one delicious bite of quiche). There is one alcove on the far side of the main dining room that is long and narrow. It holds six or seven tables all of which are very close together. There is not more than 15 inches between two seater tables which is far too close for this level of dining. This, by the way, is also the restaurant's Siberia. It is where virtually evry man who did not have a jacket/suit and tie was shown to. (It was 96 degrees outside and virtually every man in the main room had a tie on.) There was barely enough room to roll the incredible cow shaped cheese cart through. (This was a great feature which actually "mooed" from time to time.) Still, on each of the cart's trips diners had to move their chairs forward to allow it to past behind them. From what I could see this was a production that several of them didn't really appreciate. This is not nitpicking. These are considerations that factor in to an overall opinion. For all of these reasons and others, especially the food, this was not a $555 dollar meal. However, I do believe it was a $250 to 300 meal masquerading as one.

                Suggestion: go back on a weeknight and consider ordering the house wine limiting yourselves to one bottle of this. With tax and tip you're probably around $300. This would be worth it. But stay away on a weekend.

                Also, don't leave without stealing a bite of Rucker Farm's goat cheese. A great taste of a great dish.

                And I also suspect that some of the dinners that The Inn is known for-Phyllis Richman's retirement party, Craig Claiborne's book publishing, Presidential dinners-these are truly special with lavish attention to service as well as that which is served. The results, I am guessing, are not generally available to the public. This kind of experience might be worth the incredible price. In fact the best meal that I have ever had was at El Raco de Can Fabes which is a Michelin three star 30 miles east of Barcelona. My wife and I were fortunate to be seated next to a two starred chef who was visiting. He was being showered with a lot of attention. When we were asked for our order we asked if we could have what he was having. Four hours, 17 courses and two+ bottles of wine later we had the best meal of our lives. Santi Santimaria the chef/owner of El Raco has cooked at The Inn. For that kind of meal I should have gone. I should also note that it was available to the public and the prix fixe was $250 plus wine, etc. or a $700+ meal for two. Our meal at his restaurant, El Raco, cost $350 total.

                Still, for me, Citronelle, Maestro and Laboratorio (in no particular order) are all better than The Inn right now especially if it is only food that matters.

                1. re: Joe H.

                  "There is one alcove on the far side of the main dining room that is long and narrow. It holds six or seven tables all of which are very close together. There is not more than 15 inches between two seater tables which is far too close for this level of dining."

                  I've never heard anyone else mention this, and was hoping they no longer had this set up. My husband and I went to the Inn for a special occasion about 12 years ago. We sat in this area where the tables were much too close. It was very uncomfortable. We had no privacy, no intimacy for our meal. We heard our neighbor's entire dinner conversation, and vice versa. In addition, getting in and out to visit the restroom was a *problem*! We were disappointed with our one and only visit to the Inn. We were in our mid-20s, dressed nicely (husband definitely had a suit on) and I just felt the service was... I'll say it.... LESS THAN SATISFACTORY! I've never heard anyone say anything bad about the service! They couldn't keep my water glass filled! I expect the waitress at Denny's to keep my water glass filled, and they let it go dry several times at the Inn! Unbelievable. That, and I felt they were a bit stiff and humorless. And we had no elbow room. It was not worth it for us.

                  On the other hand, yesterday was our anniversary and we enjoyed a lovely meal at L'auberge Chez Francois. Delightful really. We've had lovely service there, lovely food, lovely wine. It's just very nice there for a special occasion.