When our annual 100 Very Best Restaurants list hit newsstands a few weeks ago, readers saw a surprising omission from the top ten rankings—the Inn at Little Washington. The opulent Virginia getaway slid from the No. 1 spot, which it had held for the past two years, to No. 22. The reasons? Well, we’ll let you read for yourself. Here’s the January issue's review:
How in the world has our number-one-ranked restaurant for the past two years fallen so far so fast? We’ll get to that, but first we want to point out that one thing hasn’t changed, and that’s that there’s simply no experience like this in the region. No staff is more prepared to please you (if you show up with the sniffles, they’ll bring over a pot of ginger-honey tea in no time). Chef/owner Patrick O’Connell has long understood the importance of the little things, which is why he employs two full-time florists (yes, really) and insists that the ornate rooms be dusted twice a day.
So what’s not to like? Start with the recent shift to a tasting-menu format, which strips away a lot of what made the restaurant so memorable: its too-muchness. If any dish captured the over-the-top indulgence of dining here, it was a thick, peppered steak of tuna (flown in that morning from Hawaii) capped with an outsize lobe of foie gras. In its shrunken state, it loses its grandiosity and excitement. A new vegetarian menu is great in theory; in practice, it looks stinting, particularly when you compare the constituent parts—half a beet, a slice of cauliflower—with the luxury ingredients on the other menus. The new format is largely to blame, but not only to blame; recent meals exposed flaws that seemed out of character: an oversalted foie gras torchon, a gritty scallop.
On January 1, the Rappahannock News published an article about the Inn's placement on the list, and O’Connell released the following statement:
“All of us at The Inn at Little Washington have much to be grateful for as we enter the new year. The Inn remains the longest-tenured Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond restaurant in America. We possess the highest Zagat rating (29, 29, 29) in the world. Once again, The Inn has received The Washington Post’s highest 4-star rating from restaurant reviewer Tom Sietsema. Most of us understand that, in today’s world, as print media struggles for survival, creating controversy sells magazines whether it’s ethical or not.”
We asked restaurant critic Todd Kliman to elaborate on the ranking and the meals the Washingtonian food team had at the Inn this year:
I really don’t understand what chef O’Connell is trying to say there.
The word I would use is: honest.
Confronted with a restaurant we saw as underperforming, we could easily have said, Well, you know, the Inn has been such a great restaurant for such a long time that—shhh—we’re just going to look the other way this year, okay? Just going to gloss over flaws in the cooking. Just going to pretend as if the switch to a new, streamlined, less luxuriously presented meal is a thing of small note.
We could easily have given the place a pass.
But that wouldn’t have been the truth.
And it would invalidate the Inn’s greatness all those years past.
It would also be doing a huge disservice to the readers of the magazine in print and online, chipping away at our credibility.
Finally, it would not be fair to the many great restaurants that we felt were performing, at the moment, at a higher level. At the moment is the key phrase there. The reason we spend all the vast amounts of money we do, and make all the many and repeated visits to restaurants we do (we began, last February, with more than 300 contenders) is to deliver a picture, each January, of the restaurant scene as it is right now. Not six months previous; not as we think it will be nine months hence. Now.
And in our considered estimation, the Inn is not the restaurant it was a year ago, when it claimed the top spot in our annual survey.
It happens. Eight years ago, the Inn came in at No. 11 in our survey.
It’s also worth pointing out that no restaurant, not even the great ones, are perfect all the time. The Source, Blue Duck Tavern, Vidalia—three of the most well-known restaurants in the area—didn’t make the cut this year, after years of making the list. Restaurants are not fixed entities; they’re constantly changing, constantly in flux. A chef leaves, and a great restaurant can become a mediocre restaurant overnight. But even the loss of a GM or a server can alter the mix. Even a server having a bad day, sending ripples through the operation, can affect the mood on the floor. The good ones manage to find ways to absorb the blows and remake themselves.
Chef O’Connell sounds stunned by the ranking. Well, we were stunned by our meals.
But before I delve into the details, I want to take a moment to talk about our method in putting together this list—to peel back the curtain, so to speak, and explain how we arrived at the decision to rank the Inn where we did.
It was not a decision we made lightly, believe me.
My colleague, Ann Limpert, and I made two visits to the restaurant within weeks of each other this past Fall. It’s often the case that Ann and I and the rest of the food team perform cross-checks of well-known restaurants, but it’s not usually the case that a second visit follows so closely on the heels of the first. In this case, however, we wanted to be absolutely sure of our first impressions.
The review mentions the sense of over-the-topness—or “too-muchness” that has long defined the Inn—as missing in the shift away from the old menu format to the new. It also mentions the unexpected cooking flaws that we noted at both meals. What it doesn’t mention is the disappointment we both felt at the conclusion of our meals. Both of us were perplexed; it hardly seemed the restaurant we knew. The highlight of my meal arrived early—the Inn’s signature poppyseed rolls, marvelous as ever. Nothing else, that night, reached that level. A number of dishes were pretty to look at—composed, as is always the case at the Inn, with obvious care—but the flavors were thinly developed, or the arrangements didn’t quite come together, and sometimes both. If I weren’t a critic, and this had been my first time at the Inn, I would have made a vow never to return.
At my colleague’s dinner, one of the tasting menus was the vegetarian menu. The two other tasting menus, intended for omnivores, include such delicacies as foie gras, sweetbreads, and lobster. The vegetarian menu this night added up to—I’m quoting from the report she filed the next day—“a few Brussels sprouts and slices of beet, a sad cauliflower steak, a turnip cake, and cheese canneloni.” The cost: $188. For a $55 upcharge, she could have had truffle risotto.
I brought up perfection a few paragraphs above. The Inn aspires to that ideal as few restaurants do, but perfect restaurant meals are extremely rare (I don’t think I’ve ever had one, in a lifetime spent traveling the globe and eating.) Even when we made the decision to rank the Inn at No. 1, it was not with the conviction that the Inn is a perfect restaurant. Even at its best, the cooking at the Inn had a stuck-in-time quality, with a style of plating that sometimes puts you in mind of the late ‘90s and a tendency to lean on luxury ingredients to make up for a lack of conceptual imagination or daring.
When the Inn changed to a new menu format in late summer, I was intrigued. I thought it sounded like a smart move, and hoped that it signaled an operation that was willing to risk a little and extend itself—to participate in the exciting conversation taking place among the country’s chefs. Instead, the impression was of a restaurant consolidating, streamlining, cutting back. It felt stinting. And if there’s one thing the Inn has never been, it’s stinting.
I sincerely hope the Inn comes back to snatch the top ranking next year, and just want to point out to chef O’Connell that no restaurant is a lock to make the list—every place has to earn its way back on each year; no ranking is etched. That goes for No. 1 as well as for no. 100. We start anew, beginning next month.
We reserve the very top spots for the places that make us long to return. So be bold, be delicious, be memorable, and take care of us as if we were your oldest and dearest friends.
To a great new year …
It started during a casual conversation with chef Victor Albisu, right after he opened Del Campo, his South American steakhouse in Penn Quarter. We were talking about the house chivito—the chef’s take on a classic Uruguayan street sandwich. The traditional ’wich layers steak, mozzarella cheese, bacon, mayo, olives, and a fried egg. At Del Campo, however, there are stacks of seared rib eye, ham, mortadella, fried egg, olives, hearts of palm, lettuce, and onion, all inside a brioche bun. And it is one tall drink of water—also pretty fat, and definitely not easy to eat. Watching it wobble as we passed the plate around the table, I joked to Albisu that it would be funny to make a video of customers trying to get their mouths around that massive sandwich. He laughed a little. Then we forgot about it.
Fast-forward a few months, when the Washingtonian food team embarked on a mission to pick Washington’s top 25 sandwiches. The resulting feature in our September issue, now on stands, celebrates one of our favorite ways of eating and calls out some of the best bread-bracketed inventions you’ll find anywhere. To accompany it, we figured why not really see what happened when you asked sandwich enthusiasts to take on the towering chivito? Readers submitted photos of themselves eating sandwiches via Facebook, and the winners were invited for an afternoon of sport eating at the Del Campo asado bar. Check out the video to see how they fared. We hope it makes you laugh—and we’re pretty certain it will make you hungry.
If green beer lacks the class you’re seeking in a St. Patrick’s Day beverage, consider a cocktail made with Irish whiskey. The spirit’s signature smoothness comes from a tradition of triple distillation—much of the world’s whiskey is distilled only twice. The extra step removes impurities but can also rob the beverage of complexity and character, which is why Scotch and bourbon fans sometimes snub it.
“They call it breakfast whiskey,” laughs Bill Thomas, co-owner of Jack Rose Dining Saloon in DC’s Adams Morgan. But Thomas stocks some Irish whiskeys that he says will satisfy complexity seekers, including the $65-an-ounce Knappogue Castle 1951 and several brands made at the Cooley distillery on Ireland’s east coast.
When experimenting with Irish whiskey in cocktails, Jack Rose beverage director Rachel Sergi recommends a less pricey product such as Powers Gold Label (about $19 for 750 milliliters at Calvert Woodley Wine & Spirits), which she describes as “caramely with some spice but not too sweet.” She uses it in her own version of the Tipperary—Irish whiskey, green Chartreuse, and sweet vermouth—named for the town in southern Ireland. The Chartreuse lends it a greenish cast, making the drink perfect for Saint Patrick’s Day. Sergi’s recipe—which calls for equal parts of the three ingredients—is virtually foolproof, which should help any St. Paddy’s soiree go smoothly.
$1,000 Ice-Cream Sundae
Serendipity 3 in Georgetown
The Golden Opulence sundae includes everything your average 15-year-old boy—the first DC recipient of the dessert—adores: edible gold leaf, fruit “caviar,”and a Baccarat crystal goblet.
BLT Steak in downtown DC
Just like some of the upper-upper class, the One-Percent burger is over-the-top rich with foie gras, braised short rib, and gold leaf.
$56 Lobster Tail
When it comes to the advertised “jumbo” portion, 15 ounces sounds a lot better than its equivalent, “less than a pound.”
$30 Half Roast Chicken with Potato Confit
Occidental Grill in downtown DC
Because a $60 whole chicken with potatoes would be outrageous.
Photograph by Scott Suchman.
There are a number of ways to gauge the health of the economy. In the restaurant world, you check the bread basket.
Restaurateurs are in a bigger pinch these days than a family-values politician accused of philandering. Rising gas costs mean higher prices on ingredients that are flown and trucked in—ingredients that already are more expensive than they were a few years ago.
What to do? Raise entrée prices and restaurants risk alienating their audience. “You charge more than $30 for a dish,” a high-profile owner told me, “and you lose ’em.”
Lunchbox channels a New York deli with this pastrami-and-Swiss sandwich on marble rye. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
Bryan Voltaggio is known nationally for his appearance on Top Chef, but the Frederick native first got regional attention with Volt, his high-end restaurant in his hometown. Now he’s opened his second place—Lunchbox, a sandwich spot—just five blocks away, along the pretty promenade that banks Carroll Creek.
The cafe is aimed mainly at professionals and at young families visiting the nearby library. (The fully stocked changing table in Lunchbox’s restroom is the stuff of new-mom dreams.) Its decor consists of a few framed metal lunchboxes along one wall and a cooler of old-timey soda, including locally made birch beer.
Fabio Trabocchi is best known for the white-tablecloth cuisine at his Penn Quarter dining room, but he does blue-collar classics just as well. His grilled buffalo-mozzarella-with-basil sandwich accompanies a steaming bowl of rustic Tuscan-style tomato soup.
601 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-628-2888
At Citronelle, a dish of potatoes masquerading as fried rice elevates Chinese-takeout-style cooking. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
Travelers often say Chinese food in China is nothing like Chinese food in America. Here, chefs are sometimes inspired to dabble with Szechuan peppercorns and five-spice powder, but they rarely bother with the Americanized stuff. So it was a surprise to encounter a bowl of fried rice with bits of duck jerky on the $120 24-course menu at DC’s Rogue 24, then find wonton soup at Modern American places such as Ris and the Atlas Room.
At Michel Richard’s Citronelle, an entrée of lobster—a $20 surcharge on a $110 prix fixe menu—arrived with fried rice that tasted remarkably similar to the carryout variety. Why is Richard serving something so casual at Citronelle, as opposed to his more relaxed bistro, Central?
Turns out the fried rice—in typical Richard style—is not what it seems. That “rice” is super-finely diced potatoes fried in butter. “It’s a complicated dish,” he says.
This article appears in the March 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.
Wara Wara pairs karaoke with izakaya-style snacks like this pork-belly skewer. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
On weekend evenings at Wara Wara—a karaoke bar and Japanese-style izakaya from the owners of the barbecue destination Honey Pig—most patrons aren’t coming for a feast. They come instead to sip beer and soju (a distilled Korean beverage) and maybe eat a few chicken wings. And they come to sing: Weekend patrons seem to make more use of the karaoke facilities than of the kitchen. One Saturday, just two parties were dining beneath the color-changing bulbs that bathed tables in shades of red and blue.
You never know who you might meet outside the restrooms at Lyon Hall. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
It’s not unusual for restaurants to spend a lot of time designing eye-catching open kitchens, but now many places are devoting resources to another space: the bathroom. Here are seven we think are special.
Current Sushi. The unisex stalls at this Dupont Circle lounge are see-through before you step inside, but close the door and the glass-paned walls become opaque with steam. Finally, the privacy you need to play Hanging With Friends and check your e-mail.
The Duplex Diner. Calling all Madonna fans. Montages of the Material Girl cover the walls around the cool commodes at this Adams Morgan restaurant/bar—from the “Vogue” era to the “Erotica” phase and beyond.