In 1977, Phyllis Richman published her first review as the Washington Post’s chief restaurant critic. Roughly a year later, Patrick O’Connell and Reinhardt Lynch opened the Inn at Little Washington. Sometime not long after the restaurant opened, Richman made the 90-minute trek to Washington, Va., to visit the place. She remembers being impressed. O’Connell, for his part, estimates that dinners then cost around $4.95.
These days, a four-course meal on a Saturday night at the inn runs $138, not including tax, tip, or wine. Tonight, however, is a touch different. At what amounts to the last free meal Richman will eat at a restaurant whose rise has mirrored her own, O’Connell, standing on a rug that I’ve been told took more than two years to weave in Kazakhstan, is instructing the recently retired critic to find her companion for support. “I don’t want you to faint dead away,” the host/chef announces over the din of the crowd.
She certainly could. For this is no ordinary night at the inn. This is a night of gastronomic decadence being staged in honor of Richman, who this past spring put away her critic’s pen after 23 years. From her beachhead at the Post, Richman wielded an influence so profound that, among local restaurant professionals and food obsessives, her perceived power was as talked about as the beat she basically owned. Local myth held that she could close a restaurant with a single reviewa belief that Richman routinely rebutted, contending that a restaurant is as responsible for its own demise as it is for its own success. But love her or hate her, no one would argue that she didn’t put butts in seats.
The doors to the inn’s kitchen open, revealing a troop of young sous-chefs standing shoulder to shoulder, stiff as samurai, hard-pressed Dalmatian-print aprons descending from their waists. The setting is totally stage-set for the occasion. Through the haunted-house haze (“Oh no!” someone cries. “They burned dinner!”), I can barely make out the kitchen’s copper hardware. Three violinists, dressed identically to the sous-chefs, stand playing on the counter tops at the kitchen’s rear. Notebook scribbling becomes awkward once I enter the fantasia. In one hand, I’m clutching a Bellini, a refreshing mix of champagne and white peach nectar. With my free hand, I pluck a nibble off the tray of a militarily erect waiter. It’s a crêpe pouch swollen with crème fraîche and caviar. In a touch foreshadowing the extravagance ahead, the pouch is topped off with a speck of gold leaf.
O’Connell can thank Richman, who now considers the Inn at Little Washington one of America’s great restaurants, for at least a smidgen of his success. He wanted to throw the bash to show his gratitude. Coming up with a menu to cap off a restaurant critic’s career can’t be unlike buying a birthday present for Bill Gateswhat do you get for the man who owns everything?but O’Connell had help in his task. Many of the hors d’oeuvres circulating through the kitchen have been prepared by some of D.C.’s best chefs, Ann Cashion (Cashion’s Eat Place) and Michel Richard (Citronelle) among them, and the evening’s main courses will be prepared by four of the country’s best: New York-based Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller of Napa Valley’s French Laundry, former D.C. phenom Jean-Louis Palladin, and O’Connell. Upon receiving a menu autographed by the four marquee stars, one guest jokes, “I’m going straight to eBay with this.”
O’Connell seems relatively at ease, especially when you consider that his staff will soon be serving dinner to Julia Child and Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, to name just two of the evening’s 90 guests, many of whom (including me) rode to the inn on a chartered bus from D.C. (In the interest of full disclosure: My ability to get press credentials was no doubt aided by the fact that Richman and I are friends.)
The whole event bears shades of This Is Your Life, and not in an uninteresting way. I’m holding a foie-gras-silky hunk of boudin blanc when I find myself in a conversation with Richman’s sister, Ruth Heiten. She’s telling me and a few others about how, in the ’50s, their father lost his job because of an unfounded McCarthy-era character assassination. Anthony Lewis wrote about the government worker’s long ordeal, eventually winning a Pulitzer for his efforts. A film called Three Brave Men was based on Lewis’ writings, and it opened with the Phyllis character reading aloud an essay about what independence means to her.
I think to hunt down Richman to ask her about her brush with McCarthyism and Hollywood (she later tells me, “It’s the worst movie Ernest Borgnine ever made”), but I find out that she’s occupied in back, splayed out on a chaise while young male chefs hand-feed her grapes and a photographer clicks away. So instead, I decide to approach Julia Child and tell her something profound, like how great she is. She’s a bit slouchy, but still plenty bubbly, and with a mouth full of food, she acknowledges my comment with a wink, a chirp, a smile, and a few taps of her cane. I’m promptly brushed aside by a clutch of fellow well-wishers, so our exchange ends there.
Admittedly, eating a multicourse meal prepared by a team of jet-setting celebrity chefs is a fairly rarefied thing, but in case you stumble into the pleasure, I’d advise pacing yourself. The main meal, served in the inn’s dining rooms, begins with a demitasse of apple-rutabaga soup, followed by three small and light seafood studies from Boulud. The soup is earthy-sweet and simple; the rouget, anchovy, and sardine miniatures cerebral and French; and from there, things get really rich. What Keller coyly labels “macaroni and cheese” is really butter-poached lobster set in a pool of mascarpone-enriched orzo; a perfectly round parmesan crisp rests atop the lobster like a hat. Yes, it is unbelievable, but with each bite, I become more aware that foie gras and duck, not to mention dessert, are still to come. Everyone at my table agrees that we should’ve taken it easy on the hors d’oeuvres.
The ceremonial meal is MC’d by radio talk-show host Diane Rehm, and by my estimation, the gathered guests split about evenly between restaurant-industry types and plain old friends and family. The fact that, for Richman, many in the first group could double as members of the second is a touch odd, given the critic’s reputation for relentless consumer advocacy; it seems notable, for instance, that D.C. chef Robert Wiedmaier prepared that boudin blanc even though Richman gave his Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant, Marcel’s, a firm thumb sideways a few months after it opened. What such hatchet-burying says about Richman’s career is answered by just about everyone who takes the podium: Opinions are a dime a dozen, but maintaining 23 years of enthusiasm for anything, much less the restaurants in an area that’s not really known for them, represents some pretty serious commitment, regardless of how many free meals she got out of the deal.
O’Connell’s duck, served in shreds over a bed of wilted watercress in a pool of citric, Asian-spiced broth, is the most impressive dish of the evening; only someone supremely confident in his abilities would choose to enter something so understated in what amounts to a high-stakes cook-off. Would the Inn at Little Washington exist today if Richman hadn’t been impressed by her first meal back in ’78? Undoubtedly. Would it routinely draw celebrity chefs, cookbook authors, and politicians to the presumed culinary hinterlands if she’d never existed? It’s doubtful.
Inn at Little Washington, Middle and Main Streets, Washington, Va., (540) 675-3800.
In a galaxy far, far away from Washington, Va., there’s barbecue being served out of a camper trailer in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven. One reader stops off at the Stadium Mart Hog Pit to pick up ribs and quarter-chickens on his way to Redskins home games. Me, I grab a minced-pork sandwich served on slabs of white bread every time I pass by on my way to the junkyard to buy cheap parts for my decrepit Volvo. Which is pretty often.
Stadium Mart Hog Pit, 7501 Landover Road, Landover, (301) 772-7999. Brett Anderson
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