Sunday, October 29, 2006

Redemption at Restaurant Week, pt. 2

For me, last year's Restaurant Week was marked by my mother's blossoming relationship with the City of Richmond. Residents of Fairfax County, my parents had just purchased a museum district house to eventually retire to and my mother was down here frequently as she finalized the rental agreement with her first tenants. During her trips to River City, she ate at several of the participating restaurants. A year later, we were celebrating getting a new set of tenants in the house, seamlessly continuing the previous lease, this time with me acting as amateur property manager.

Although I've been telling my parents for years about the fantastic brunch offered at Millies Diner, neither of us had been for dinner. Karen ate there once several years ago, but not since identifying as a foodie. So, considering that Rowland's was slammed shortly after we arrived at 6pm, we decided to get to Millies at 5:30. And wouldn't you know it, people were lined up outside. Damn. However, just as we walked up, the hostess opened the door, invited everyone in and turned the sign from closed to open. So, we were right on time and got a great booth in the far room, away from the soon to be busy door-way.

As I write this, a bad memory came back to me… one time when Karen and I got brunch at Millies, we were seated in the lone two-top next to the swinging kitchen door, just feet from the bar. Every inch of floor-space behind me (as Karen had the safer seat gainst the wall) was filled with shuffling people waiting for tables. For the duration of my meal, I was bumped by every customer at least once as they ordered bloody mary's, and every server at least three times on their way to and from the kitchen. It was misery. I will never sit in that seat at Millies again. Even the outstanding jazzed up breakfast food hardly cheered me up.

Well, this recent visit bore no relation to the one I just described. We were safely tucked away in a booth and our server was attentive to our needs (even answering my mother's audiophile questions about the music playing) rather than bumping into me. Since I don't have a copy of the menu from our dinner, I'll do my best to recollect it. Karen had a really tasty shrimp bisque that was a little too salty. I had a butternut squash risotto that made that slop at Cabo's seem like a TV dinner. My mom had a fantastic salad that included cheese, nuts and apples, but just a little too much dressing - but otherwise, really yummy.

The entrees really made our day. My mother's scallops and citrus butter were perfect, especially with the figs and jicama. My Thai shrimp and linguine had all sorts of veggies and just the right amount of savory spices and hot peppers to leave a lasting impression. Karen ordered a flat iron steak that she wasn't wild about. It came with nicely cooked, but underseasoned veggies. But the meat wa served on a surprisingly tangy pile of fried-lemon mashed potatoes that none of us could stop tasting and pondering. So, two outta three ain't bad. By this point in the meal, I was saying the same thing about Restaurant Week. TJ's went down in flames, but Millies and Rowland had redeemed Richmonds' eateries for us (not that we were going to give up and only eat in or leave town).

Dessert really sent us home floating. First, the bad news. I got a ginger spice cake that was dried out. Luckily, I had coffee to wash it down and it came with pumpkin gelato. My mother and my wife both ordered a dark chocolate pate with espresso cream. If I haven't said this before, I should just point out two things about me. First of all, I love the combination of coffee and chocolate. It's the perfect erogenous experience that I look forward to come dessert time. Secondly, I can't stand it when everyone in a group orders the same thing. So, betting that I would get to sample either or both of the mocha-flavored plates, I ordered against one instinct and with another. Lesson learned.

The chocolate that was laid out on the two plates looked like a Power Bar, which is probably one of the least appetizing substances approved by the FDA. On top was drizzled some kind of light colored cream in a zig-zag that ran the length of the pate. While I was struggling to get my dry spice cake down the hatch, the ladies in my booth were making moaning sounds and exclamations of religious zeal a la "oh my god." Anxious and jealous, I joined in and agreed 100%. It was like a big ol' Godiva truffle. But it wasn't candy. The stuff had substance and body to it, so you had to work it a bit in your mouth and take your time enjoying the intensity of the dark chocolate and the rush of caffeine and sugar. All agreed, this was a great way to end the meal and Restaurant Week. For our money, we enjoyed the Rowland experience better. But I get the impression that Millies is gonna be right on the money nine times out of ten.

Anywho, how about that Top Chef, huh? Otto got shafted and Marisa shoulda been sent home for her divisive scapegoating behavior and hocky-puck pannacotta. What do you think? Stay tuned for more commentary.

Redemption at Restaurant Week, pt. 1

Tonight is the last night of Restaurant Week and we are totally over going out to dinner for the next few days. The annual benefit surely brought in loads of new business for the participating restaurants. And Karen and I probably put on a few pounds trying get in on the deal. This weekend, we enjoyed two more spots a great deal, Rowland and Millie's, and fully intend on going back to both.

One thing you should know about us, is that the two of us can hardly stand to pass up a sale, and three courses for twenty bucks - is almost a sure thing. Well coordinated waves of flavors and textures carry you through an hour or two of night-life. It's the perfect arrangement for dinner. Last year, we used the event as an excuse to check out Julep's (almost good), La Grotta (quaint, but overrated), and Zeus Gallery (past it's prime), because we probably never would have taken the risk on an expensive evening at either of the three otherwise. In those cases, we paid for… a full stomach, learning experiences, and the chance to critique some food (and support local businesses and the Food Bank, duh). After our experience at TJ's, it seemed like it might be more of the same this year. But, not so fast. Richmond's restaurants pulled off a come from behind victory in the best two out of three competition for the affections of this RVA Foodie.

Friday night, we selected Rowland Fine Dining, because it's within walking distance of our house, and we were anxious to see what sort of food would be offered in the place of the legendary Stella's. Figuring that this would be a popular evening, we walked through Rowland's door shortly after 6pm and strutted down through the dining room to one of the two vacant tables in the rear. Immediately, the room felt like a cozy place to be, with mood lighting and warmly painted walls. Add to this a little saucer of roasted garlic olive oil to go with a basket of steaming yeasty bread and we about filled up on comfort flavors before we'd even ordered.

Speaking of ordering, let's get that outta the way. It started with Karen's pan seared sweet scallop on corn pudding and leek butter. This actually turned out to be the highlight of the meal, but only by a nose. Garnished with little fried leek threads, the single scallop was tender and dripping with savory sauce. And the corn pudding was sweet and divine - just the sort of southern chic touch that I'd heard we should expect at Rowland.

Meanwhile, I had a butterbean cake with cucumber avocado salsa and cilantro oil. Now, I love cilantro, so I was basically ordering for the accouterment, that and the fact that it seemed to be vegetarian, if not vegan. Ironically, the cake was basically an oversized southern fried falafel ball, with whole butterbeans suspended in its batter. As a falafel fan, this was a real treat, but it was slightly dry in the middle and there wasn't quite enough salsa to moisten or spicy it up. A creative starter nonetheless.

When our entrée's arrived, I was immediately bowled over to see my blackened mahi mahi, adorned with a single bright red steamed craw-daddy sitting in a jack-knife position on top of the fish filet - a first for me since deciding to resume eating crustaceans a couple years ago. After the first bite of cajun spiced fish, I quickly ordered another beer to cool my mouth and seriously wolfed down the whole thing, while setting aside a few bites for Karen. There was a bed of crawfish ettoufee involved as well, and it's corn base provided a sweet backdrop for the fiery fish. The poor little ornamental crawdaddy got disassembled as I'd seen people do on my one trip to New Orleans for Mardi-Gras. Shoot, I even sucked the juice outta the thing's head, just to be thorough and authentic.

Karen ordered a pork dish that was seared with cinnamon and served over ricotta raviolis and granny smith apple cider sauce. As she tells me, the pork was some of the most flavorful and most tender that she'd ever had. We both liked the ravioli a great deal because the cheese filling tasted so fresh. If they made these little pasta dumplings in the back, I wouldn't be surprised. By the time Karen was through, I was feeling pretty lively and had already intruded on a neighboring table to enlighten them about Restaurant Week. Since, there was extra pork, I was tempted to offer it to the people next to us (seriously, what would the Food Bank do?). But, we opted for a doggie bag instead.

Now, my favorite aspect of the price fix menu is that you're guaranteed dessert, even if you wouldn't usually splurge on it. And the portions of the previous two courses are usually appropriately sized so that you're still hungry for something sweet. There were only two choices: pear cranberry cobbler, and Virginia's dessert of the day. At first, I wondered what this meant. I mean, what sort of desserts are native to our state? Then I noticed "Virginia's home made dressings" that accompany the salad. This is how I learned that the co-owner is Virginia Rowland, pastry chef and wife to the head chef, Bruce. Her dessert of the night was pina-colada cheesecake. Our server crinkled her nose as she said it and so did I. So I called her on it. You just made a face. Is it not good? "Oh, I don't know. I haven't tried it yet." So, we signed up to find out, even though we had recently had two not so great examples of cheesecake - one of our least favorite sweets.

The goodies came out and they were tiny. At first, we were surprised by their size, but since we were both so full and satisfied by several great flavor combinations, not to mention a couple of beers, we didn't feel put out. The cheesecake was a risk that we weren't looking forward to anyhow. But this cheesecake actually didn't taste like any either of us had every had before. It was both light and rich, with ribbons of pineapple throughout, a heavy praline-esque top-layer and a hint of salt that kept both of us digging at it until it had disappeared. Wow. Just thinking about it, I want to eat a whole pie by myself. Karen's cobbler paled in comparison, but the pears were supple and sweet and again, we weren't let down. This meal was amazing. After surveying the regular menu's entrees ranging from $18-25 (veggie linguine to lobster pot pie) and forgetting about the more expensive plates of cute animals like lamb. Considering that the standout items, the scallop appetizer and the blackened fish are regulars on the Rowland menu, I think we'll be heading over the footbridge to this Main Street eatery again.

Stay tuned for Saturday dinner at Millie's care of my mother. She was celebrating renting out her house in the Museum district and we got to be there to take part in the extravagance.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

That's Entertainment: Underwhelmed on Cue at Cabo's (or Bilked at the Bistro)

October is the last week for those of us who bought the Entertainment book-o-coupons, as each and every offer inside expires on November 1st, 2006. Then, we've got to ascertain (again) if the book was worth $40. Inevitably, a flood of bad memories comes back, highlighting the frustrating experiences driving around looking for somewhere to eat that has a coupon in the book, the places that restricted our orders to combination plates only, and… and then there's Cabo's Corner Bistro at Broad and Allison.

(we're in the middle of restaurant week, but my regular dinner date is taking advantage of some lucrative consulting gigs these days, so I'm going to supplement my would-be review of Rowland's with the following tid-bit)

The truth is, the book is totally worth it, if you like to get a bargain once in a while. But if you base your life on it, like Karen and I sorta tried to do, it's gonna come up short. Personally, I think I want another Entertainment coupon book for next year. In part, because I know that there are so many deals that I missed out on this past year. The R-Braves tickets, discount museum entrance, half-priced oil change. The list goes on.

On one lonely evening in October, Karen and I decided we would indulge ourselves with a meal from one of the high-end restaurants in the front of the book. These, like the rest of the coupons, offered buy-one get-one free entrees. Only, instead of presenting a paper coupon, you had to have a little plastic card punched by your server. So, we picked Cabo's, because it attracts a well to do sort of clientele, and we're just into fancy food these days, and a free entrée is all incentive we needed.

When we showed up for our reservation, the bar was dimly lit, but well attended. Because we wanted non-smoking, they took us in the neighboring room. The hostess seated us at a square four-top and pulled out our chairs so that we would sit facing the wall with our backs to the room full of other diners. After two seconds of awkwardness, and the hostess out of sight, we switched our seats and proceeded to people watch.

The crowd was as expected: white, middle aged, with a scattering of young lawyer types, and us - blinking, grinning, whispering to each other about everyone else. To our right was the door to the kitchen, constantly swinging open and closed as servers carried food in and out. This is also where one of the kitchen staff preferred to stand, just inside the dining room, shuffling his feet and leering in no particular direction, giving off an air of discontent. I wouldn't usually have noticed him, but the dining room is pretty small and he stood less than ten feet from our table, swinging his dish towel and fidgeting with his backwards ball cap. A bad sign in my book. As we proceed, keep in mind that this man made several periodic appearances, perhaps while waiting for the entrees that he was responsible for to get a little bit drier and for most of their appreciable flavors to subside.

Our server was a big guy, built like a baseball player - another looming presence in this small dining space. When he came to our table, he handed us menus and glared at us as if searching for something to say. When he returned, he asked if he could take our order. I pointed out that there is a "market fish" listed as "market price". What's the market fish? Salmon. And the price? Twenty-three dollars. Would you like to hear our specials?

Okay, now we're getting somewhere. As a big fan of fish, served almost any fashion, I was hoping for more seafood. As it turns out, they had halibut in the list of specials that he was reading them off of a slip of paper. I had to ask again how much this entrée was, which I'm sure embarrassed Karen and the guy reacted as though I were giving him a hard time (and maybe I was). Maybe price is not something that is supposed to be brought up at fine dining establishments like Cabo's, but I thought we had a right to know before ordering. Twenty-seven dollars for halibut.

At the bottom of the menu, there is a note that the chef is happy to prepare a "special" vegetarian dish of seasonal ingredients. The server came back and stared at us for a few seconds with a semi hostile "So, what do you want, already?" expression before asking if we were ready to order. Now, I actually like it when my server is new and owns up to their inexperience or asks you to bear with them, but this guy was defensive and gave off a kind of unhappiness with all of these people who stood between him and the money in our wallets.

We ordered the handmade gnochi and white beans for an appetizer. Karen got the halibut and I ordered the vegetarian surprise. Our server replied that I could choose between pasta or risotto. I said risotto and he searched his mind for a moment before asking if there were any veggies that I specifically don't like. I told him that I was up for anything and he disappeared.

The gnochi arrived and to my surprise, they were green. Then I remembered, the menu said "basil gnochi." The little oblong dumplings were soft, basily, and slathered in a garlicy white wine butter sauce. The white beans were a little hard from being slightly undercooked, but I actually find that quality kinda reassuring because it means that they're not from a can. Anyhow, we gobbled this up, noticing that the gnochi's each had the same markings, two inches long, pointy at the ends with three cross-wise ridges along one side. This was the shape that was produced when the dough was squeezed in the fist of a chef. We were tickled with our observation and figured this was a good sign to counterbalance the bad omens all around us.

When our entrees arrived, we were both impressed by the look of Karen's fish. It was a solid hunk of halibut that had been cooked golden brown like a picture perfect piece of chicken breast in a tv commercial. Next to it was a pile of steamed sting beans and some roasted fingerling potatoes. As Karen went to work, I watched her closely for some indication about the flavors. But, since she's not one to voice her criticisms too quickly, I had to end the suspense and reach over for a taste.

The fish was thick and it took some effort to flake off a piece. Now, I like fish that resembles steak. And in this case, it was very meaty. Another bite and I decided that there was clearly something missing… taste… and moisture. I mean, it wasn't extremely overdone, just not fresh or marinated. In fact, this very well could have been a baked chicken breast for all we could tell. So, the fish was impressive to look at and maybe even to chew, but not to taste. The side items followed suit. Flavor seemed to have been omitted from the potatoes and the green beans. Now, my baby likes sauce. Maybe we should have told our shortstop turned server this fact about us up front. Karen's plate featured no sauce, or any significant seasoning, so we turned our attention to my risotto.

The dish was pretty attractive, with a whole yellow squash sliced on an angle and fanned out over top of the creamy risotto. The squash was cooked okay, semi-crisp with a hint of butter, but this was the only veggie that was really visible. As I dug into my Italian rice delicacy, I tasted some cream, some cheese, and found a few pieces of asparagus. Part of me hoped that I would find some extra gravy in this to offer Karen as it might help her get some of her dry and boring food down easier. But, it seemed that the rice had soaked everything up and there were no drippings to ladle over to Karen's plate.

I guess I should point out that I'm not really an expert on risotto and have never made it myself. But Karen likes the stuff a lot and made a great batch of it for one of our first dates almost three years ago. When she scooped up a fork full of risotto, she immediately started shaking her head once she put it in her mouth (very un-Karen). "Eh mop puck," is what I heard from her full mouth. She finished chewing and swallowed. "The rice isn't done." What'd you say before that? "It's not cooked. The rice is still crunchy." That shows what I know. The risotto was thick and pasty and the grains of rice were al dente, so I figured it was "as described" as they say on eBay. Even the asparagus, Karen's favorite veggie, didn't really make up for her overall disapproval. I could see it on her face: This place is a sham. She makes the same face when give her a present that I clearly got for free.

At this time, we looked up from our plates to see how everybody else was feeling about the food. It was hard to discern, but one thing was clear. Every table within eyesight was handing over an Entertainment coupon card along with their bill. I couldn't help but wonder if this were coordinated somehow. Cabo's con-men rolled out their cheap food for us cheapskates. Impossible. The Entertainment two-for-one offer has been good all year, or maybe not good, but valid. My guess is that this is Cabo's everyday routine.

Well, my undercooked rice and unimaginative veggie surprise was an $18 dollar entrée. But since it was the least expensive of the two, it was free, leaving us to pay for the $27 dollar flavorless fish, plus the $9 garlicky bean and dumpling appetizer. Add in a drink apiece, tax, and tip, and we're talking upwards of $55. Now, I know what people are paying for at Cabo's: superficial but pretentious atmosphere and dubiously earned social status. This translates to an air of mutual disdain that permeates the entire space, from the hapless salesman-server who lumbers back and forth between the tables' inflated tabs and the credit card machine, right down the bored and disgruntled kitchen staff who gets off on watching scores of people pretending to enjoy his uninspired creations. Well, Cabo's can add our disapproval to the pile of pity, and we'll even throw in a pledge: NEVER AGAIN WILL I GIVE CABO'S MY MONEY OR ALLOW ANOTHER TO MAKE THE SAME MISTAKE I DID.

Tired of my kvetching about cuisine? Stay tuned. Plenty of positivity is just around the corner. You can look forward to our experience with Ming Tsai's new line of frozen dinners and jarred sauces, the annual Festival of India, my adventures in tortilla making, favorite lunchtime dining spots, and maybe some commentary on the weekly developments on Bravo's very cool Top Chef show.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Restaurant Week's Jeffersonian Kick-off

Restaurant week began Monday night, and Karen and I were ready to experience some new eateries and venture into some that don't usually offer the affordable price fix menu featured in this Richmond fund-raiser for the Central VA Food Bank. For those who don't know, the idea is that you pay $22.06 for soup or salad, an entree, and desert. And $2.06 from your meal goes to the charity.

One restaurant on the list that we were both excited to try was TJs in the Jefferson Hotel. Neither of us had been there before, although Karen has experienced the enormous brunch spread that the hotel offers. Everyone that I spoke to mentioned that TJs is just as good as the Jefferson's more upscale Lemaire, only cheaper and less stuffy. Those two qualities sounded good, so we made reservations and found ourselves walking through the Franklin Street doors as the sun was setting.

Inside the Jefferson (and I will only spend a minute on this) an enormous palace of historic luxury unfolds in front of you as your eyes are immediately drawn up along the marble pillars to the stained glass dome and various colorful adornments. One of the greeters was proud to regale us with stories of the constant vigilance that is required in the ambitious upkeep and preservation of the hotel's interior. As we politely listened, we were lead beneath the dome, down the stairs and through the rotunda
where we found the bar and dining area of TJ's. Let me just say, that if you never eat at or stay at the Jefferson, try to find some excuse to waltz through the main hall between Franklin and Main streets. It's an experienced that I somehow managed to delay for the past 9 years. The outside just doesn't quite convey that such a spectacular sight lies just inside the doors.

Once we were in our seats, we took in the cozy upper class layout of TJ's dining room. Our armchairs made us feel like we should be smoking cigars or otherwise looking elite. There were others in the room who seemed to be self-consciously scanning the room, just as I was. So, I didn't take offense at the long stares that seemed to come from the other tables. Instead, we each ordered a high ball and tried to relax. However, it didn't help that my rusty nail, was rather small, by the way, and weak because the much of the ice had melted by the time my server brought it around.

Famished, we tore through our bread and "everything bagel" seasoned crackers, agreeing that the butter was very tasty. Stop the presses, tasty butter! The menu featured two soups and two salads, several entrees and two desserts. Our charming server noted that the silk chocolate cake was not available, leaving us to choose between two varieties of cheesecake. Neither of us really like cheese cake, because no matter how good it is, one or two bites is usually plenty. Luckily, the entrees were exciting, so we did not despair.

Another fact of the menu that made me glad to be eating at the Jefferson is their featured vegan chef, Jannequin Bennett, who has been heading up the kitchen at TJ's since 1998 and acclaimed for her "Very Vegetarian" cookbook co-authored with track star Carl Lewis. As a recovering vegan myself (still veggie except for seafood), I was comforted by the "V" found next to several of the items on the menu. Considering my culinary affinity for ethical health food, I was happy to be supporting Ms. Bennett's cuisine. And of course, I had to order the only vegan entrée to demonstrate my solidarity. More on that later.

Karen chose the Caesar salad, while I chose the Jefferson Peanut Soup. Having often enjoyed a fabulous peanut chili that my mother found in the Vegetarian Times magazine a few years back, I brushed off the server's description of "liquid peanut butter."

When Karen was presented with her salad, we were both taken aback. It was practically a meal unto itself. Often, a price fix menu offers smaller portions, because three portions are guaranteed and because the restaurant wants to maximize profits. Not in this case. So, Karen went to work and immediately noted the large shavings of parmesan and flavorful creamy Caesar dressing. But after a few bites, she complained that her teeth hurt from the accumulated effect of what we both agreed was the coldest lettuce either of us had ever put in our mouths. I wonderd if the dish hadn't been made ahead and put on ice. And as I tried to help Karen finish the salad, I wonderd if I would wind up with a brain freeze like one gets from drinking a 7-11 slurpee too quickly. After a bit, we pushed the frozen romaine aside.

Meanwhile, I stared down into my large flat white bowl featuring a half-inch layer of thick tan liquid coating the bottom. This did not look promising and so I agreed to a few cranks of cracked pepper from the server. Each bite that I took confirmed just what the soup's appearance conveyed: bland sludge, only a few degrees removed from peanut butter. Seriously, I felt like I wanted some milk to uncoat my mouth. Maybe this was what Jefferson ate when sailing routes were beseiged with pirates and no spices could be obtained for cooking. My imagination didn't help. We traded plates and tried to get the most of this course, but neither of us were pleased. If you understand the tradition of peanut soup, please enlighten me with a comment.

For Karen's entrée, it was a grilled veggie lasagna with "housemade pasta", fresh mozerella and roasted red pepper marinara sauce. Since it was pretty cold out, we both agreed that it was lasagna weather and this dish really seemed like it would play to our vegan chef's strengths. It was even offered without cheese, so I jokingly suggested to the server that we wanted extra cheese so as to make no mistake that we weren't "one of those." Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The plate was pretty as it was presented to Karen, an intense splash of red tomatoes and peppers with a stark-white bulls-eye of melted moz in the middle, all encompassed by the same sort of big white bowl we had both eaten our soup and salad out of. We both enjoyed the roasted red-pepper marinara and the grilled vegetables weren't bad either. The problem was the pasta. The sheets of handmade noodles were thick and doughy. Not the supple delicate texture of homemade dough, but congeled flour and water that seemed angry to ever have been created but content to entrench itself in this dish and persist as long as it might. Throughout the meal, the dough was steadily swelling as it soaked up the sauce and lasagna juices - becoming dumpling-like. As we ate, we could feel the stuff expanding in our stomachs. No, this pasta was a problem. And I'm not ashamed to say that I wound up reluctantly finishing this dish the next morning before leaving the house for work. By that point the flour had become like a culinary version of concrete. I'll do anything to avoid making breakfast, including unenthusiastically eating leftovers if Karen doesn't want to take them to work. But this time, it was a pretty sad affair. Oh, and the cheese. It felt kinda stiff from the moment it was brougt out. Again, my impression was that this dish might have been reheated rather than assembled for our order.

The high point of the meal was my vegan entrée of Feijoada, Brazil's national dish, with tempeh substituted for pork. My big white plate (is this food blog going to be all about "big white plates" from here on out? Maybe I should just abbreviate BWP for the ubiquitous bourgeois serving vessel) featured a pile of menacing looking blackness. I could make out squashes, black beans, tempeh triangles, and onions, but it was all coated with a thick black glaze. I imagined Nigel from Spinal Tap pronouncing that this food could be "none more black" like the Smell the Glove cover art.

The intense color was actually outdone by its strong flavor - both aromatic and bitter, like a bbq sauce without the sweet. It tasted Cajun, African, and slightly Indian all at the same time. Traditionally, the dish features as many as eight types of pork and beef, and this is where the strong and pungent flavor would usually come from. The only other ingredients being garlic, onions, hot sauce and oranges. Vegetables are usually offered as a garnish to stretch the sought after meat melange to serve as many people as possible.

In the case of this vegan version (I can hear Brazilians laughing at the idea right now), the tempeh and vegetables appeared to all have been stewed long enough to absorb the spicy gravy because the flavor carried throughout each bite. Neither of us could identify anything but cumin and citrus, but we knew there was clearly a lot going on in that sauce. The dish was not refined, high-brow, or delicate in any way. Instead, it seemed out of place, on the menu and at our table. But it was an achievement, because it was tasty, kinda scary looking, incorporated a decidedly hippy meat substitute, and made us both believe that we were enjoying an authentic vegetarian replica of a South American staple. So, thumbs up on this new cultural experience, despite the fact that we were sorta hoping for something a little, well… fancier. No disrespect intended to the centuries of Brazilian culinary ingenuity that brought us Feijoada.

Pretty early on, we both gave up eating our own and each other's dishes, and threw in the towel having eaten only half of the food. Neither of us could imagine having dessert for at least an hour. Maybe it was all those cheese chunks in the Caesar, or the spongy pasta. When the server came, we asked for doggie bags for the remainder of our food, including our respective servings of turtle and classic cheesecakes.

The experience was decidedly a bust. And when that happens, paying the tab is never a highlight. On this occasion it was Karen who generously offered to pay and I could see the disappointment on her face, when our twenty dollars each estimate ballooned to $70 after two overpriced drinks, tax and tip were included. Whine, whine, whine. Jason's a cheapskate even when he isn't paying. Well, if that's how you feel, get used to that impression, because you're going to get lots of frugal curmudgeon comments outta me in this space. I would argue that it isn't the unappreciative penny-pinchers who are problem, rather it is those who consistently grin and bear eating experiences that we know are simply not worth the money. So, in the hopes of sharing my good, bad and mixed experiences, I will continue to offer my impressions here.

Dessert! We did attempt to eat our cheesecakes. About an hour after leaving the Jefferson, we found ourselves back home on the couch watching Walk the Line, that Johnny Cash movie. A little ways in, we felt peckish and I grabbed the two slices of fluffy sweet fat from the fridge. One was white with a stingy drizzle of berry coulis and the other was brown with a thin layer of caramel goo on top. We liked each bite that had a bit of drizzle or goo because it added something to the pasty cheese pie slices, but the short of it is that me and Karen don't like cheesecake and tongiht was no different. These may have been more conventional, but I'd just assume have one of those ridiculous candied franken-slices they serve up at the Cheesecake Factory.

This was our first night out for restaurant week. We hope to venture out again this week, but it might not be until Saturday. Still trying to choose between Rowland and Millies. Any suggestions?

For those of you are confused about who ordered what, and why we're both eating and offering opinions about each dish, well… that's just our style. Karen and I want to try as many dishes as possible when we go out, without breaking the bank or being wasteful. Maybe this is more my thing, as I tend to thrown mini-tantrums when two people in the same group order the same item, or when someone I'm with doesn't offer others the chance to try their food. I guess, I just prefer family style eating, rather than the American tradition of entrées for one only. Anyhow, I hope that clears things up, and thanks Karen for being a good sport.

Monday, October 09, 2006

National Lampoon's Five-Star Vacation

Karen and I got a wedding present from my parents that really took the cake, or was the icing on the cake, or… well, you get the picture. We were excited when we were presented with a gift certificate for the Inn at Little Washington, and we're still basking in the after-glow now that we've just spent part of our weekend there.

We both knew of the Inn's reputation as one of the best restaurants in the country, if not the world. But the thought of eating there was always far off and probably downright unobtainable. However, my parents had eaten there before, and they knew how much it would add to our wedding to be able to have dinner there, and so they booked us a reservation not only for dinner, but also to stay the night as guests of the inn. You see, the Inn at Little Washington attracts diners from all over the country, and most of them drive in or stay at local bed and breakfasts. But there are 14 rooms at the Inn and staying there is an extravagance, similar to "royal treatment."

On Sunday, Sept 24th, just a week after our wedding, Karen and I drove into the town of Washington, Virginia, about 2 hours northwest of Richmond. We drove my beat-up 10 year-old Honda Civic that still featured "Just Married" painted on the back window. As we climbed a little hill into the center of town, a few bell-hops turned in unison, noticing our approach and then they darted in various directions. "That must be it," I said to Karen as I turned the blasting Green Day down a couple notches.

We pulled up to the front of the Inn and were basically swept off our feet by a busy handful of valets, a concierge, bell-hops etc. Our bags, car-keys, camera and whatever else we brought with us were quickly forgotten as a young woman named Lindsey had us follow her inside where she gave us an overview of our itinerary and a brief tour of the Inn. She and the other workers only slightly hesitated at the sight of our jeans and t-shirt attire, then we were off on a mission. The first stop was the "Monkey Room," where two champagne flutes waited for us containing a sparkling wine and passion fruit mixture. Yum! A mural of monkeys adorned one wall and other monkey decorations could be seen peeking out from nooks and crannies of the little sitting area. Then, it was a whirlwind - through the posh little intensely decorated and semi-Moroccan styled living room, the dimly lit- dining room filled with white table cloth settings, through a little window-lined and sun-drenched breakfast verandah, out into the enclosed garden/courtyard with koi pond and fountain, back in and up the stairs to the reading lounge, and then down the hall to our room - number 6.

In our rooms, we found our bags and oodles of comfortable amenities. Like the rest of the Inn, the decorations were similarly overdone - excessive, but with style enough to make us surprised by each detail and glad it was there to greet us. There were layers of richly embroidered fabrics, one on top of another, complex but classy wall-paper designs, and a whole array of curtains and unexpected drapings, and the furniture was like a Victorian museum exhibit. Not one more ounce of decoration or design could have been squeezed into this space. This was basically the approach that was taken with the entire Inn - eye-popping wow-factor everywhere.

As we poked around the room to notice the details, we found my dinner outfit already hung up in the closet. This was surprising since only 3-4 minutes had passed since we got out of our car. In all, it was a truly dizzying introduction to the Inn at Little Washington. Before Lindsey left us to relax in our temporary paradise, I tried to break the ice with a joke by asking if the Inn had a pool. She laughed at my half-hearted attempt to point out a shortcoming and said no, but that the city had rezoned the area and they will have the option to accommodate a pool in the next couple years. The real irony of the joke is that Karen and I are suckers for a swimming pool, as low-brow as it may be to admit this when staying at the Inn.

After taking inventory of the various products that our room provided, we decided that we should set out for a walk around the town to fully take in the setting. As it turned out, it takes less than 15 minutes to tour the entire four square blocks that make up downtown Washington. Maybe 20 if you actually have the money to venture into the few boutiques that we passed. On the way out, I asked a bell-hop about the tea-service. This was a treat that my mother had told me not to miss. My concern was that it might spoil dinner if we had it too close to our reservation time of 7:15. He didn't think it would be an issue. However, he's probably used to dealing with the rarefied types who gingerly partake of one or two morsels during the dainty tea time. But, Karen and I were not rarefied, but rather raring to go and gobble gourmet goodies every chance we got. I think we both felt like children who had wondered into Willy Wonka's candy factory, on the verge of falling into the chocolate lake like Augustus Gloop. With this small degree of self-consciousness, my instincts told me that we should be on the safe side. We headed back inside and decided to save our trip to the Inn gift shop until after tea.

Tea was served in the courtyard by the fountain and koi pond. We had several varieties of green, black, white, and herbal teas to choose from. It was perplexing to have to make the choice. Karen got peppermint, because she doesn't do caffeine, and I chose a Chinese white tea, because it's trendy I had seen some silly Snapple TV commercials about it. As soon as our personal tea pots were presented a woman stopped at our table with a tray of "tea treats" that looked like the most beautiful mini pastries we'd ever seen. Again, we had to choose. After a few moments of indecision, she volunteered that it is "quite all right" to have one of each. And so we did and it was amazing. Each piece of mini-desert produced an exclamation from both of us. "How can this cookie, taste so good?" "I dunno what this is, but it's the best I've ever had!"

After we melted into a puddle with each bite, our server returned to find us slumped down in our chairs, our bones all having turned to jelly. Unmercifully, she produced the same replenished tray of treats and offered us more of whichever items were our favorites. I looked at my watch. We had two and a half hours until dinner and so I loaded up with another lemon curd blackberry tart and some kind of vanilla panna cotta jigglie. Did I forget to mention the crème fresh? We had a little jar between us and we both loaded the stuff onto each bite as we went. These sweets were perfect with hot tea and neither of us saw fit to stop alternating between the sweets and a sip of tea until it became nearly impossible to take a complete deep breath. We were totally full and probably a spectacle not only of unrefined youth, but also uncouth gluttony.

Realizing that we had done the impossible, according to the bell-hop, and spoiled our dinner, we basically panicked for a while trying to figure out how to digest our food ASAP. First, we went back out for a walk around the town, this time faster and further, in the hopes of burning off some calories and working up an appetite. After going five blocks in one direction, we arrived at the highway where the view of the Shenendoah mountains was spectacular, but the car exhaust and noise was a bit harsh. So we beat the same path back to the Inn and spent time in the gift shop looking for stuff to give to my parents as a thank you.

The shop featured gobs of overpriced high-class knickknacks that were 100% not our style or my parents' either and mostly of no relevance to the Inn at Little Washington, except that it was expensive. The stuff was of the sort that seems to be created solely for the purpose of separating wealthy people from their money. At first, it didn't look like we would find anything that would compel us to buy or that we could even afford. However, with our room at the Inn came a coupon for $25 off any $75 purchase. So, this gave me a goal of maximizing our purchasing power, by scooping up only the items that were the best value until I had reached the $75 dollar threshold. Game on.

Now, what we really wanted at that moment was some sort of contraption that would make us hungry again - that is, something that didn't include vomiting. But no dice. Our best bet for value, and considering our foodie interests, was the gourmet food corner of the store. The fact that we were both totally stuffed restrained our excitement. This is where we found Karen's loose peppermint tea, a tasting spoon for our kitchen, coffee for my office, and a copy of the Inn's latest cookbook, autographed by the head chef, Patrick O'Connell for my parents. At $75.23, the cashier said that she had never seen anyone manipulate their gift shop coupon offer with such efficiency. Cha-ching! Our total was reduced to $50.23.

Speaking of the new cookbook from the Inn's renowned chef, I should point out that IT IS EVERYWEHRE, and the cover is emblazoned with a picture of a single Maine divers scallop dusted with black truffle, sitting in two pools of white/red sauces, with a translucent disc of potato sticking out from the top, with a green herb leaf encased in the potato chip like artful stained glass. They have stacks of the book in the lobby, in the hallway, the reading room, by the bar, and even in our room on the coffee table. And where ever you saw it, you'd also find a copy of their previous cookbook, also available for sale. At first, I didn't understand all this product placement, but slowly it would become clearer to me, especially during dinner. Now, I actually bought the first book for my parents a while back and made a batch of their decadent butter-pecan ice-cream before handing it over. The recipes require mostly expert-level techniques, queer-eye elegance in their delicate plating, and every one of them is heart-stoppingly rich in flavor and texture. Basically, every page makes you ache to be transported to the doorstep of the Inn to partake in their refined decadence, swimming in the luxuriousness of their cuisine. If you have the means, you will make a reservation and never even attempt the preparations yourself.

Back in the room, we decided to relax from our walk, test out the various soaps and lotions in the bathroom and try and figure out if we were going to be able to eat at 7:15. Before long, I was on the phone to the front desk asking if I could push the reservation back until we had more of an appetite. "Of course, Mr. Guard," said the concierge although I hadn't told him my name. They were happy to accommodate us, and Karen and I breathed an abbreviated sigh of relief, our bellies still somewhat distended from the tea treats.

We got ready for dinner a little early and showed up in the living room for cocktails. En route, a new concierge stopped us and affixed a white flower to my blazer, which he says is their custom for male guests. I asked him if the staff was wondering if we were going to change out of our jeans for dinner. He smiled with a hint of agreement and said that he approved of our new attire, but that "We would have served you happily anyway."

The furniture and decorations in the living room really create a cozy and eye-catching environment. We both took turns sitting in different spots and taking pictures of each other. I asked the servers more than once about the camera etiquette, but they said we could take as many pictures as we liked, although I sensed a degree of snootiness at the notion that we don't already know how to behave or that a guest should even have to ask about rules and protocol. Silly me, just trying to be polite.

At this point, I'd like to jump ahead and give a quick assessment of the customer service at the Inn. I had heard that the staff caters to your every need while remaining virtually invisible. Since these two things are seemingly at odds, I couldn't figure out what this would look like in reality. After spending nearly 24 hours at the Inn, I'm still not sure how they do it. But, the behavior of their staff was endlessly intriguing to me. Ask Karen, and she will likely express her annoyance with my constant character-studies of the Inn's personnel. For me, it was like trying to figure out what makes the Oompa Loompas tick (more Willy Wonka factory analogy). The short answer is money. Karen and I quickly came to the conclusion that each staff member at the inn makes more than the two of put together. Based on my presumption, that's how five-star establishments work. But, I couldn't help but see some mystery in their effort to create a fairy-tale experience for each and every person who enters the building.

Most of the employees walk and talk so carefully it's as if they were approaching a man-eating lion, half-expecting to be eaten alive, and even that fate would be a privilege. Their goal seemed to be to slip in and out of each situation unnoticed, leaving you with only the luxury and beauty of the Inn and all of it's treats to enjoy. Simultaneously, the staff all knew my name and seemed to be cheerfully expecting Karen and me every time we turned a corner.

If we left our room for a few minutes, someone would pop in and tidy up during that short period of time. If we stuffed a bunch of hotel products in our suitcase, there would be more by the sink when we came back to our room. It was almost as if to say, "We have more class than you have bad-manners."

In person, the workers practice a tip-toe and soft-speaking style that created a sense of care and delicacy around the entire Inn. Perhaps this is due to the compact size of the building and grounds. One boisterous encounter and everyone surely would take notice, so "shhhhh" was the unspoken rule and we followed suit. I don't think I've whispered so much in my life. But, always the information gatherer I did engage the staff frequently, nonetheless. Maybe some of my questions were painfully ignorant, but a few employees typically responded with a withering curtsy as they uttered a few painstaking syllables as if it were their last breath and after which they would gratefully expire for my pleasure. Once I'd had a few of these encounters, I half expected one of them to ask me to flog them so that we might both enjoy the hierarchy of our assigned roles. Maybe this makes people feel like royalty, to have servants in fear of the guillotine, walking on eggshells, and making themselves prostrate at your feet. I mean, I tried to appreciate the gesture and I even had fun pushing their buttons from time to time, but many of my interactions were simply unsatisfying because of the staff's staged performance that varied between over-humbling and the somewhat snobbish "presumption of excellence" as one review put it.

Overall, the service was fantastic, and every one of the players was utterly convincing that they whole-heartedly believed that they were preserving some kind of antiquated chivilry or decency. The end result was a sort of fantasy or fairy-tail air for the guest, and this really helped Karen and I feel like we were experiencing a continuation our wedding reception, only without the clamoring guests and this time we actually got to EAT! As my mother put it upon presenting the gift certificate to us, we were being "given a memory" that we would never forget. That is how we both feel in spades.


At 7:45, we were taken from the living room to our table. Karen sat in the booth against a pillowed wall with other diners immediately on each side of her, and I sat in an armed chair opposite her. And so it began, with both of us slightly buzzing from the stiff drinks. One after another, various servers visited out table with information, food, and menus to order from. Our menu said "Happy Anniversary Mr. and Mrs. Guard" at the top. Funny, because we'd only been married a week. But another courteous detail that certainly made us feel special.

First, it was the bread. Really delicious poppy-seed roles and slices of salted rye toast. As I picked out a bottle of wine from a 50 page wine list, we were delivered a little tray of seven tiny bites of food, each one different. There was smoked trout, salmon, baby soufflé, and a few others. Within seconds, we had eaten them all and I'd forgotten to take their picture, perhaps feeling a little shy and awestruck by the surprise at the cuteness of their presentation. When the plate was taken away, our order was taken as well. By this time, I noticed that the two older women sitting next to us had been there before us, but still hadn't ordered. They were both the image of aristocratic old money, with faces pulled as tight as leather, one with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders and the other with a conservative suit-coat and very severe-looking black and silver streaked hair. Not only hadn't they ordered, but the woman next to Karen (seriously, no more than 18 inches away) was speaking loudly and affected; probably drunk. She was complaining about something and next thing you know, she let out a blood-cuddling whistle that stopped the entire room, everyone craning their necks to see what was the matter. At first she was tickled with herself, but eventually, after receiving stern treatment from the staff she became a little embarrassed, explaining that the woman on the other side of her had dared her to do it.

As our bottle of Spanish wine arrived, we started taking sips, ignoring our obnoxious neighbors, and getting excited for what was to come. The first course arrived: a chilled seafood trio for me and peppered and seared tuna with cucumber sorbet and daikon radish for Karen. We were both bowled over. Every bite was perfection. This food in front of us was so special that we could hardly stop staring at it long enough to eat it. My seafood trio included a ceviche that made us swear to prepare our first ceviche as soon as we got home. The tuna tartare just melted in our mouths. And the lobster maki-roll tasted like the best riff on tuna salad I'd ever tasted, with loads of whipped aioli and a little pool of soy sauce. Mental note, put mayo and tamari together as soon as I get back to my kitchen. For Karen, the "Fire and Ice" tuna dish was all about the cucumber sorbet. The little kinnel on the side of her tuna ribbons was the brightest cucumber taste one could imagine, playing the role of wasabi, only cool instead of spicy. The fish itself was also a delicacy, soft and subtle, the sort that we've gotten accustomed to since the only meat I eat is seafood. So the prize goes to the sorbet.

Once our plates were cleared from before us, we were both presented with a big white plate featuring a little demitasse cup. "White bean soup," we were informed by the staff. This was an exciting surprise that warmed us up quick and white beans are one of Karen's favorite ingredients. Inside the cup was a thin but opaque savory broth that was rich with the warm flavors of garlic, pepper and beany-ness. Lucky for us, they limited the quantity to an ounce or two, because we drained our cups quickly and attempted to mop up the drips with bread.

Next-door to us, the drunken damsels were busy playing cards, drinking wine and ignoring their food. Somehow, they had roped the table opposite them into a card game while talking about their enormous fortunes. The man on the other side of them owned a few chains of upscale restaurants. I guess we can see where he goes when he wants a decent meal.

Our next course arrived and it was like déjà vu. Karen had ordered the Black Truffle Dusted Diver's Scallop on Cauliflower Puree and Red Wine Butter Sauce. Yes, this is a proper title, probably trademarked. The image before us was so ubiquitous, I felt like I was finally seeing Mickey Mouse in person after hundreds of miles of Disney billboards. Despite the contrived experience that we were lured right into, the plate did not disappoint. Every detail mirrored the cookbook cover. We tasted it and agreed, this was the best scallop either of us had ever tasted. The sauce combination was like heaven and the little potato chip sandwich framing an herb leaf was beautiful. We almost tried to take it home instead of eating it. The only shortcoming was the truffle-dust treatment. Neither of us could taste any truffle and we were both really excited to have our first fresh truffle experience. On the other hand, maybe the truffle flavor had cooked off in the preparation. Either way, the stunning presentation was very effective.

My plate was overshadowed by Karen's but also shockingly rich and delicious. I had a Maryland crabcake sandwiched between fried green tomatoes, corn salsa, gaufrette potato chips and pickled okra. The accompaniments were upstaged by the mini fried sandwich, but the whole thing was tied together with a sweet pink drizzling of very fresh tomato vinegrette. I'm temped to say that this is how crabcakes should always be enjoyed - with fried green tomatoes. But it was so heavy that I could hardly even eat my fancy potato chips. When they cleared our plates, we were both relieved to have a moment to recuperate.

By this time, the ladies next to us had begun their second course, but had rejected their crabcake and resumed the card game. The older, more drunk of the two was next to Karen, shivering in her shawl and continually asking, "Have I eaten yet?" Somehow I thought their state of confusion was an invitation. So during this intermission, I decided to strike up some conversation. But, just when I thought we were going to be verbally playing with two pliable people, they zeroed in on us and started picking us apart, asking loads of questions about our vocations, backgrounds, honeymoon plans and generally interviewing and critiquing us like a surprise entree. When they started to demand that we wager on their card game things got uncomfortable. I explained that we were here on a gift certificate and could only ante up with shampoo and conditioner from our bathroom, the woman under the shawl took this as a request for charity. Soon, her purse was out and she was fanning large bills in front of us and seeming to ask how much we needed. We both smiled and laughed and tried to politely decline, although I entertained a few scenarios that involved me putting several of those bills in my pocket. Then she counted out some bills and put them on our table before dealing some cards between Karen and me. As we spoke up about not really wanting to play, others intervened with the drunk lady, attempting to deflect her attention from us, asking her to let them play in our place.

Seemingly prompted by the awkward situation, our main courses were set in front of us and we stopped engaging the ladies next to us all together. I explained to the less-drunk lady to my right that this was a once in a lifetime meal for us and that we didn't mean to be rude by ignoring them. Despite the distraction, we were excited to be staring at these works of art before us (the food, not the old maids playing old maid). The main course selections had been so tantelizing and overwhelming, this was truly the moment we had been waiting for. So, Karen and I started talking about our food we could hear the woman next to Karen clearly becoming upset. She was offended by our inattention and began telling everyone around her how rude we were and complained about "kids these days" although she was using less polite language.

At this time, a server surreptitiously whispered in my ear that we could continue our meal at another table if we preferred. Although I should have asked Karen, who was getting uncomfortable with our company, I told him that we'd be okay. Then the staff began asking our neighbor table if they would consider taking the rest of their meal in their rooms. I think we managed to simply shut these people out of our consciousness, but eventually they did relocate.

So, where were we? The main course, that's right. Deep breath in. Karen ordered the Pan roasted maine lobster with baby bok choi, and grapefruit and citrus butter sauce. I ordered from the vegetarian menu, something called wild mushroom napoleon. This was something that I had seen in the cookbook and I was really taken with the list of exotic mushrooms (like chantrelles, morels, porcinis) that I had never even seen in person before. As the dish sat before me, it was a little smaller than I had expected, but after one bite I was already feeling full and overwhelmed with richness. The whole thing was surrounded by a cappuccino-like cloud of mushroom butter and the mushrooms themselves had obviously soaked up a great deal of butter or olive oil before being laid between sheets of cheese crusted filo dough. In other words, I just couldn't do more than nibble at it because it was so heavy. Part of me wanted to ask the server if I could swap it for something else, but realistically, I couldn't imagine eating anything at this point. Then, I traded with Karen, which is our tradition when we order different entrees anyhow.

Karen's lobster was light and cleansing by comparison. The claw and tail meat were soft and silky, while the citrus in the sauce cut through its butter base. Plus, it had greens and grapefruit supremes, both very refreshing. Karen couldn't eat more than a bite or two of the "napoleon of forest mushrooms," but we both agreed that we'd just had the best lobster of our lives. If it is possible to get drunk on the richness of food, then this is how we felt. Or maybe it was the wine. Or both.

Soon, the servers took our plates and brought us a dessert menu. At this point in the evening we were noticing sweets being delivered to other tables and we were both curious to see the descriptions on the menu. On the side of us that wasn't making a fuss, a gentleman had some kind of ice cream sandwich set in front of him while another server spooned piping hot caramel on top of it. The sight made Karen and I swoon as the sauce cascaded all down the sides of the desert and around the plate. Meanwhile, we kept hearing a sound of a cow mooing and a cowbell clanking among the tables. It was the cheese cart, which was festooned with twenty or so cheeses. But the cart itself was the spectacle, as it was in the shape of a brown and white plastic cow. According to the menu, the cow's name is Faira. Although neither of us wanted cheese, we understood that this was intended to go along with an after dinner drink like port wine.

At any other restaurant, we would not have ordered dessert by this point. We already felt that we had over done it. However, dessert was included and the whole thing was already paid for (thanks mom and dad!) and we could not turn down another chance to marvel at the Inn's cuisine. So, we proceeded with something called Seven Deadly Sins, "A sampling of seven of our most decadent desserts", and a trio of chocolate desserts, black forest mousse bombe, chocolate crème brulee, and bitter chocolate soufflé. So, despite the fact that neither of us wanted any dessert, we ordered ten deserts. And to help put us in the mood, I ordered a snifter of Benedictine and brandy and asked if I would be allowed to carry my drink around with me for the rest of the night. "Of course, Mr. Guard." Karen, however, explained to the sommelier that she didn't know what she wanted, but that she usually goes with gin and tonic when she does drink hard liquor.

In short order, he appeared with a snifter that was nearly so full of B&B that I couldn't put my nose in it and a little taste of something for Karen. "Tell me if this is to your liking, Mrs. Guard." We both smiled at the sweetness of his service and Karen agreed that the drink was perfect. "What is it?" "Grand Marnier." And so we toasted, something like "to our future together forever."

The desserts came and I think we both shook our heads trying to figure out where to start. By this point, we were drunk. The obnoxious woman and her friend had gotten up and left at some point between our main course and dessert, only to land five feet behind me at another table where they continued their card game, only slightly more subdued. Things were quieting down in the dinning room. And so Karen and I delicately picked at our miniature sweets. The chocolate was all too rich, save the crème brulee which ranked up there with the best flavors of the night. Of the seven deadly sins, we were excited to see that the butter pecan ice cream tasted just like I made it using the Inn cookbook. There were some other items that we enjoyed, but not enough to remember what they were.

By this time we had become preoccupied with getting a kitchen tour. We noticed others doing this and our server encouraged us to ask for our picture with Patrick O'Connell. When we gave up on dessert, he lead us to the kitchen door and gave us some mumbo jumbo about when the living room was once serving as the kitchen until they built the addition, etc, and then we followed him into a brightly lit octagonal room that seemed to be gleaming gold and silver from every corner. A large tray of chicken fingers was sitting on top of one of the counters and we didn't see anything from the menu in production or teaming line of sous chefs, nor did we see anything being expedited by a barking chef at the kitchen's helm. That part of the night was over and the crew was preparing to feed themselves some cheap fare. In case you were wondering what the chefs eat when they're done preparing the best food in the world… it's chicken fingers. When we came to our senses, Patrick O'Connell was shaking our hands and putting his arms around the both of us. Our guide had taken our camera and quickly snapped a picture. Behind us we caught a momentary glimpse of a chef meticulously decorating a couple plates of desserts in a little room that we were told was the "dessert kitchen." Go figure. And then we were asked if we had any questions. This part of the night was kinda hazy, and we felt out of place, so we marched back out into the living room to breathe a sigh of relief that our dinner experience was finally over.

Back in our room, we found all of our things put away and the bed remade. We also found a little care package on our nightstand that consisted of a tiny bottle of port wine, two little thimble cups, and two tiny cookies in the shape of dog bones. A note next to this said "With best wishes for sweet dreams. X O X O JoBe," and had a little doggie footprint. One detail of the Inn's origin that I neglected to mention are the two Dalmatians that the innkeepers share and consider to be the mascots of the business. In fact, all of the chefs wear spotted black and white pants in honor of the dogs. I didn't say anything about it before because I didn't think it was worth mentioning, being a simple little cutsey ploy to make the place more endearing. However, considering that the dogs had brought us more booze and sweets and signed our greeting card, I figure they should get their due. Before falling asleep, Karen and I surfed the cable television while sinking into our very luxurious bed.

In the morning, we found ourselves in a great deal of pain. Our insides were still totally overwhelmed by the previous night's meal and both of us had throbbing headaches. We had managed to sleep until nearly 10 am and Karen said she planned to take a shower. "Whoa whoa, hold up," I said. We've got to have breakfast and they stop serving it at 10:30. Neither of us were hungry, but we agreed to get dressed and go downstairs that very instant to take advantage of another perk of our Inn at Little Washington experience. Although we didn't really want more food, we knew that the Inn wouldn't steer us wrong and would intuitively know how to soothe our reeling bodies.

Once down the stairs, we were lead through the dinning room where we vaguely remembered eating just twelve hours before and into a seating area facing the garden that was bathed in sunlight. Whereas the dining room was dim and covered in dark shaded fabrics, this area was all cheery and spring-like. The softness of the pastels and the cushiony walls and drapery was soothing, providing the ideal comforting environment for our impaired conditions. We were seated in a corner where we could lean against the wall for support and flutes of orange juice were placed before us. A few other guests were seated down the wall, but they weren't loud or obnoxious. The collective energy in the room was slightly above whispering and soothing tones. No one seemed in a rush for any reason whatsoever.

Karen and I sipped the OJ. Wow. This had to be the best orange juice I've ever tasted. I imagined that someone was in the back, tasting each orange before deciding if it was sweet enough to squeeze. I almost felt guilty that I was in such poor condition to appreciate the meal that was to come. Looking over the menu, we were both relieved. There was list of items listed as "a la carte breakfast selections" at $25 additional, but neither of us wanted to risk being presented with more richness. However, there were some curious items, like silver dollar cottage cheese pancakes with fresh huckleberry sauce, or a trio of classic American breakfast favorites in miniature, oatmeal souffle with rum soaked currants and warm maple syrup. The thing that tempted me the most was the lobster omlette with rainbow salsa and hash brown potatoes. I mean, how does the Inn at Little Washington do hash browns? Aren't you curious?

The good news is that the house breakfast came with the price of our room and it was just what the doctor ordered. It began with red, white and blue yogurt-granola parfait. Fresh raspberries and blueberries contrasted with the yogurt for the French flag look and the granola was somehow sweeter, chewier, and fresher than any either of us had ever had before. We were both surprised to find ourselves back in connoisseur mode. A basket of various homemade breads came out and when we opened the napkin a wonderful warmth wafted out of the basket. Karen went for the croissant immediately, while I preferred some kind of whole grain toast to soak up whatever alcohol was still in my system. Just then, a cart was brought to our table with five kinds of homemade jam. We picked the strawberry rhubarb, raspberry vanilla, and local apple. We alternated between these three and the various breads until we felt obscenely stuffed again. The raspberry was the biggest hit and then the apple for its subtlety and the fact that it was completely transparent save for a slight golden hue. After several refills of coffee, we went back up to our rooms to freshen up.

While Karen showered, I walked back through the courtyard. My head was still reeling from overindulging the night before and I probably seemed out of place due to my age (most folks there were middle-aged or better) and my careless swagger (which may have actually been from still being tipsy). At this point, I looked at the Japanese koi and thought for a second that even the fish have more refined manners than I do. As I walked through the courtyard, I found myself at the back of the building where a large garden of flowers lined with apple and pear trees extended out to the road. After walking through the garden for a minute, I decided to get Karen and make sure that she got to see this too.

Back in the room, I called the front desk and told them that we would be leaving in 15-20 minutes, once we had walked around the grounds one last time. They said that they would have our bags at the front desk and my car pulled up front for me. So, Karen and I took one last batch of pictures of our room and headed out. We did a lap around the grounds, taking more pictures and that was about it. When we were ready to check out we stopped in the lobby and dropped off our room key with the concierge. Two young fellas darted past us with our bags and clothing on hangers. The man behind the desk looked briefly at a computer screen that was tucked way behind some Victorian molding and said, "You're all set Mr. Guard. Your car is ready out front."

And so it was. We hopped in and rode off.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Welcome to Jason's Blog

I just got married. Don't believe me? Check out my wedding website and you'll get the whole scoop. My wife's name is Karen. She's really the reason why you're reading this blog. She told me that I needed to start a food blog.

You can expect to read about some of my culinary adventures here, but you'll probably get a healthy dose of some of my other passions as well. Maybe some politics, travel stuff, frugal consumer tips. Who knows. Anyhow, the point is, stay tuned and you'll be getting an eye full. I hope you enjoy it.