- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

WASHINGTON, Va. — How do you open a successful inn? “It was a folly. No one, including my family, was optimistic. Even we vowed that if we had not turned the corner after two years, we would give it up.”

That’s how Patrick O’Connell, arguably America’s premier innkeeper, describes the venture he started 27 years ago with his partner, Reinhardt Lynch.

It all began in Washington — not the nation’s capital, but a remote Rappahannock County hamlet in the mountains of Virginia. For $200 a month, Mr. O’Connell and Mr. Lynch rented half of an abandoned garage on a corner near the courthouse; there was nowhere to eat, not even a snack bar.

Mr. O’Connell and Mr. Lynch broughtwith them one asset: a stellar reputation as caterers among local Virginians from the hunt country. Their customers followed them to the newly named Inn at Little Washington, where cooking pots hung from the ceiling and tables were furnished with paper napkins and stainless cutlery.

Mr. O’Connell’s penchant for grand decor was already in evidence at the opening, with a bright red cook stove as serving table. The menu was not modest, including grilled scampi, veal escalope with fresh asparagus and an iced souffle Grand Marnier or pear-and-almond tart, a bargain at $10, including tax.

After just two weeks came the lucky break. A restaurant critic, John Rosson from the old Washington Star in big-city Washington, two hours away, was bowled over by Mr. O’Connell’s cooking. As he left after a triumphant dinner, he asked, “Are you sure you are ready for this?”

The next Sunday, the news broke: “Once in a great while, there comes along a restaurant that is so good you worry that it cannot survive.”

Locals were goggle-eyed at the attention the new guys in town were attracting, and thus began a tense relationship that still endures. On the one hand, there is respect for the achievements and the business created by the inn. Yet there remains resentment at the bustle and change caused to a quiet county seat of fewer than 200 inhabitants.

That first summer, the crowds and the work were almost overwhelming. Mr. O’Connell’s very personal culinary style took shape. Of necessity, it involved local ingredients because the District was too far for daily deliveries. (Mr. Lynch would make a biweekly run in a pickup truck.)

Simple dishes such as the roast chicken that was an early signature dish morphed into recipes such as charcoal-grilled poussins marinated in blackberry vinegar and loin of lamb in a fragrant broth with gremolata. Mr. O’Connell understands that simplicity is the essence of great cuisine — the ability to highlight flavors and present foods with a twist of originality.

After the opening triumph of the Inn at Little Washington, it would be easy to say that the rest was history. However, five years passed before Mr. O’Connell and Mr. Lynch began to think of converting the derelict second story above the restaurant to create a hotel.

At last, detailed plans were made for eight guest rooms, each crammed with the Victorian furniture and fabrics that have become the inn’s hallmark. Then, two weeks before the opening, the bank canceled a $1 million loan, saying, “If only you were in a shopping mall.”

In one of the seesaw crises that seem to characterize the O’Connell-Lynch partnership, emergency financing had to be found. A hasty visit to the District unmasked a bank president who had sampled Mr. O’Connell’s cooking, and a replacement loan was secured.

Mr. O’Connell is in charge of the kitchen, and Mr. Lynch welcomes guests and oversees finances. He is a cautious manager. After five years of savings and hard work, the initial $50,000 had long been paid off, and profits went into real estate. “We’ve bought local property almost every year, for 20 out of our 27 years,” Mr. Lynch says.

“We’ve always resisted partners. We started by borrowing to the hilt, but now we finance from equity.”

He doubts whether anyone could repeat this feat. “Everyone wants success too quickly. It’s sad. No one is prepared to manage well and wait.” From the start, Mr. O’Connell and Mr. Lynch have set the bar high.

“We wanted to establish reference points, and we took as our guiding light some of the legendary country inns of France. In 1978, there was no business model here in the U.S. for such an undertaking.” The gamble has paid off.

After the late-‘80s expansion, the accolades again began to pour in. In 1989, the inn achieved the first, and only, perfect score for food in the Zagat guide. Charlie Gibson on “Good Morning America” declared, “Of all the meals I’ve had in my life, one stands out as the best … at the Inn at Little Washington.”

In 2001, Mr. O’Connell was named chef of the year by the James Beard Foundation. In 1996, Mr. O’Connell’s cookbook, “The Inn at Little Washington Cookbook: A Consuming Passion” (Random House) hit the best-seller list. Now, he says, “American cuisine has come of age.”

“Patrick O’Connell’s Refined American Cuisine” will be published in the fall by Bulfinch (a division of AOL Time Warner), and in it, he declares, “We are on a par with French haute cuisine, using American ingredients.”

The evocative, detailed writing brings a breath of fresh air to the page. Recipes such as oatmeal souffle and pineapple skillet tarts (an echo of pineapple upside-down cake), replicate traditional dishes with a new lightness for the home cook.

The partners’ most recent investment is an art gallery and museum-style shop in a restored tavern opposite the inn. “Today, you need another revenue source,” Mr. Lynch says. “It’s important to diversify. Innkeeping and running a restaurant are very different businesses. Next, perhaps, we’ll think of a spa.”

“It never gets easier,” Mr. O’Connell says. “People come to us with impossible expectations, and we try to anticipate every one.” For information, visit: www.theinnatlittlewashington.com.

Patrick’s pineapple skillet tarts

“As a child, I always loved my mother’s pineapple upside-down cake,” Mr. O’Connell says, “but as a chef, I knew it needed a drastic makeover to take it into the next century. Losing the maraschino cherry was a no-brainer. Getting rid of the cake’s clunkiness was trickier.

“I remembered a caramelized Alsatian apple crepe we used to serve and tried substituting thinly sliced pineapple. Its acidity made the dessert more refreshing, and surprisingly, all of the flavors I remembered from childhood were preserved in something light and delicate.

“The crepe is a 6-inch disk with thin slices of pineapple laid in concentric circles and covered with an alluring golden glaze. The caramelization created in the skillet tastes just like the gooey brown sugar topping on the American classic.

“The beauty of the dish is that you are unaware of the crepe. It is like a film holding it together.

“People are sometimes afraid to make crepes because they think they have to be paper-thin. It’s not necessary for this dish. It will be equally delicious if they are more like pancakes.

“Flipping them will take a little practice. The trick is to jerk the pan forward with a quick flipping motion, then catch the crepe as it lands upside down. (People usually don’t thrust the pan forward with enough oomph.) If you’re worried about watching the first few fall on the floor, ask the dog to stand by when you practice, or put a plate over the pan, invert the pancake onto the plate, then return it to the pan, pineapple side down.

“It would seem like torture if you made the tarts while your guests were waiting, but there is really no point. Just lay them on greased cookie sheets and warm them before serving.”

CREPE BATTER:

2 cups flour

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1/4 cup sugar

3 eggs

Pinch of salt

1 cup milk, or as needed

Combine flour, melted butter, sugar, eggs and salt in a food processor or blender. With the motor running, add enough milk (about 1 cup) to make a fluid batter. The batter may be covered and refrigerated for up to 24 hours.

SKILLET TARTS:

2 large ripe pineapples, peeled, cored and cut lengthwise into quarters

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, plus 3 tablespoons for greasing pan

3/4 cup toasted, coarsely ground macadamia nuts

cup sugar

3/4 cup heavy whipping cream

cup 151-proof rum, for flaming the tarts (optional)

Coconut ice cream

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside. Slice the pineapple quarters crosswise, 1/8-inch thick.

To make the first tart, in a 7-inch nonstick pan over medium heat, melt 3/4 teaspoon of the butter, spreading with a spatula. Remove pan.

With pan off the heat, ladle about 3 tablespoons batter into the pan, and roll it around until the bottom of the pan is evenly coated with the batter. Sprinkle the crepe with 1 tablespoon of the macadamia nuts.

Return pan to medium heat. Just as the crepe begins to set but is still wet on top, remove pan from heat and arrange some of the pineapple slices in an overlapping circular pattern, completely covering the surface of the crepe. Use a skewer or fork to arrange any of the pineapple slices that fall out of place. Shake the crepe slightly to keep it from sticking to the pan.

Return pan to heat, and sprinkle pineapple with 2 teaspoons of sugar and about tablespoon of cold butter, cut into bits. Use a rubber spatula to loosen the edge of the crepe and check the underside.

When the bottom is golden brown, loosen the crepe by running a rubber spatula around the edges, and carefully flip over the crepe in the pan.

Continue cooking until the sugar underneath turns a light caramel color. Add 1 tablespoon of cream around the edges of the crepe, and tilt the pan so the cream blends with the sugar and runs under the crepe.

Spray a flat metal surface, such as the bottom of a cake pan, with nonstick cooking spray. Place the sprayed side over the tart, and invert the pan to remove the tart.

Slide the tart onto the prepared cookie sheet.

Repeat the process, wiping the pan clean between tarts, to make 10 to 12. The sheet of tarts may be covered and refrigerated up to 4 hours.

Reheat the tarts in a preheated 350-degree oven until hot, about 4 minutes. Transfer to serving plates.

Pour rum into a small heatproof pitcher or gravy boat and set aflame, if desired. Carefully spoon burning rum over the tarts in a darkened dining room.

Serve with coconut ice cream.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

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