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Fearless Critic restaurant review
Upmarket restaurant

Wed–Mon 6:00pm–8:30pm

Features Date-friendly, good wines, outdoor dining
Bar Beer, wine, liquor
Credit cards Visa, MC, AmEx
Reservations Essential


Washington, VA
309 Middle St.
Washington, VA
(540) 675-3800
The Inn at Little Washington
A lovely, spectacularly expensive restaurant pretending to have a world-class kitchen

Even in a world of fluffy credentialling organizations, the Relais & Châteaux experience tends to be specific and consistent. A drink before dinner—in the evocative garden, perhaps, or the warm, cozy library—is an aristocratic expectation. Servers strike a fine balance: unpretentious yet encyclopedic, personal yet not too folksy. A series of rooms is illuminated by a genteel gauze of orange light, appeasing the geezers with sufficient quantities of blown glass and patterned wallpapers without coming off like shiny Rococo ballrooms. The room smells of candles and fresh flowers. A meal here—an hour’s drive from DC—is a full evening’s entertainment. It is expensive. It is civilized. It is life-affirming.

Relais & Châteaux has a problem on its hands, though, when one of its restaurants doesn’t seem to have noticed that romance-novel nouns (it’s a “fantasia,” not a salad; a “marriage,” not a pairing) were long ago relegated to the first-class cabins of domestic airlines, or that people now expect serious, cutting-edge execution from $500 meals.

The Inn at Little Washington does seem to have a way with tuna. An impeccable tartare (here it’s a “mélange”), well set against a strong yuzu sorbet, isn’t overwhelmed by mango and avocado, while a cooked version (here it’s “pepper-crusted tuna pretending to be a filet mignon”) might come wisely topped with an expertly seared lobe of duck foie gras. Rigatoni, aged Gouda, country ham, and faint black truffle are comforting flavors and textures in “macaroni and cheese”; spinach raviolini exude the very essence of the vegetable.

Too often, though, the kitchen fails to fulfill the promise of its overambitious menu. “Pan-seared New England cod” comes chewy and overcooked, unenhanced by its wimpy pork crust. Cold foie gras torchon—a simple test of a kitchen’s exuberance—is cooked to excessive softness, a far cry from the firm, buttery mi-cuit sort that makes your eyes roll back into your head. Heirloom tomatoes come with buttery mozzarella but inexcusably little sweetness. Crab cakes are standard; lobster is undistinguished; lamb carpaccio is tender but underflavored; an over-roasted, uninteresting roast veal loin, dubbed “veal parmesan reincarnated,” makes us wistful for the Italian-American original.

The Inn’s wine list is elaborate, well constructed, and conceals a few rare treats in the far reaches of the cellar (a simple but intact 1982 Volnay-Taillepieds for $50), and the sommelier knows her stuff. Still, it’s almost impossible to get out of the Inn for less than $200 a head—even on lower-priced weekdays. Get the tasting menu with wine pairings, and it’s more like $400 per person. Now there’s a financial crisis.

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