Edible DC — Fall 2014
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Beyond The Inn At Little Washington
Words by Marian Burros • Photographs by Molly Peterson

The burgeoning food scene of Rappahannock County

"Rappahannock is on the foodie map," says Alan Zuschlag, with more than a hint of pride. "I get calls all the time from people who want a foodie tour and an incredible meal based on Rappahannock food. We probably would have gotten to this point without the Inn, but not to the extent we are today–not so quickly and not to the degree of sophistication."

The Inn? Of course. The Inn at Little Washington, Chef Patrick O'Connell's elegant small hotel with world-class food, the ultimate foodie indulgence where the drinks before dinner come with popcorn sprinkled with black truffles; a mechanical cow, laden with the finest domestic and imported cheeses, moos its way around the dining room; and dinner is at least $200. Per person. Without wine.

Zuschlag, a real estate broker in Rappahannock County who raises lambs on the side, says his lambs "have more cachet because they come from the county where the Inn is located. The Rappahannock brand has become like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval that traces directly back to the Inn."

From its beginning 36 years ago, the Inn has emphasized local, sustainable and often organic food, the trinity of the country's current food craze. The Inn was farm-to-table long before anyone coined the phrase and its fame has attracted many alternatives for lodging and dining, often at steep price points, bringing streams of tourists, bikers, hikers and motorcyclists who spend a lot of money not just in Little Washington but adjacent villages, like Sperryville and Flint Hill.

This fame is not without its downside. Throughout its history the Inn has worked to maintain a delicate balance with the locals, who certainly benefit from the taxes it produces, but, says O'Connell, there is an "eternal theme: the drama of pitting country folk against city folk¸ the rich against the poor." One of those periodic blowups between county and inn took place this summer. (See "The Inn at Little Washington: Friend or Foe?" on page 34)

But most of those who live in close proximity to the Inn see the upside. John MacPherson, who owns Foster Harris House, a bed and breakfast just down the street, where dinner is served to outside guests, knew nothing about the Inn until he moved to Virginia.

"We stumbled on Patrick's cookbook and were blown away that a place like the Inn would be here," he said. "It has allowed us to cater to the clientele that appreciate a five-course menu with ingredients we wanted to serve. Patrick made this a place where people would drive an hour and 15 minutes into the country. Anyone who doesn't think the Inn has had a positive impact on their business is not being realistic."

Ken Thompson, owner of the 10-year-old Thornton River Grille in Sperryville and new Tula's off Main in Little Washington, admits he hadn't thought much about it.

"At first I wasn't smart enough to realize the large benefit that did accrue to us because Patrick was out here," he said. The Grille is attached to the Sperryville Corner Store, now filled with items that would never have been available but for the Inn, like the fresh seafood delivered four or five times a week.

It's a far cry from Chef O'Connell's earliest days 67 miles from the nation's capital.

"When we turned the garage into a restaurant in 1978, we had to go into the city for everything," O'Connell said. "It was simply not delivered. Vendors would ask where we were. One guy said 'Make up your mind, buddy. You are either in Washington or you're in Virginia.'"

Back in those days, bread was delivered from Ottenberg's, once a well-known bakery in the big Washington, but they'd only deliver as far as Gainesville, 42 miles away.

"They'd leave the bread at a restaurant there, but the restaurant wouldn't let it in the door. So if it was snowing or raining and you were late picking it up, you had to dry out the bread in the oven. That's when we decided to make all the bread in our kitchen."

It was no picnic getting meat either, remembers O'Connell.

"The best we could do with meat was to get it delivered on the bus: It went to Warrenton as baggage. The whole idea of regional cuisine was created out of total necessity. Fortunately, everyone grew too much in their gardens." The Inn starting sourcing local–really local–by getting produce from their neighbors, many of whom were so proud to have their homegrown vegetables featured in the upscale restaurant they didn't even want payment, except in maybe a fresh-baked tart.

"What we were able to get right here was better than anything we could buy," says O'Connell. "Word got out if you have anything to sell, bring it to the back door. One fellow came with some mushrooms: 'Hey Pat, you know what a shiitake is?' And he pronounced it 'shit-take.'"

Now visitors have so many choices, they could spend almost two weeks eating well in and around Little Washington without repetition. From tapas at El Quijote to black truffle risotto at Glen Gordon Manor, from a ham, cheese and asparagus quesadilla at 24 Crows to pickled ramps and foie gras at Foster Harris House, you can eat high and low and everywhere in between.

Marian Burros was on staff at the New York Times for 27 years and still writes for them. The author of 13 cookbooks, she has written about small farms and the pleasures of local food since the 1980s.

WHERE TO GO AND WHAT TO EAT–OUTSIDE OF THE INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON

Longtime Little Washington residents John and Beverly Sullivan love to show visitors around their town and it's no wonder, as John is the town's mayor. It took three weekends to sample more than 10 restaurants, five markets and three farms in the idyllic countryside of Rappahannock County.

GLEN GORDON MANOR and FOSTER HARRIS HOUSE, each serving multicourse dinners a few nights a week, may not reach the gastronomic heights of the Inn, but neither do their prices. Yet the food is very well crafted in comfortable settings.

Dayne Smith, the chef and owner of Glen Gordon Manor in Huntley with his wife, Nancy Moon, have turned an elegant country house into a warm and welcoming retreat that once charmed the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. It is so understated, there isn't even a sign to mark the entrance. A recent menu featured a beautiful green spring pea and watercress soup with house-smoked Jordan River trout and a luxurious lobster beurre blanc on pan-roasted Chesapeake striped bass. Fivecourse tasting menus Thursday–Monday $85; with wines $125 for outside guests. 540-623- 9400; GlenGordonManor.com

The Foster Harris House is known for its bicycle tours, Tour d'Epicure, which allow visitors to ride through the beautiful Rappahannock countryside in pursuit of delicious local food and drink. A two-night package includes all meals: one dinner at the Inn at Little Washington, just up the road, another cooked by owner John MacPherson, which might feature pickled ramps (a local Virginia treat), barbecued braised short ribs and lemon ricotta fritters. For outside guests, a five-course dinner is available Thursday– Saturday for $89 without wines; $119 with. 540-675-3757; FosterHarris.com

24 CROWS: If the only meal you are having around Little Washington is lunch, then drive directly to 24 Crows in Flint Hill where two alumni of the Inn, Heidi and Vinnie Deluise, have turned their skills into a day job–which means, says Vinnie, "now we get to go home at night." There are just 16 seats, and the food is vibrant with color and intense flavor: a quesadilla stuffed with corn, zucchini, tomatoes, cheese and barbecue sauce; a chicken sandwich with roasted red peppers, basil pesto, mayo and bacon; ham, cheese, asparagus and sautéed onions. Totally satisfying and nothing costs more than $13. 540-675-1111.

The best dishes at TULA'S OFF MAIN have a New Orleans accent, produced by chef Tom Nash, from the light flaky rosemary biscuits to the succulent soft-shell crabs, with a touch of spice, perfectly crisp and bathed with a luxurious beurre rouge. Their brand new bar is already a hot spot.
540-675-2223; TulasOffMain.com

The THORNTON RIVER GRILLE in Sperryville is a modern version of 1930s–'40s roadhouse and serves consistently good food: a delicious burrito stuffed with eggs, chorizo sausage and pepperjack cheese with black beans and home fries, and a nicely cooked burger. The restaurant is very popular with locals and day-trippers, has no airs and serves dishes that everyone can recognize. And pronounce.
540-987-8790;ThorntonRiverGrille.com

EL QUIJOTE tapas have come to Sperryville's River Arts District in the same building that houses the works of many local artists. A relative newcomer to the area, chef and owner Emilio Fantan owns a popular Spanish restaurant in Miami. Starting with creamy and refreshing gazpacho enhanced with garnishes of chopped tomatoes, onion, eggs and cucumbers, we got so wrapped up in the tapas that we never did order paella.
540-987-8187; ElQuijoteVirginia.com

GRIFFIN TAVERN in Flint Hill is best known for its bar and the locals love it. With Rachel Rowland at the stove, the simple menu has much to offer: garlicky steamed mussels and perfectly fried calamari with sweet and spicy chili sauce, described by owner Debbie Donehey as "pub fare with flair."
540-675-3227; GriffinTavern.com

STONYMAN GOURMET FARMER is in a handsomely restored 18th-century store near the Inn that offers a selection of farmstead cheeses, made by Susan James, who owns the shop with her husband, Alan. There are about 20 cheeses, along with several lunch items, from which to choose: a pleasant young blue, a 2-year-old Reserve cheddar, a youthful gouda, a mild tomme with a bit of character and a brie with excellent texture that is quite mild. Price range is $18 to $28 a pound. 540-675- 2005; StonymanGourmetFarmer.com

COUNTRY CAFE has been located diagonally across the street from the Inn for over 20 years. "We are kind of two different worlds," says owner David Huff, who was born in Little Washington. "We're kind of the locals' place." A classic in its own way, nothing on the menu for breakfast, lunch or dinner costs more than $17–and that's the rib eye steak. 540-675-1066.

BLUE ROCK INN in Sperryville is currently for sale but should it still be around, be sure to at least have a drink outside and watch the sunset. Based on one late lunch there's good food, too: some fine spring rolls, tasty crab cakes, baba ganoush, perfectly cooked juicy bison burgers and a well-executed old chestnut, tiramisu. 540-987-3388; TheBlueRockInn.com

In front of FLINT HILL PUBLIC HOUSE RESTAURANT AND INN, an iconic metal bull graces the entrance, one of the many pieces of art belonging to co-owner William Waybourn, who has a gallery in big Washington. He and his partner, Craig Spaulding, have just installed a walled vegetable garden. Dogs are very welcome and have their own menu. Flint Hill isn't competing with The Inn, says Waybourn: "What do I know about food? I just wanted to have a restaurant." The Bloody Mary is excellent. 540-675-1700; FlintHillVA.com

RED TRUCK BAKERY is on track to open a bakery kitchen and a shop, serving breakfast and lunch in Little Washington later this year. Voted one of the 50 best bakeries in the United States, it will retain its tiny place in nearby Warrenton, but, as owner and chef Brian Noyes says, "I always wanted this to be in a sweet little Main Street setting in a small rural village." Look for light, moist fruit muffins, spectacular fruit pies that sing of summer, chicken potpies with the flakiest of crusts and the quintessential tuna sandwich. 540-340-2224; RedTruckBakery.com

Also coming sometime in 2015: a restaurant by Dan O'Brien of Seasonal Pantry in the District.

WINE AND WHISKEY

• GADINO CELLARS, RAPPAHANNOCK CELLARS AND CHESTER GAP CELLARS. GadinoCellars.com; RappahannockCellars.com; ChesterGapCellars.com

• COPPER FOX DISTILLERY in Sperryville has such good whiskey, owner and distiller Rick Wasmund is shipping to Scotland. CopperFox.biz

• Guided and chauffeured tours are available: Town. Washington.VA.US/wineries

LOCAVORE GROCERY SHOPPING

• For those interested in taking Virginia ingredients back home, such as deeply flavored grass-fed rib eye steaks, local eggs and pasture-raised pork, try HERITAGE HOLLOW FARM STORE in Sperryville. 540-987-9429; HeritageHollowFarms.net

• For local fruits and vegetables and almost anything else you can think of, pick your way through ROY'S ORCHARD AND FRUIT MARKET, also in Sperryville. 540-987-8636

• Carry-out sandwiches from Terry Lehman at the CORNER GROCERY STORE in Sperryville. 540-987-8185

THE INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON: FRIEND OR FOE?

The anti-change crowd in Rappahannock County was in full throttle after several Washington Post articles in June 2014 about Jim Abdo, a D.C. developer with plans to turn some derelict and abandoned buildings in Little Washington into thriving businesses. It was a plot, they said, to make Little Washington another East Hampton, blaming not only Abdo, but also Patrick O'Connell, owner of the Inn at Little Washington, and the town's mayor, John Sullivan.

The mayor was taken aback by the stories and Abdo's inartful comments about the town. "He comes off as a D.C. bigfoot," Sullivan said. But O'Connell was not surprised because there has always been an uneasy truce between the Inn and the town: a 1999 New Yorker article suggested the town might turn into "a period resort for the rich."

Writing on the occasion of the Inn's 25th anniversary in 2003, the New York Times said that when O'Connell and his then partner "converted an old garage into a country restaurant, this hamlet of 150 people didn't like the idea and nearly ran them out of town."

However, O'Connell characterizes the relationship as quite peaceful in recent years, until the Post stories appeared in June. "The resentment against a business catering to outside clientele, even if it brings money into town, is not unique," says O'Connell.

Perhaps if Abdo hadn't spoken so disparagingly about Little Washington, there would have been less backlash. Like so many in his field, Abdo wants everyone to know how his plans will benefit the neighborhood, telling the Washington Post that the town: "It was hollow, it was vacant, it was empty. There was no pulse."

County residents don't think the town needs saving, thank you. Rappnet, the area's listserv, was awash in vitriol, leading to a town meeting to calm the crowd. Abdo unpuffed his chest, apologizing, "Some of my words offended some people. I'm deeply sorry."

As the controversy has settled down, residents were reminded that Little Washington's zoning regulations and architectural review board holds a tight control over how buildings can be used and their exterior appearance.

Local realtor Alan Zuschlag takes the long view: "I think the whole kerfuffel is more a question of misstatements or slant on the news rather than the news itself. Everybody agrees they don't want T-shirt shops and ice cream shops and day-trippers."

Meanwhile, Rappahannock County native Dave Huff, owner of the Country Café, doesn't get the uproar: "Washington, Virginia, is probably more beautiful today than it's ever been. There were a lot of places getting run down but now it's a beautiful town."
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