Price is high charm is, too

Rooms: Room rates start at $250 per night, and dinner costs $78 to $98 per person. The Inn at Little Washington tries to make you glad to pay.

November 03, 1996|By Jean Simmons | Jean Simmons,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

A 10-star property, can you believe it? Five stars for the overnight accommodation. Five more stars for the restaurant. That adds up to almost as many stars as there are guest rooms.

This is the Inn at Little Washington. Only Dallas' renowned Mansion on Turtle Creek can equal the Mobil Travel Guide's dual rating for this wonderful little hideaway about 65 miles west of Washington.

The AAA also bestows its maximum five diamonds separately on both the inn and its fabulous dining room.

Yet the Inn at Little Washington contains only 12 units and has no nearby city from which to draw a clientele. And it's definitely pricey (think in terms of $500 or more per night for two), a place in which to indulge yourself on a special occasion -- but well worth the cost and the effort to get there.

From Washington, the drive westward gradually gives way to the wonderful Virginia countryside. Soon you are among green hills, handsome horse farms, and pastures dotted with grazing cattle and divided by rustic fences.

The Blue Ridge Mountains rise on the far horizon as you pass Warrenton and proceed toward "little" Washington.

Twenty-three miles beyond Warrenton, you enter a picture-pretty village of about 200 residents and pull up in front of an appealing two-story inn at Washington's only intersection. The old-timers, we understand, don't like using the diminutive adjective in front of their town: It is the original Washington, surveyed by none other than George himself in 1749 and still laid out in the original five-by-two-block grid.

Before we could even get out of our car, two young porters -- one male, one female -- formally attired in black and white, materialized for our luggage, apparently the normal procedure. It only got better from there.

After a pause at the tucked-away registration desk in the intimate lobby, we were escorted up a narrow stairway and past a gracious sitting area to our quarters. A note of welcome signed by the owners, chef Patrick O'Connell and his partner Reinhardt Lynch, awaited on a little, ornate desk.

The roomy expanse might well have been in an English manor house, what with two comfortable lounge chairs, one including a footstool holding a woven throw, and a lavishly draped king-size bed. (Interiors were designed by a London stage set designer.) Matching fabrics, mostly in shades of dark green, rosy red and gold, graced the windows and framed the doorway to a balcony where, we were advised, we might enjoy our complimentary afternoon tea.

Rather, we opted for the lovely garden below, where we immediately felt transplanted to southern France with its colorful, fragrant countryside. With our choice of ice teas came a pretty plate of scones, apricots, cherries, pastries and other assorted goodies.

Then it was back to our room, time to ready ourselves for the coming seven-course feast. On one side of the entryway was a curtained closet with clothes hangers, extra pillows and blankets, while on the other side a well-appointed dressing room led to a separate marbled bathroom.

There were Q-tips, cotton balls, an ice bucket with tongs, bottled spring water from Wales, a lighted magnifying mirror, assorted toiletries, Spring Rain room spray, a hair dryer, terry robes and more. A massage therapist is available at $85 per hour.

Reading material included a coffee-table book called "Gardens & Landscapes of Virginia" and the latest issue of Wine Spectator magazine.

As for dinner well, only a food critic could do it justice. The splendid evening began when a small white rosebud was pinned to Tom's lapel, indicating we were registered guests, not to be confused with outsiders.

The surroundings were opulent, the service impeccable and the presentations outstanding. Each dish was a work of art.

The prix-fixe dinner menu on this particular Monday night ($78) started with a choice of nine first-course selections, continued with three choices for between courses and 10 main-course options, and wound up with 15 dessert offerings.

Just a random sampling from the menu: grilled quail marinated in homemade blackberry vinegar on garlic polenta; salad of endive and watercress with walnuts, bacon, pears and Maytag blue cheese; barbecued grilled boneless rack of lamb in a pecan crust with shoestring sweet potatoes; filet mignon of rare tuna capped with duck foie gras on charred onions and a Burgundy butter sauce.

A few surprises were thrown in here and there, including an appetizer consisting of barbecued rabbit, smoked oyster, curried creme fraiche and almond slivers; a demitasse of gazpacho; and after dessert, a basket of sweets accompanying coffee.

The extensive wine list, worthy of the setting, includes many half bottles in the interest of diners needing to hit the road home. In all, there are 850 selections from French, California and Virginia vineyards.

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