Inn at Little Washington serves food to drive for

November 17, 1996|By Rob Kasper

EVERY SO OFTEN you come across a fellow who doesn't play by the rules and is a roaring success, and you are delighted.

Patrick O'Connell, the 51-year-old chef and co-owner of the Inn at Little Washington is one of those guys. He never went to culinary school. He started cooking, made mistakes and kept learning. Passion for cooking, he once said, is something that is "caught, not taught." Yet his restaurant has repeatedly been honored as one of the best in the United States. Patricia Wells, who lives in Paris and is a critic for the International Herald Tribune, proclaimed the inn one of the 10 best restaurants in the world.

O'Connell's establishment in Washington, Va., is, to put it bluntly, in the sticks. This breaks the rule saying that a central location is essential to the success of a top-dollar restaurant. The inn is a two-hour drive from Baltimore, if you know exactly where you are going. One indication of how rustic the setting is: When O'Connell and his partner, Reinhardt Lynch, gathered their first restaurant crew, they hired only those who answered "Yes" to the question, "Do you have a bathtub." One waitress slipped past their inquiry into hygiene habits. Her place did have a tub, but it was sitting in the back yard along with an abandoned school bus. The restaurant is so far off the beaten path that most diners end up spending the night at the inn or at a nearby bed and breakfast. Nonetheless, if you want a dinner on a Saturday night, you have to book your reservation at least 30 days in advance.

According to the rules, chefs are rigid, hierarchical types, who, rather than making speeches, prefer to let their creations speak for them. O'Connell is the opposite. He is loose, collegial and has, as the Irish say, "the gift of gab."

Last week a party marking the publication of his cookbook, "The Inn at Little Washington Cookbook" ($50, Random House), drew a crowd of East Coast political and culinary illuminati, among them former presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, who has a country home down the road from the inn, and former New

York Times food critic Craig Claiborne, who has said he had "the most fantastic meal of my life" at the inn.

O'Connell, clad in a zebra-like, black-and-white-striped suit, had a word of greeting for each guest.

Words serve O'Connell well. His account of the restaurant's history, told in the first pages of the cookbook, is delightful. He tells how he and Lynch started off as caterers in 1972 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, driving 40 miles to a Safeway to buy groceries, then carrying them over a river and across a footbridge to their kitchen. When the bridge was icy, they had to get down on their stomachs and "slither" the canapes over the water. On one catering job their van hit a bump in the road and a worker, dressed as a French maid, fell headfirst into a vat of marinated mushrooms. After that, O'Connell and Lynch decided to stop running around and to make their food operation stationary.

"When you live in the country it is easy to stay focused," O'Connell said. "You have two primary concerns, staying warm and getting something good to eat. After you've taken care of those two things, your day is pretty much over."

Lynch and O'Connell opened their restaurant in 1978. It was discovered by a Washington restaurant critic, and the Sunday that the review appeared in print, crowds began to form outside the restaurant hours before it opened. Demand has been strong ever since. "We raised the prices in self-defense," O'Connell writes, "and the reviews only got better." Dinners at the inn now cost about $100 per person.

There were other bumps in the road for the inn, all recounted by O'Connell in amusing style. When the local bank canceled a loan to add hotel rooms to the inn, O'Connell and Lynch were forced to trudge up and down K Street in Washington, looking for a last-minute lender who would give them a million bucks.

Luckily, he says, they found a bank president who liked their food. The banker did give them what they asked for, even tossing in a little more. "It was the Eighties, after all," O'Connell observed.

I can understand the banker's reaction. O'Connell gets you to do things you said you wouldn't do. He gets you to break your rules. Ordinarily I don't eat lunch. But a couple of years ago I made the 200-mile round trip from Baltimore to the Inn at Little Washington for lunch. Among the dishes that O'Connell and visiting three-star French chef Bernard Loiseau made that day was sauteed rockfish coated with a sauce made by reducing five bottles of Cote du Rhone red wine to about 10 percent of their volume, then adding pureed carrots. I think I would try to drive to France to eat that lunch again.

The other night I broke another of my rules. I drove into Washington during evening rush hour. I did this to eat some of O'Connell's food at his book party at the headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a few blocks away from the White House.

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