WASHINGTON, VA. -- I don't need much of an excuse to wangle a trip to the Inn at Little Washington, the celebrated Virginia restaurant regarded as one of the best in the United States. Recently I went there to check out the tony establishment's link to a Dundalk factory. In short, I pursued the local angle to feast on foie gras.
The inn has put in a new oven. And the inn's oven, like its meals -- $88 per person on weeknights, wine extra -- is far beyond the ordinary. Instead of a big, black hunk of metal shoved up against the kitchen wall, the new oven is a gorgeous mixture of gleaming copper and shimmering porcelain that serves as the dramatic centerpiece for a new kitchen layout. Eventually, a few customers will be able to dine in the kitchen, at two cozy tables, and gaze at the oven.
The oven is an island, about the size of Manhattan. It is 16 feet long, 7 feet wide, weighs 4,000 pounds and has more bells, whistles and cooking venues than your average Williams-Sonoma store. It was made by Vulcan, which has a big oven-making plant in Dundalk.
The entire oven was not made in Dundalk, but parts of it were. This style of oven is popular in European restaurants. So the folks at the Vulcan Hart plant in Dundalk worked in cooperation with their European affiliate, Inoxyform, to put this oven together. I also learned that a fellow from the Dundalk plant, design engineer Bill Jeffreys, helped install the oven at the inn.
Moreover, according to Steve Carson, the local Vulcan sales representative who put the oven deal together, if the inn's "show kitchen" concept sweeps across restaurants in America, the Dundalk plant will probably be building many of the ovens. Already, Carson said, he has been showing photographs of the inn's new kitchen setup to chefs at other restaurants. "When I break out the photographs," Carson reported, "they say, 'This is awesome.' "
It seemed unlikely to me that many restaurants can afford an oven as fancy as the one at the inn, which is estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $250,000. But Carson said similar ovens that use less-expensive materials could be made for about half ++ the cost.
While declining to give figures, Carson said the oven makers had worked a deal with Patrick O'Connell, the inn's chef. In return for a reduced price for the oven, O'Connell agreed to have the inn serve as an American prototype, trying out this style of oven, discovering its strengths and weaknesses. Shortly after the oven was installed, for instance, Jeffreys had to adjust the gas burners to crank out more BTUs. All chefs, Carson explained, always seem to want more heat.
"Patrick got a great piece of equipment at a great price," Carson said. Vulcan is hoping, of course, that after other chefs see photos of the inn's oven, they will want ones like it, even if they have to settle for stainless steel in place of the inn's copper and porcelain.
So last week I drove over to see this news-making oven and to taste the food it cooked. The 120-mile drive took about two hours. Later I learned that some customers journey to the remote spot by chauffeur-driven limousine, and a few arrive by helicopter. I got there by self-driven sedan.
I arrived just after sunset and got my first view of the oven shortly after I got out of the car. I stood outside the inn gazing through the kitchen's new, 8-foot tall windows. The oven looked like it belonged on the set of a Broadway play. I almost expected an orchestra to strike up a tune and the kitchen crew to break into song.
As if he were responding to a cue, O'Connell emerged from the kitchen. Instead of song, he offered me a handshake, a smile and an assessment of his new job site. It is beautiful, he said, but getting adjusted to it has been challenging. Earlier in the day, for instance, the electrical power had gone out. A few hours later, when I returned dressed up and ready to chow down, I got my second view of the oven, this one up close and personal.
O'Connell and his partner, Reinhardt Lynch, gave me a tour. There was an induction stove top that boiled a pot of water in seconds. I later learned that in addition to wowing visitors, this induction top could also warm the magnificent sweet potato soup I lapped up that night. The oven's gas burners had pools of water underneath them that caught spills. To clean up a spill, a chef just pulled a plug, and the dirty water went down a drain. One of those burners was used to sear the serving of foie gras with huckleberry sauce that made me shiver with pleasure as I ate it. There was a gas grill where the heavenly barbecued lamb with pecan crust came to fruition. The weep-for-joy veal sweetbreads I ate were, I was told, poached, sliced, then sauted over a gas burner. I also recall seeing a piece of equipment called a tilting skillet, where vegetables were caramelized, and a combi oven, which used both steam and convection cooking.
When O'Connell, who is in his early 50s, showed me the combi oven, he noted that computer chips controlled its workings. He tTC said younger members of his staff were more adept at operating it than he was.
Judging by what I tasted, O'Connell is doing a good job adjusting to his new oven. And if his oven inspires a movement among restaurant chefs to get similar equipment to sear their foie gras, remember that this trend all got started, more or less, in Dundalk.
Pub Date: 2/04/98