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Inn good taste

There's an inn in Little Washington, Va., that has become a to-die-for destination since its opening 20 years ago.

The tiny town, (population 158), was literally revitalized when chef Patrick O'Connell and host Reinhardt Lynch opened what soon became an internationally acclaimed restaurant.Construction of hotel rooms followed. It made sense, according to O'Connell. Many diners, "reeling with pleasure," could hardly make it back to "big" Washington, so staying over was a logical option.

Credentials?

- The Inn has been named Restaurant of the Year by the James Beard Foundation.

- After a lively 65th birthday at the Inn, Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food editor, vowed that he'd return every year for his remaining days. Claiborne described his first experience dining at the Inn as "the most fantastic meal of my life."

- Paul Newman chose the Inn for his birthday party.

- The Inn has been presented with more awards than any other one in North America.

- The International Herald-Tribune listed the Inn's restaurant one of the world's 10 best.

The Inn at Little Washington has been called "a hotbed of romance." Hardly a night goes by without an engagement ring slipped into a pastry or tucked within an oyster. One Valentine's Day, the Inn chalked up a record 10 engagements.

While in Washington for a conference, our food journalist group "took over" the restaurant on a day when it was closed to the public. (It's recommended that consumers book dinner reservations MONTHS in advance. One weekend the restaurant had 3,000 calls for tables on a single Saturday night.)

I had read about the impeccable service and incredible regional cuisine, noting the galaxy of stars the critics had bestowed on the place.

The luncheon began in the gardens where we were served hors d' oeuvres. As they were presented on large trays piled high with mounds of fresh Parmesan cheese, it was immediately apparent that we were in for something wondrous.

The dining area in the elegant country retreat was packed with English antiques and draped in Victorian decor. A group of us were seated in an alcove that felt like our own private dining room.

Instantaneously, six waiters appeared. Standing behind our chairs, they served our first course with Olympian synchronization.

The Menu:

Chilled, Grilled Black Mission Figs with Virginia Country Ham and Lime Cream on Cantaloupe Coulis

Miniature Timbales of Chesapeake Bay Lump Crabmeat and Spinach Mousse

A Black Truffle Pizza

Rabbit Braised in Local Apple Cider with Creamy Polenta

Chanterelles and Silver Queen Corn Saute

A Parade of our Favorite Desserts

Homemade BonBons, Candied Grapefruit Rind and Tea Cookies

After the final Grapefruit Rind was swallowed, we stumbled out the door past the waiters lined up with the chef to bid us adieu. Somehow, we hoisted ourselves up and onto the bus. As we drove away, headed for the other Washington, the Inn's staff waived goodbye.

I hated to leave but knew we had to rest our palates for tomorrow's dinner at the French Embassy.

That night, I dreamed of a Big Mac.

*****

RECIPES

TIMBALES OF FRESH CRABMEAT AND SPINACH MOUSSE

For the Spinach Mousse:

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1/2 cup milk

1 cup heavy cream

2 quarts fresh spinach, stems removed

4 eggs

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Pinch of white pepper

Salt to taste

For the Egg Custard:

3 eggs

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Celery salt to taste

1/2 pound jumbo lump crabmeat

Clarified butter

Chardonnay Butter Sauce (recipe follows)

For the Garnish:

1 large red bell pepper

Make the mousse: In a 2-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon for 3 to 4 minutes or until the flour turns a light golden brown. Remove from the heat. In a 1-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan, scald the milk and cream. Remove from the heat and add to the flour mixture, whisking to incorporate. Place over medium heat and cook, stirring frequently, until mixture is very thick. Remove from the heat. Blanch the spinach in rapidly boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain, pressing out any excess liquid. Add to the thickened cream mixture. Puree the spinach sauce in a blender or food processor until smooth. Add the eggs and blend lightly just to incorporate. (Do not overwhip the spinach puree). Add the nutmeg, white pepper and salt. The mousse can be stored in the refrigerator for up to several days. (Any vegetable mousse can be made with this procedure by substituting 1 cup of vegetable puree of your choice for the spinach).

Make the custard: In a stainless steel bowl, whisk together the eggs, cream and mustard. Season with the celery salt, cayenne pepper and salt. The egg mixture can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two days.

Assemble the timbales: Pick through the crabmeat carefully to be sure that all the shell and cartilage are removed. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Put 2 quarts of water on to boil. Brush eight 5-ounce timbale molds (or ramekins) with clarified butter. Cut out 8 round disks of waxed paper and place one in the bottom of each mold. Carefully fill the molds with the mousse. Place the filled molds in a 12-by-12-by-2-inch baking dish. Fill the dish halfway with boiling water and place gently on the lower rack of the oven. Bake for 50 or 60 minutes, or until the mousse is firm to the touch. If the tops of the timbales begin to brown, cover with aluminum foil. Carefully remove the dish from the oven and let the timables set a bit. (The timbales can be kept in a warm water bath on top of the stove for several hours.)

Prepare the roasted red pepper garnish: Char 1 large red bell pepper over an open flame or broil in the oven until blackened on both sides. Wrap the pepper in aluminum foil and cool for 30 minutes. This allows the pepper to "sweat," making it easier to peel. Peel, split and seed the pepper. Using a small decorative cutter (1 inch or less in diameter), cut out eight garnishes.

To serve: Run a thin-bladed knife around the inside of each mold to loosen the timbales before unloading. Invert the timbales onto eight individual serving plates and remove the molds and the wax paper. Garnish with the roasted red pepper cutouts. Serves 8.

- Each serving contains 556 calories, 54g fat, 88g carb, 699mg sodium, 9mg cholesterol.

- From "The Inn at Little Washington Cookbook: A Consuming Passion" by Patrick O'Connell

CHARDONNAY BUTTER SAUCE (BEURRE BLANC)

1/2 cup chardonnay (or substitute)

1/2 cup champagne vinegar

1 shallot, peeled and sliced in half

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold lightly salted butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces

Salt and white pepper to taste

Fresh lemon juice, optional

In a small saucepan over high heat, combine the chardonnay, vinegar and shallot. Boil until reduced to about 3 tablespoons and almost syrupy. Reduce the heat to low and, piece by piece, stir in the salted and unsalted butter with a wooden spoon, incorporating one piece of butter before adding the next. Continue until all the butter is used up. Remove the shallot from the sauce. Add the salt and white pepper and several drops of lemon juice, if using. Keep the sauce warm (not hot) until ready to serve. Makes 11/4 cups.

- Each 1/4 cup contains 345 calories, 37g fat, 2g carb, 483mg sodium, 99mg cholesterol

- From "The Inn at Little Washington: A Consuming Passion" by Patrick O'Connell

CREAMY GARLIC POLENTA

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1 1/2 cups milk

1 1/2 cups water

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup yellow cornmeal

1/2 cup grated Asiago or Parmesan cheese

In a 2-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the oil and garlic. Sweat the garlic for about 2 minutes, but don't let it brown. Add the cream, milk and water to the pan and increase the heat to high. Add the cayenne pepper and bay leaf. Let simmer for 5 minutes, then remove the bay leaf. Whisking constantly, pour the cornmeal into the boiling liquid in a thin stream. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the polenta begins to thicken. Stir in the cheese. Pour the polenta out into a jelly-roll pan and keep warm until ready to serve. To serve: The polenta may be scooped warm onto serving plates or chilled, cut into shapes, and fried in olive oil. Serves 6.

- Each serving contains 379 calories, 30g fat, 21g carb, 228mg sodium, 96mg cholesterol.

- From "The Inn at Little Washington Cookbook: A Consuming Passion" by Patrick O'Connell

RAINBOW TROUT IN A POTATO CRUST

2 whole rainbow trout, about 18 inches each

Salt and pepper to taste

Vegetable oil

8 small red new potatoes

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

Lemon wedges

Remove the heads from the trout and fillet the fish, using tweezers or fish pliers to remove all the pin bones. Remove the skin from the fillets. Lay the fillets on individual squares of waxed paper and sprinkle with salt and white pepper. Slice the unpeeled potatoes about 1/16 inch thick and lay them in an overlapping "fish scale" pattern on the surface of the fillets. Film a 10-inch skillet or saute pan with oil over medium-high heat. Gently lift each fillet by sliding one hand underneath the waxed paper and carefully flipping the fillet over into the pan (potato side down), being careful not to splash the hot oil. Add more oil to the pan so that the potato "scales" are immersed. Cook for 3 minutes, or until the edges of the potatoes begin to turn golden brown. Using a perforated spatula, gently turn the fillets over and cook for 1 minute more. To serve, remove the fillets from the pan and place on warm serving plates. Sprinkle with parsley and garnish with lemon wedges. Serve immediately. Serves 2.

- Each serving contains 620 calories, 13g fat, 102g carb, 329mg sodium, 48 mg cholesterol.

- From "The Inn at Little Washington Cookbook: A Consuming Passion" by Patrick O'Connell