Valentine's day romance (at a price)

It’s probably not fair to begin a review of one of America’s most romantic restaurants by pointing out that its co-owners recently ended their long personal and professional relationship. But I would be shirking my journalistic duty if I did not, so let’s deal with it before perusing the elaborate menu or 17,000-bottle wine list of the Inn at Little Washington.

Yes, it’s true. Patrick O’Connell and his partner Reinhardt Lynch, who in 1978 founded this world-famous culinary Mecca and country retreat in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, have split up.

After months of arbitration proceedings failed to settle their disagreements over a business empire that includes more than 20 properties in Little Washington valued at nearly $9 million, the pair reached an out-of-court agreement on Jan. 19 and went their separate ways, leaving O’Connell as sole owner of the legendary Inn, with its staff of 124 people from 17 countries. (There are 118,000 O’Connell hits on Google.)

“The end result is that Patrick is the sole owner of the Inn and Reinhardt Lynch has been paid for his half,” O’Connell’s attorney, David Fiske of the Alexandria firm of Fiske & Ebersohl, told the Fauquier Times-Democrat last week. “Everything that they had in the town has been resolved by this.”

O’Connell declined to comment on the break-up or speculate about Lynch’s plans, telling the newspaper he believes Lynch is out of the country.

OK, glad that’s out of the way. Now for the romantic part. Wanting to make sure my own personal relationship of more than 44 years survives, I invited my wife to the Inn last Friday night for a combination birthday and Valentine’s Day celebration, and judging from her reaction, it was a wise decision.

I had made a reservation for the 5:30 p.m. sitting — there are two sittings for up to 200 guests every evening — but we were running late because of snow and rain and congested traffic. I risked a speeding ticket or worse driving through Rappahannock County before arriving at the Inn 15 minutes late. A uniformed attendant took our car and apologized for making us walk around construction, explaining that the Inn was closed the four previous days to prepare for its 30th anniversary.

We were warmly greeted and ushered into a fairytale setting of luxury and fantasy worthy of an Oriental potentate. The main dining room is lined with multi-colored English silk damask tapestries and hand-painted frescoes adorn the ceiling, while rose-colored tasseled silk lampshades hover over every table. Four red tulips in a crystal vase graced our table.

My wife’s eyes lit up as we were presented our menus, which proclaimed, “Happy Birthday to Moira.” Mine lit up as I saw the price of the four-course prix-fixe meal, which was $148 per person — wine, tax and tip not included. (It’s $138 Sunday through Thursday, but $168 on Saturday. For the really big spenders, there’s also a nine-course $188 tasting menu, or $288 with paired wines.)

As we perused the menu, which offers seven choices for the first course, six for the second and 10 for the main course, two waiters filled our water glasses simultaneously with choreographed precision. A third brought thick, chewy rolls topped with poppy seed and kosher salt as well as tiny slices of rye bread imbedded with currants and nuts. The breads were frequently replenished.

The dining room was not crowded, and shortly after we ordered, a tray of exquisite items arrived in tasting spoons, soon followed by our first course. I chose a confit of duck foie gras with brandied cherries and tiny cubes of Sauternes jelly, while my wife had the greenlip mussels baked with herb butter and Pernod and topped with crunchy broiled breadcrumbs. Both of us agreed we had never tasted anything better.

As I thumbed through the phonebook-sized wine list, we were brought demitasse cups of creamy white bean soup infused with the smoky flavor of Virginia ham. Conscious of the fact that we had already run up a tab of over $300, I searched for a wine among the thousands from Virginia and around the world that didn’t look like a line item in President Bush’s new budget, and was delighted to find a 1982 Volnay from Burgundy for only $50.

When I asked wine steward Tyler Packwood whether that was a misprint, he assured me it wasn’t, explaining that all his wines remain priced at the time they were acquired. A voluptuous wine, silky-smooth and seductive like all good Burgundies, it arrived with our second course, a fricassee of Maine lobster with potato gnocchi and curried walnuts for me, while my wife chose one of the eight selections on the separate vegetarian menu: endive salad with pomegranate vinaigrette and lemon cream.

O’Connell prides himself on using Virginia products like beef, lamb, country ham, vegetables and wild mushrooms, and our main courses reflected some of those products. My wife was delighted with her Veal Parmesan Reincarnated, roasted veal loin wrapped in prosciutto with bite-size artichoke-and-spinach raviolini in parmesan broth, and I was equally pleased with my Beef Two Ways, a fist-sized pecan-crusted short rib paired with a miniature filet mignon wrapped in Swiss chard. Both dishes were incredibly good.

Although my wife had little room for dessert, I persuaded her to order the Seven Deadly Sins so I could sample the kitchen’s most decadent desserts. Perhaps inspired by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) chocolate addiction, I ordered a trio of chocolate delicacies, including a mousse, a chocolate cr�me brulee and a bitter chocolate souffl�, which arrived as guests began filtering in for the 8 p.m. sitting.

Service is impeccable. Waiters must spend a year in training before they’re allowed to discuss the menu or wine list with customers, and they must take a two-hour verbal quiz before the entire staff before becoming full-fledged waiters.

Thoroughly sated by our magical meal, I briefly considered checking into one of the Inn’s gorgeous rooms rather than making the long drive home, but decided that even the cheapest room, at $540, was beyond my means. So I paid our bill — a whopping $432 — and our respects to O’Connell.

We found him in his state-of-the-art kitchen, presiding over two chef’s tables and several dozen cooks toiling over hot stoves while listening to the soothing strains of a Benedictine Gregorian chant. He offered us a glass of champagne but I declined because I was driving. He told me his 30th anniversary celebration will include a gala affair in Big Washington, and he thanked me for mentioning him in a recent review of Four Sisters, the Vietnamese restaurant in Falls Church that is one of his favorites.

As we left, we were presented with a copy of my wife’s birthday menu and the laminated label from the bottle of wine we had enjoyed. I also picked up a copy of the Inn’s lovely brochure, which still prominently features O’Connell and the former partner who, sadly, won’t be around for Valentine’s Day.