Did I mention Dolly could also sing in the background? The likeness of the singer is part of a charming mural of barn dancers welcoming visitors to the friendly cafe bar.
Patty O’s, which borrows O’Connell’s childhood nickname and embraces a country theme, is not a new idea. The chef has been considering something informal since 1994 and actually came up with plans at the time, though they were met with resistance from locals, who feared losing Washington’s only cafe to competition high. Rumors of an $18 cup of coffee have been doing the rounds, says O’Connell, who instead spent his budget expanding the inn’s kitchen and adding guest quarters. It seems that time has softened the feelings. Now locals are asking the staff if Patty O’s could introduce a locals-only night.
‘So happy to serve roast chicken, which was on the chef’s first menu’ in 1978, says a waiter as he presents an intimate trio of crispy-skinned chicken, Grand Marnier-glazed carrots and mashed apples of earth so rich in butter and milk that you wonder how they hold up. Some of Patty O’s dishes have, as O’Connell puts it, “come out of the closet,” meaning they were put away as the inn became more sophisticated and diners’ tastes changed. Another blast from the past contrasts thin slices of rare peppercorn tuna with a fresh scoop of cucumber sorbet – fire and ice do good.
Soups are also trips to the past. White bean soup is comfort food made glorious, thanks to a pink island of julienned country ham sporting a tuft of pepper-whipped cream. A few swirls of the spoon get you salt and fat – flavor – in the right places. French onion soup reminds us not to judge books by the covers. The beige appetizer does not look special. But the contents—a three-cheese mass, caramelized onions for the time it would take you to fly to France from DC, a broth made with chicken broth, beef bones, and veal demi-glace— will surprise you scraping the bottom of the bowl, in fact, turning it upside down to catch every drop noble and enriched with Calvados. The rescue effort is aided by excellent breads (sourdough and speckled multigrain) from the adjoining bakery.
The café, complete with rafters, a crackling fire and clusters of earthenware plates on the walls, has a family resemblance to the inn. However, only the cafe invites you to dine outdoors. O’Connell commissioned a patio with the kind of village view he admired in sidewalk cafes in France. A custom-built chuck wagon at the corner of Middle and Main streets serves as a mascot and, depending on the occasion, a mobile oyster bar, ham sandwich source or hot chocolate dispenser. (A “wanted” poster inside the cart promises $5,000 to anyone who points O’Connell to law enforcement for the crime of “stirring him up.”)
Simple does not necessarily mean easy for the kitchen. “A lot of pain has to go into it,” O’Connell reminds his team. Just take the black crust on the tuna appetizer. Grind the black peppercorns too fine, says chef Devin Bozkaya, and you overwhelm the fish with heat; grind the spice too coarsely and the slivers get stuck in your teeth. (The happy ideal is achieved using a mortar and pestle.)
Bozkaya reckons it took more than 100 tries to perfect the café’s lovely Greek salad, in part because his boss asks for it so much for dinner and he’s a fan of harmony. Ideal’s recipe features a sherry-based dressing, crispy lettuce centers, Turkish goat’s milk feta cheese, and oil-dried kalamata olives, which don’t water down the salad like regular pickled olives, explains Bozkaya.
Meat is a good entry point. This time of year, I have a thing for the cafe’s big grilled pork chop flanked by tangy sauerkraut and apples, a dinner draw. The half-pound burger, fashioned from Wagyu beef from a farm near Paris, is big and delicious, gooey with Comte cheese and sandwiched inside the caramelized onion roll of the bakery. Alas, Patty O’s does not make its own fries – biggest disappointment in several visits. For such a pedigreed operation—and considering the work and love that goes into so much of the rest of the menu—frozen potatoes taste like a compromise, no matter if they’re fried in fat. duck.
Despite its youth and the occasional AWOL fork or knife, Patty O’s is a well-functioning machine, backed by a general manager, Christopher Fasce, 28, who previously worked as a table captain at the hostel, and Bozkaya, 41. , who cooked across the street from 2006 to 2011 and last served as executive chef at the Weekapaug Inn in Rhode Island. Bozkaya’s time appealed to O’Connell. “An experience in the real world”, says his employer, “and in the land of the imaginary.”
Patty O’s is an amenity for lodgers, who might prefer something basic before or after a $315 tasting menu and are the only guests who can book reservations. (Mere mortals can call ahead and put their name on a waiting list.) The owner hopes locals will see it as “their place” and young people will use it as a springboard for more refined cuisine. – “A gateway drug for the Little Washington Inn,” O’Connell says his staff jokes.
Desserts tend to be best in class. Patty O’s bakes a carrot cake that has everything you expect while being both light and fluffy; its success is based on compressed pineapple, grapeseed oil, freshly grated carrots and whole ground spices. The lemon tart comes with tantalizing “kisses” of vanilla whipped cream, pistachios and flower petals on its surface. The chocolate bourbon pecan pie, on the other hand, is a big sweet shock.
How do you improve on the world-class buttery pecan ice cream and hot caramel sauce, a hostel staple? The chefs have tried to sublimate the marriage but always return to the original recipe, which relies on a lot of brown butter and toasted pecans. What has changed is the ship. Patty O’s serves up the scoop in a handsome chalice whose aged jade color mirrors that of the bar’s pressed pewter ceiling.
The land of the imaginary would not have it otherwise.
Patty O’s Cafe and Bakery389 Main St. Washington, Virginia 540-675-3801. pattyoscafe.com. Cafe open for indoor and outdoor dining from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday through Tuesday. Price: Entrees $9-$22, lunchtime sandwiches and salads $16-$29, dinner entrees $19-$38. Sound control: 72 decibels/Must speak in a high voice. Accessibility: No barrier to entry. The bar includes a lower surface for wheelchair users. ADA compliant restrooms.