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Fine dining in backwoods Virginia

The scene was pure rural Virginia, not a mall for miles. Aside from a battered sign offering mushrooms at a backroads farm, little confirmed that I was on my way recently to a shrine of American gourmet cooking, the Inn at Little Washington.

Two hours later, luxuriating in wonderfully tender rabbit braised in local apple cider, the Nibbler was a believer. There was heaping bowl of chanterelles and fresh corn kernels, a succotash of dreams, and garlic polenta so rich it could be ice cream for meat eaters.

For years I had heard mouthwatering stories that two culinary pioneers had worked wonders in this tiny town, closer to the Shenandoah Mountains than to Big Washington, and I had seen the inn regularly top lists of the nation's best restaurants. All true. If you are a foodie who collects great restaurant meals or anyone who appreciates exceptional food, fine restauranting or miracles, put the Inn at Little Washington on your life list.

Granted, I was there with a group of food editors for a meal designed to impress. At the drive and cost required to eat here, every meal must be impressive. In fact, while the menu does add seasonal ingredients, most of it is so beloved that it rarely changes.

Revamping an old place in the country and installing a city slick menu is an old story, but no one has done it like proprietors Reinhold Lynch and Patrick O'Connell, a self-taught chef who moved back to the land decades ago.

What was a gas station and country store has been transformed with 20 years of wit and grit into an exquisite hideaway that commands $88 on weekdays and B&B rooms three times as much. Physically it is lush, over-stuffed and over the top, a maze of Chinese Chippendale, Duncan Phyfe, cascades of flowers, canopied tables, an ancient oil portrait of Brillat-Savarin and a garden filled with greenery and koi ponds. A huge new kitchen with fireside dining and extensive European equipment for the inn's legion of chefs is under construction.

The most luscious parts of the inn are edible, especially its pride in Virginia foods and wines. The chefs produce small timbales of spinach mousse topped with the Chesapeake's best crabmeat and a parade of desserts that any chocoholic would salute. The recipes, disclosed in O'Connell's cookbook (The Inn at Little Washington Cookbook, Random House, $50) are simple, and on occasion almost homespun.

The ingredients are the best, the preparation perfect and the presentation intoxicating. Imagine canapes served on silver trays filled with almonds and freshly grated Parmesan or chunks of lobster and grapefruit in butter served in individual ceramic Japanese soup spoons (the kind with flat bottoms).

Picture having a waiter at hand to quickly offer a tray for disposal of the spoon. The inn's greatest triumph may be the assembling of a service staff that is quick, quiet, and both urbane and happy to be far out in the countryside.

It's no secret why they've come _ for the same reason I'll make the pilgrimage again sometime, on my own dime: It's simply one of the best, most charming places to eat in America. If you're going to be within 50 miles of the place, start saving your money and making reservations now. (Middle and Main streets, Washington, Va.; telephone (540) 675-3800).

MORE ATTENTION: They must just love Tampa Bay at Southern Living. The newest issue lists readers' favorite small-town restaurants, and local mention went to Mallie Kyla's Cafe (510 E Liberty St., Brooksville; (352) 796-7174. It's a tiny tea room and lunchery in an old farmhouse across from Rogers Christmas House. The Hawkins House, once a funeral home, now houses a variety of shops for browsing and Mallie Kyla's for homemade soups (butterbean, for example), salads, sandwiches and desserts (such as oatmeal cake) with country flavor.

MOURNING BECOMES ECLECTIC. The grand tropical space on Tampa's Davis Islands where Mise en Place's Mojo went dark last spring will get another helping of ambitious cuisine next month as the Fountain Grill (238 E Davis Blvd.; 258-5661). Owners Carole and Tim Donohue (former chef at Sarasota's hip Bijou Cafe) say the Fountain won't be as Floribbean as Mojo and will aim at the island's everyday trade. Still, they style it an American bistro with Florida flavors and fresh ingredients. Look for beer-battered mussel fritters and grilled pineapple, baby clam and corn chowder, pecan-crusted trout and poached salmon with orange Hollandaise. Prices will be $4 to $8, dinner $8 to $16.

FIRE AND WATER. Joanie and Bill Shumate, who created Bella's Italian Cafe in Tampa, are starting their first Pinellas beach venture. They've taken over the old Little Joe's of San Francisco and renamed it Fire Fish Grill (301 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach; 593-3474), specializing in seafood and wood-fire cooking with a world of sauces and flavors: Caribbean, Floridian, Cajun, Mexican and even Greek tzaziki. It's installing a mesquite grill for fish and steaks, a smoker for ribs, fish and vegetables and a wood oven for roasting fish and designer pizzas. Plans are to open for lunch and dinner at the end of November, with prices ranging from $6 to $20. Meanwhile, the original Bella's (1413 S Howard Ave.; (813) 254-3355), now 11 years old, has been redecorated and the menu retouched.

DOWNTOWN REDUX. So the Titanic sank, and the Devil Rays may not swim immediately to the top. Prospects of bigger crowds are buoying downtown St. Petersburg restaurants. The Thai restaurant Number Nine Bangkok will double its space, the Garden Restaurant is adding tables and a sleek new bar, and Carlton Towers has refurbished its restaurant and lounge as Camelot on the Bay.

Downtowners are also optimistic that the new tenant in the space vacated by Le Grand Cafe on Central will be a French chef with restaurants in France who wants to open one in St. Petersburg.

CORRECTION: The Nibbler erred last week in an item about Tampa Bay's home-cooked entry, What's Cooking, Harborview?, in the cooking show category. The 30-minute show with chef John Terczak appears twice daily on a rotating schedule on Channel 15, the government access channel on Clearwater cable systems. Although C-VIEW videotapes the show on location in the Harborview kitchens, there is no studio in the center.

Times and recipes can be found on the Internet at http://public.lib.ci.clearwater.fl.us or by calling 562-4682. Terczak also now teaches classes with demonstrations and dinners at the center; call 462-6778 for information.

CREAMY GARLIC POLENTA

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 cup whipping cream

1{ cups milk

1{ cups water

[ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 bay leaf

{ to 1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 teaspoon salt

{ cup grated Asiago or Parmesan cheese

In a 2-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the oil and garlic. Cook 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. Bring liquid to a boil and pour the cornmeal into the boiling liquid in a thin stream, whisking constantly.

The mixture will be very thin. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the polenta begins to thicken.

(Editor's note: Adjust the amount of cornmeal to consistency desired. Original recipe calls for only a half cup of cornmeal; using a full cup makes the polenta thicker.)

Stir in the cheese. Taste and add more salt it if seems bland.

Scoop warm onto serving plates.

Alternatively, pour the polenta out into a jelly roll pan and chill it. Cut into shapes and fry them in olive oil. Another treatment is to brush triangles of the cold polenta with butter, and broil until golden. Turn, sprinkle with additional Parmesan cheese and broil 2 to 3 minutes until golden.

Makes 6 servings

Source: Adapted from The Inn at Little Washington Cookbook, Patrick O'Connell (Random House, $50).

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