If Seth Godin or any other motivational speaker of the tech age were to craft a mission statement for the ambitious indie restaurant, it would probably go something like this: Don’t try too hard to impress us. The appearance of effort is a drag on our overburdened souls. Give us the sort of dishes we might cook at home for a simple weeknight dinner.
Why would people abandon their kitchens several times a week to eat food they might be able to whip up themselves?
It sounds like a head-scratcher only if you haven’t been spending a lot of time in restaurants lately. The truth—and the savviest restaurateurs know it—is that even with a Viking range, an armada of cookbooks, and every finishing salt known to man, most people still wouldn’t be able to produce a dish like the Red Hen’s fried artichokes with anchovy aïoli.
To get that perfect color of burnished brass. To attain that surprising crunch without sacrificing any sweet, meaty succulence. To scatter the grains of salt in such a way that they set off a succession of bright bursts in your mouth. To produce a rich sauce that might look like mayo but tastes like Sicily’s funky answer to hollandaise.
No restaurant in recent memory has a better understanding of the gap between what we say we want and what we truly want than the Red Hen, which is why a quiet, leafy block of DC’s Bloomingdale has been transformed six nights a week into a small traffic jam.
If you’ve never heard of this neighborhood, don’t worry—many of its residents under 35 (which is to say many of its residents) hadn’t heard of it either before flocking there in the past couple of years. Their fiercely proprietary stance toward this developing stretch east of the former no man’s land of Shaw is reminiscent of the self-styled urban pioneers who turned Brooklyn’s Williamsburg into a destination a decade ago.
The scene in Bloomingdale is, alas, a work in progress. Eating and drinking options consist of the sort of places you’d never go out of your way for but look at with fond appreciation on a cold, rainy night when you don’t feel like cooking. The Red Hen looks to be right at home among them.
Your first impression is that you’ve walked into an upscale watering hole. You look around the open room, taking in the crowd: young families with car seats, couples on dates, friends out in groups. Hardly anyone’s dressed up; most are decidedly dressed down. The smell of wood smoke drifting in from the open kitchen sets a mood of homey warmth. You revise your initial impression. Not a bar, a neighborhood restaurant—and a promising one at that. By the time the night is through, you’ll likely have revised this impression, too.
What we have here isn’t another low-key spot trying to be taken seriously or another high-minded place trying to be playful. The Red Hen doesn’t appear to be trying at all. That’s one of the things that make it so irresistible. And one of the things that make it the best new restaurant of the year.
The website claims Italy as the primary influence, but the real inspiration can be found just a mile and a half south—Proof, the Penn Quarter wine bar/bistro that’s a model for many restaurants attempting a marriage of the ambitious and the accessible. Red Hen sommelier/owner Sebastian Zutant and chef/owner Michael Friedman were core components of Mark Kuller’s “dream team” at Proof, and clearly they were taking notes.
I can’t decide whether the space is loving homage or sly rip-off, but I like it. The atmosphere is dark and cozy, the din is sustained throughout the night, and the dominant motif is wood. The wine list revels in obscurities (try the orange wine—yes, orange wine, and from Slovenia—which looks like a summer sipper but tastes as barnyardy as some racy young Rhône reds).
The menu is Italian in the same way Proof’s is Mediterranean—Italy is both a destination and a starting point here—and many of the biggest rewards come early and in the smallest of packages.
The four crostini are as satisfying as any richly sauced pasta (including a fabulous toast slathered with chicken liver and dressed up with shavings of Parmesan), and I love the mercifully unironic take on clams casino, which proves the enduring wisdom of pairing sweet clams with salty, crunchy bread crumbs. The lone soup is a knockout—a soothing broth of asparagus and Parmesan that’s so pure in its distillation that you might think you were sipping a liqueur.
The pastas are all produced on the premises, and for the most part Friedman understands that you dress a pasta the way you dress for dinner in the summer: lightly and with minimal embellishment. His version of the Roman classic cacio e pepe is made not with the usual spaghetti but with fusilli, and the sauce—a blend of pecorino Romano and black pepper—appears to have been glazed onto the pasta. “Looks like something I could whip up at home some busy weeknight,” you think when it hits the table. Then you dig in and realize that while you might reproduce the richness, you’d be hard put to match the delicacy. The Roman-style gnocchi are a couple of notches up on the difficulty scale but have the same effortlessness about them. This is another dish that goes down easy—the gnocchi are only slightly thicker than the vivid hazelnut pesto they come with.
It’s a measure of the tapas-ization of restaurant menus that there are only five entrées and one of them is a sandwich (an excellent leg-of-lamb, fragrant with wood smoke, mint, and thyme). The best is a dish of pan-seared sweetbreads accented with soft polenta, bacon, and a fried egg—it tastes like either the most sophisticated breakfast you’ve ever had or the most comforting dinner. I also liked a take on Sicilian fisherman’s stew, which came with halibut as its centerpiece. The appeal, however, is in the accompaniments: sweet mussels, a smoky swirl of romesco, a tangy drizzle of salsa verde. The big disappointment is, ironically, the wood-grilled hen, which—despite a marinade that includes lemon and rosemary—tasted unseasoned; it could stand a crisper skin, too.
The final act is fittingly modest, but here again the results are more rewarding than they read. A pine-nut tart that conjures the stickiness of pecan pie, along with a scoop of crème fraîche gelato. A soft disc of buttermilk panna cotta done up with toasted hazelnuts and candied orange peel. Even simpler: a dish of strawberries straight from the farm. The chef will even swing by your table and drizzle them with aged balsamic.
That’s it—just fruit and vinegar. The ultimate DIY dessert. Except, trust me, yours wouldn’t taste nearly as sweet.
This article appears in the September 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.