It’s places like The Red Hen that make you fall in love with a neighborhood. Local, cozy, bursting with excitement and flavor with a menu as diverse as it’s clientele. Chef/Owner Mike Friedman, after spending stints under Jose Andres and as Chef de Cuisine at Proof, he is now focused on creating his own Italian masterpieces. I’ve never wanted to move to a neighborhood just to be within walking distance of a restaurant, until now.
We recommend two toast dishes to start. The smoked ricotta crostini with balsamic brown butter & truffle honey is perfect. Add some cracked pepper and the smoky rich cheese melds perfectly with the sweet honey. The truffle notes are subtle, but not missed.
The second toast we love is the Tuscan chicken liver crostini with fig conserva & fresh thyme. Chicken liver on toast is no brainier, but the genius use here is the fig and thyme. The herbaceous strong nature of the thyme cuts the sweetness of the fig while mellowing the smooth, irony liver spread. So good there was no way a picture was making it before a bite. #SorryNotSorry
Whenever I see grilled octopus on a menu, I typically order it. Something about getting the char on the edges just right with the tender (hopefully), lightly salty flesh makes a perfect combination. Thankfully Chef Mike didn’t miss. The pairing of his octopus with white beans, fennel, frisee greens and a simple clean tonnato sauce is perfect. The strong frisee greens and powerful fennel contrast nicely with the octopus – which was charred and slightly chewy in the best way possible. The white beans were nice, but not necessary as the texture was very similar to the octopus. Chef Mike purposefully, I imagine, serves them al dente to avoid this. A very smart move.
More seafood! And this time a brandade is on the menu, which is a typical dish of salted fish (usually cod) and olive oil, usually eaten with potatoes or bread, and sometimes has cheese. Chef Mike’s version is the best of both worlds. If you are seafood adverse, skip this dish. The fish is extremely powerful, which is a good thing. The olive oil is sublime and the chives provide a nice tartness, but spreading this on toast is heaven. Paired with a white wine and you can close your eyes and be on a Greek Island. The preparation may seem simple, like many things here, but it’s the proportion of ingredients and the care taken to combine them just right that makes The Red Hen always stand out.
You can watch some menu items change with the seasons. Keep an eye out for this gem (presenting not on the menu). Charred beef tongue with red cabbage, grain mustard and shaved root vegetables. If you like beef, you will love beef tongue. It bursts with a rich, mineral quality that delicious offal from beef typically has. The mouth feel is not chewy at all, rather very tender and it takes to a char particularly well, just like octopus. The mustard and crisp cabbage provided a nice textural contrast.
Okay, it’s an Italian place, so how’s the pasta?
First, their signature Mezze Rigatoni with fennel sausage ragu & pecorino romano. Sadly, there are no pictures of this dish. Short tubular, ribbed pasta is cooked perfectly, I mean perfectly! Not too chewy, not too soft, a perfect al dente. As someone who makes sausage personally, sage is very important, as is fennel. This sausage is bursting with fennel which compliments the pork so nicely. The gravy (or red sauce) was not too sweet, or strong. Step up your typical “spaghetti and meatball” order with this comforting and delicious dish.
Next, an off the menu specialty, and frankly my personal favorite, cacio e pepe. This seemingly simple dish, translating to cheese and pepper, is extremely hard to get right. Homemade pasta, typically with pepper mixed into the dough, is mixed with cheese, butter, oil, pasta water, and the combinations have to be just right. Holy sh!t did Chef Mike get this right. Not too watery, or dry, or overly cheesed, just pure pasta perfection. Easily one of the best pasta dishes I have ever had in my life. Almost makes one cry…
Typically shying away from vegetable infused pastas, I’m glad I didn’t. Their spinach fettuccine with braised duck, sweet potato, mint and parmigiano reggiano was bursting with flavor. The pasta was tender, the duck was flavorful and rich, the sweet potato complimented the power of the duck nicely while the mint made the dish feel light.
If you haven’t been to The Red Hen, or explored the lovely DC neighborhood of Bloomingdale, you should. Just keep the housing prices down until after we all buy.