First Bite: Red Hen in Bloomingdale


At Red Hen in Bloomingdale, oak logs for the oven are stacked above the open kitchen. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Wood and smoke are inescapable at the newly hatched Red Hen in Bloomingdale.

Timber figures into much of the decor, for which a forest of canela wood from Nicaragua has been repurposed into handsome flooring, chairs and tables. Fumes tickle your nose the moment you step inside the Italian-leaning restaurant, and they continue as you sip and eat. I’m recalling the Red Hen’s twist on a negroni, made with smoldering mezcal, and also its ricotta slathered on crostini. The cheese takes on a smoky perfume from time spent on a lip of the large hearth in Red Hen’s open kitchen.

The menu, from former Proof chef de cuisine Michael Friedman, makes room for salt cod brandade, beef tongue, gnocchi with hazelnut pesto and a leg of lamb sandwich with rapini. “I grew up around bold flavors” in an Italian community, “but I’m Jewish,” says the native of Westfield, N.J.

Those crostini are wonderful, by the way; Friedman infuses the snowy whip of cheese with local honey and balsamic brown butter. His beef tongue — braised in tomatoes, rosemary and other enhancers, then zapped with lemon juice after hitting the wood grill — makes a lusty segue. Accents of crumbled cauliflower and crisp pine nuts dress up the organ meat. House-made rigatoni is an early favorite, mostly for the lusty red ragu draped over the pasta. Sweetbreads are better . . . elsewhere, frankly.

Although much is made on-site, the bread comes from Lyon Bakery. “If someone is doing it for a living, they are probably going to do it better than we can starting out,” the chef says.

Red Hen co-stars Sebastian Zutant, the opening wine director at Proof, and business partner Mike O'Malley, who met Friedman when he and the chef worked for Mon Ami Gabi in Bethesda. Zutant's wife, Lauren Winter, has her finger in the pie, too; Winter designed the place, which puts its lively bar, paved in perforated orange leather, at center stage.

With a caveat — or 10 — the bird theme is subtle, relegated to a sign out front and a restroom door for women marked “Henrietta.” Shelves that Zutant built himself display what he refers to as “an overdose” of gifts from the owners’ family members. A diner can’t miss the fabric hen and the ceramic hen and the cookie jar shaped like a hen and the . . . .

1822 First St. NW. 202-525-3021. www.theredhendc.dom. Entrees, $14 to $23.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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