Red Hen follows a good-neighbor policy. You will be greeted and seated by young people who are not only come-at-able but savvy. Most of them live nearby, and it shows in the care and feeding of their customers.
Sebastian Zutant is one of the three co-owners, which should be your prompt to study the exceptional wine list or, better yet, to ask him about his favorite sips. Like chef and business partner Michael Friedman, Zutant last worked at Proof, the wine-themed retreat in Penn Quarter. But he has also been in charge of drinks at the four-starred Rasika and Komi, and even took time off from his restaurant life in Washington to toil in the vineyards of California’s Russian River Valley for six months. The guy cares about his subject, and he’s keen on pouring stuff that you may not have tasted before.
Enter “orange” wine, or what Zutant calls “rosé made with white wine.” Following ancient practice, these wines come about when their grape skins are macerated for a long time, traditionally in clay vessels. A fine example of the process is the 2008 Movia Ribolla from Slovenia. The texture is similar to that of a red wine, while the taste — of fruit and minerals — suggests a white.
“I consider wine makers to be artists,” says Zutant, which explains the presence of two wines from the Italian prodigy Ariana Occhipinti, one a lush blend of nero d’avola and frappato ($60 and worth it). There are great values outside of Italy, too, including a masterful 2011 chablis from Gilbert Picq ($50).
Bottom line: There’s nothing predictable about the wine selection.
The food? Well, it depends on the night. I’ve left some meals cheering the kitchen and departed others wondering if there might be a Lean Cuisine back home.
Red Hen’s one-sheet, Italian-influenced menu brings together a lot of dishes frequent restaurant-goers are likely to have seen before. That’s not necessarily a complaint. Octopus is as ubiquitous as doughnuts these days, but the seafood is also one of those ingredients that, depending on its preparation, is either impressive or disappointing, rarely anything in-between. Friedman’s baby octopus swims in the former pool. After marinating in red wine vinegar, bay leaf and black pepper, the seafood spends a few moments on the grill, where it picks up crispness. Just before the octopus leaves the kitchen, it gets a splash of lemon juice and is sent to the table on a basil-infused puddle of pureed potatoes.
Diners are likely to begin with crostini, in part because toasted bread with various toppings dominates the list of appetizers. Some of the spreads will leave you wanting more. Ricotta smoked near the top of the hearth and drizzled with truffle honey is wonderful, as is rich chicken liver rounded out with panes of Parmesan and fresh thyme. But eggplant caponata is more sweet than sour, and with your eyes closed, you wouldn’t identify the vegetable.
Another shareable: fried artichokes, heaped high on their plate and anchored with an emulsion whipped up from mayonnaise and such bold enhancers as anchovies, capers, Dijon mustard and lemon juice. Sliced red and golden beets, roasted in the oven, are arranged with toasted pistachios and a dusting of ricotta salata: simple ingredients, and simply delicious.
A restaurant called Red Hen ought to ace poussin. Despite a marinade that includes lemon, garlic and some lyrics from Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair,” the wood-grilled young chicken with roasted potatoes and mushrooms shoots blanks. Improved from my maiden trip are sweetbreads dressed up with a sunny egg, a ring of soft polenta and a pea shoot salad punched up with diced bacon. Pierce the egg, and it becomes a golden sauce for the puffy organ meat. “Breakfast for dinner,” Friedman calls the rich and satisfying assembly.
The house-made pasta almost always makes me glad to be here. On the homey side, there’s al dente rigatoni draped with a ragu of crumbled fennel sausage. Cubes of (baked) gnocchi made from semolina are more of a fashion statement; a vivid pesto with crushed hazelnuts is one of those sauces that’s so luscious, you wish the dish came with directions for making at home (or even better, were sold by the jar).
Halibut, a fish that usually elicits a yawn from me, gets a summery boost from its warm salad of sweet corn and diced baby squash, both smoky from the fire, tossed with basil and lime juice.
Leg of lamb sandwich is a nearly perfect plate, spurred to greatness by crisp bread slathered with bright saffron mayonnaise and shreds of broccoli rabe within the filling. A side of shaved pickled vegetables lends a nice tang to the construction. My caveat? The shaved meat, which occasionally tastes boiled and lacks the robustness you’d expect from something rubbed in sea salt and mustard before roasting.
The kitchen can be careless. Escarole with onions, a side dish, is so sweet we don’t touch it again after one bite, and a potential star among the main courses — squid-ink linguine with sweet clams and minced andouille — finds grit in every forkful. It was like eating at the beach, and not in a fun way. While I loved the hazelnut budino the first time I spooned into the Italian pudding, the second time the dessert smacked of something Bill Cosby might peddle.
The chef’s twist on strawberry shortcake is better: strawberry sorbet flanked by button-size shortbread cookies speckled with lime zest. After one of us opts for the chocolate cake, a server smiles and says: “I was hoping you would say that. It’s the best thing on the menu.” Boozy cherries and ice cream made with roasted vanilla give credence to her plug.
Next trip, I plan to graze at the bar. Dominating the center of the room, the perch is outfitted with pleasing details, including an orange-leather top and recessed strip lighting and brass bag hooks under the counter. The staff behind it pours very good cocktails, most of which cost (yes!) $10 or less.
Be they in a coupe or a wine glass, liquids fascinate this patron most at the Red Hen. But with each meal at this fledgling neighborhood retreat, the cooking is improving, and what’s on the plates is getting closer to matching what’s in the stemware.