The Red Hen is what it is, deliciously so – in fact, if there’s a more consistent and comforting restaurant in all of DC, I haven’t found it.
Located in DC’s Bloomingdale neighborhood, The Red Hen is calls home to a charming, brightly lit building with exposed brick walls that, to me, might as well be the design equivalent of cooking with butter. That’s a good thing. I want to live here, and if chef/owner Michael Friedman is in charge of the menu there’s no reason to leave.
DC has many Italian restaurants, including some with Michelin stars, but what makes The Red Hen so essential isn’t its legacy within our city’s dining history (even if 2014 does make you a legacy player these days). No, it’s the feel of the place: the warmth, the open kitchen, the wood. Oh, how I could write 800 more words about the wood.
The menu is Italian, to be sure, and looking at it wraps the diner in an amiable, buttery hug that brings with it dreams of an European tryst and a full belly.
The wine list offers something for everyone, though it leans more heavily toward Italian reds. As a Chianti drinker, I’m thankful for this; as someone who isn’t necessarily aiming to break the bank for a bottle of wine at dinner either, I feel well represented.
For me, the real glory of an Italian menu is the antipasta, the smaller, cheaper plates that pack big flavor into slight portions; the featherweight boxers of the food world. The cacio e pepe fried risotto balls are a must. Though you can find similar versions of this dish at other Italian spots around the city, the chili honey kicks these pups into a higher gear.
If I’ve eaten fried cauliflower it certainly wasn’t at an Italian restaurant. Consulting my taste bud’s memories sends my brain due east from Italy anyway, and that’s certainly where these spicy, not overly breaded tufts of slightly nutty, softly spicy vegetables took my mind.
One of the singular pleasures of more modern Italian-American cooking are the bowls of pasta that are large enough to please but small enough to tease one’s hunger before a larger secondi course. In previous visits to The Red Hen we’ve eaten the rigatoni (we’re cultured, thanks), which allowed us to turn our attention elsewhere – to pasta without red sauce.
For this meal, that meant the malfade with asparagus, peas, mushrooms, and basil for me, a dish full of much needed vitamins and minerals – plus cheese. To my palate, the pasta tasted of an elevated, fresh all-fridge home-cooked version: fresh pasta, leftover veggies, smothered in cheese, this is the dish of picky eaters.
It also meant the spaghetti aglio e olio, a spicy pepperoncini-fueled flamethrower of a pasta that made for a helluva one-two punch with the cauliflower. Not a bad thing, as I feel as though my tastebuds require some toughening up and it forced us to turn to our wine.
Lastly, we dug into the scallops topped with a leafy pick of frisee and pea pods. Scallops are a last frontier item for me, something (of a long list) of things I can’t cook myself but would love to, and The Red Hen does them well, though I could do without the frisee. The greens distract somewhat from what is an otherwise tender and perfectly caramelized scallop. On a future trip, I may eschew a secondi entirely in service of an additional small plate or two, perhaps a dessert.
There’s so much to love on this menu, one that rewards multiple trips to Bloomingdale to investigate. And if there’s any axiom we should live by in this Golden Age of DC food it’s this: Will travel for food (even to Bloomingdale).