Last Updated: 7/6/2021
Before Times Review:
Last Visited: December 2019
The elements of The Red Hen are excellence held in balance. There is the soft warmness of the setting and the sharp, focused food. There is the vibrancy of the crowd and the possibility of an intimate dinner; the large bar and the array of tables. The cuisine is Italian in nature, primarily from the region of “Insanely Delicious.” Without reservations, it can be a wait for a spot to open, even at the bar – especially on weekends – but it is worth the wait. Over the years, Red Hen has settled in. Some may have started to take it for granted. That is foolish. Red Hen still has talent and touch.
The menu is structured by a progression of toasts, antipasti, pastas, mains. Meals can be constructed from one or all of the categories. It has a tendency to be “un-Italian” by adding an ingredient or two beyond the minimally required, but nearly always to good result. Chef and co-founder Michael Friedman overseas the kitchen here and is also the executive chef at the great All Purpose. Chef de Cuisine is Krystal Cripe, leading the team everyday. Most visits include someone taking a bite. Stopping. Putting down the fork to savor the bite, then exclaiming something along the lines of, “damn, that is good.” Friedman flirts with richness, but has the finesse to avoid heavy-handedness. Stand out dishes on recent visits include ricotta crostini, octopus with beans, and Mafalde ribbon pasta with creamy mushroom sauce.
Red Hen is important for another reason. When it opened, it was proof (pun-intended) that D.C. dining had turned a corner. We didn’t need to import talent, it was being developed under our noses. The opening team, the aforementioned Friedman, mad-genius sommelier Sebastian Zutant (who moved on to open Primrose), and Mike O’Malley, took an old building, vacated for 30 years, and created something from scratch in a neighborhood that was still a few blocks from the embrace of gentrification (although that gap has now closed). Entering the space, the world outside falls away and you enter an open room. It is almost like going through the portal of a Disney ride. The design benefited from the old building, that provided a more flexible frame than many other new places. It also benefited from the touch of the designers Lauren Winter and Brian Miller (Winter would go on to construct charm at Primrose).
The wine list remains quirky and delightful to explore. It is serious, but not stuffy. It includes off-beat producers, regions and has included a few “orange” wines since it opened. Joe Quinn, formerly wine director at Proof, returned to D.C. and oversees the beverage program. You may not recognize all the varietals or regions, but ask the server or somm and they will point you to something that expands your horizons and makes you happy. Cocktails are done well, and the bartending crew is knowledgeable. In fact, this place has a knack for attracting great front-of-the-house talent from those that greet you at the door to those scuttling around you with plates.
There are more expensive places and fancier ones, but there are not many dining experiences that will top the trek to Bloomingdale.
Wine List Hidden Gem: Castel Sallegg ‘Bischofsleiten’ – Schiava, Alto Adige, 2017. Schiava is a varietal lighter in color, tannins and alchohol than bigger reds from the flatter parts of northern Italy. It works with many dishes and has enough complexity to drink on its own. At $50 it is a bargain.
Other Guidance: Vegetarians and GF can do alright here, but it is not their strong suit, and strict vegans will have a hard go of it. No need to dress up, though you can. At peak hours it can get a noisy.
Washington Post: 2 stars from Tom(the risk of sustained excellence is you start to take it for granted).
Washingtonian: #49 in 2020; #70 in 2019; #68 in 2018; #37 in 2017; 2016; #7 in 2015; #7 in 2014.
Lori: From 2013
Michelin: Bib Gourmand 2019 (though it is not that cheap).
Spaghetti Squash, Pecorino Fonduta, Lemon, Hazelnuts, Sage; Mafalde with Mushrooms and Melted Leeks; Cavatelli, Spicy Lamb Sausage, Broccoli Rabe ‘Marinato,’ Ricotta, Braised Chickpeas