First Look: Red Hen, Washington DC
(Fair warning: the word smoke, and variations thereof, will appear numerous times in the following article.)
Red Hen opened last month on an unassuming corner in one of DC's emerging neighborhoods, bringing Italian-influenced American cuisine and the perpetual aroma of campfire to Bloomingdale. The restaurant is headlined by two veterans of the Chinatown mainstay Proof, chef Michael Friedman and beverage director Sebastian Zutant, who focus here on seasonal mid-Atlantic ingredients and flavors from Northern Italy.
The first thing you'll notice when approaching Red Hen is the distinct smell of burning wood. Step inside and its source is immediately identifiable as an imposing hearth visible in Red Hen's open kitchen. What chef Michael Friedman calls DC's first wood-burning hearth is Red Hen's primary heat point, and nearly everything on the menu passes through it in some fashion.
The grill is custom-made by Michigan's Grillworks, Inc., and the wood fire burns at a consistent 1,100 °F. The hearth itself consists of several heat zones and surfaces that can move up and down, allowing Friedman to harness the heat in different ways while enveloping each dish in the aromatic wood smoke. Onions, for example, are smoked at the topmost point of the hearth (a relatively cool 90 °F) to maintain their texture, while meats can can be hard-seared or slow-roasted at higher temperatures.
Beyond the hearth, Friedman is finding new ways to introduce smoke into some nontraditional dishes. Take, for instance, his smoked aioli: it's made from oil submersed with burning embers. Served on a smoked trout crostini on crisp grilled bread ($6), the aioli and imparts a distinct fragrance to the dish. "We're constantly trying to find new ways to introduce that smoky flavor into dishes," says Friedman. "What's stopping me from throwing pecan shells on the fire or charring grapefruits for sorbet?"
A more straightforward use of smoke is the herb-roasted lamb sandwich ($16), which features tender slices of lamb, grilled rapini, caramelized onions and the aforementioned smoked aioli.
Step up to the large, centralized bar and you'll become acquainted with Zutant's beverage program, emphasizing Italian wines and spirits. Red Hen will maintain a roughly 100-bottle wine list as well as a seasonally-driven cocktail menu (with Tom Waits-inspired drink names) that largely eschews bitter and strong flavors in exchange for milder spirits. Take the Negroni-inspired "Urs" ($9)—instead of the traditional triad of gin, vermouth, and Campari, Zutant instead swaps out the gin and vermouth for a sweeter combo of Sauvignon Blanc and Grappa.
The "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" ($9) consists of vodka, chinotto-flavored San Pellegrino, and lime juice. It's effervescent and citrusy, providing a refreshing counterpoint to the bold, smoky food offerings.
Friedman said his goals when planning Red Hen were to create a restaurant "for people that love restaurants" and to "come to a neighborhood that wanted it." Considering that Red Hen occupies a corner building that's been vacant for nearly 30 years, it's hard to imagine anyone in Bloomingdale complaining about its arrival. Expect Red Hen's menus to change continually both with the season and as Friedman and Zutant discover new ways to introduce fire and smoke.