The Red Hen, Bloomingdale

What a triumphant restaurant The Red Hen is. A neighborhood restaurant that’s also a destination restaurant, it makes me wish I lived in Bloomingdale.

More than any other restaurant in the area, I was delinquent in getting to The Red Hen for the first time – for no good reason, other than it kept slipping, but I sure made up for it.

My wonderful bartender (and new member) Victor Dooley asked me if I’d like something to drink, and I immediately ordered a Bell’s Brown Ale ($7, now down to $6), and then after the first sip, asked myself, “Why?” As much as I enjoy this beer, between the cocktail and wine programs at The Red Hen, what was the point? I can get a Bell’s pretty much anywhere, and as much as I enjoyed it, it was a bad decision in terms of calories, alcohol, and dinero.

And so when Sebastian Zutant, whom I consider a personal friend (even though I’ve never seen him outside of a restaurant atmosphere), came over to talk about the wine list, I turned myself over to him. “You know what I like, and you know I don’t spend a lot.” He nodded his head, and came back a couple minutes later with a bottle of 2010 Cataratto Nino Barraco ($60), from Etna, Sicily – only 3,000 bottles (250 cases) produced. “Ah,” I said. “An ‘Orange Wine.'” His face lit up. “I heard you had these on your list.”

So what is an orange wine? I actually don’t know, except that they’re from obscure places, are very acidic, and although they’re technically white wines, they have something of an orange hue to them – not rosé; pale orange. Sebastian knows I’m an acid-head when it comes to wines, so he made a good call with this selection. As it turns out, this was actually the most expensive one on their list, and when the check arrived, I was only billed (full disclosure here) $45. “There are some funky shit grapes that go into this,” he said, clearly excited to be serving it. Ironically, I might have preferred one of their low-end orange wines because this tasted like it had undergone malolactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation that changes malic acid (green apples) into lactic acid (milk), making the wine softer and rounder, less tart, and in this case, leaving it with something of a dairy aroma. This appeals to a lot of people, but I prefer tart – I also feel like an ingrate saying this after the discounted bottle. The “Orange Wines” section tends to be a bit expensive, but you won’t regret ordering one, especially if you’ve never tried one before (they’re vaguely reminiscent of a light-bodied Sherry, while at the same time not being anything at all like any Sherry – wrap your head around that one!). I drank over half the bottle, and it easily got me through the rest of the meal.

It being my first time here, I wanted to try several different things, so I ordered three, and let them come whenever they came. At Sebastian’s urging, I got the Grilled Octopus with Potatoes, Pesto, Frisée & Crispy Capers ($14), and it was the best (cooked) octopus dish I’ve had in recent memory. I’m *always* leery of cooked octopus because its easy to make bitter, but this was heart-poundingly delicious, with the preparation defeating any possible bitterness that could have been there. 

Spaghetti Squash ($6) was a side dish that I thought would go well with the Octopus, and sure enough it did. Roasted, these strands of squash were firm but fully cooked, served with crushed hazelnuts, sage, and Parmigiano Reggiano, and really hit a synergistic note with the wine (picture both these dishes with a light, acidic, Sherry-like wine – it was a best-case combination, and I felt like I was in Spain instead of Italy; yet here I was, in Bloomingdale. As Tom Sietsema might say: the moment was transporting, truly.

I wanted to try one of the house-made pastas, and the other dish Sebastian raved about was the Mezze Rigatoni with Fennel Sausage Ragu & Pecorino Romano ($16). And he raved about it for good reason, too: I have an outgoing text message to Sebastian saved on my phone from 9:05 PM that evening which says, simply, “Double your pasta cook’s salary.” I don’t know who this gentleman was, but he was pan-finishing the pastas, several at a time, twisting and turning and moving all about. The mezze rigatoni was a perfect al dente, and the shape was just right for capturing the hearty sausage ragu. Even though there are several untried pastas on the menu, I would urge – urge – anyone going to The Red Hen to get this dish. The balance of flavors – just the thought of it – between the fennel and sauce is downright Pavlovian.

Not knowing when I’d return, and wanting to try as many things as possible, I asked for one more small dish despite being stuffed. Salt Cod Brandade with Chives & Garlic Toast ($12) went right to my heart (I love brandade), but in retrospect, I wish I’d ordered this first, the pasta second, and the octopus third. This course also went really well with the wine, but I was so full that I just couldn’t give it the appreciation it deserved – it was a generous and hearty portion, and if you like brandade, you’ll like this.

Not knowing when I’d return. Ha, ha, ha. Well, I was back three days later. Given that I live in Virginia, that should tell you something right there.

My friend and I started with an impressive Junipero Gimlet ($10), and I noticed that our bartender shook our drinks exactly twenty times. I asked him if he counted his shakes (which some bartenders do), and surprisingly, he replied that he shakes drinks by sound (!) – when the sound changes to a certain tone, he knows it’s ready. I guess this is why he makes drinks, and I merely drink them.

Perusing the wine list (I didn’t really get a good look at it on my first visit), I noticed that the least expensive Orange Wine was $55, and I felt like being cheap (especially since I wasn’t paying), and so we ordered a bottle of 2011 Tami Grillo ($35), a white wine, also from Sicily. Don’t overlook this beautiful bianco just because it’s on the inexpensive side – it works really well with Mike Friedman’s cooking, Sicilian whites being on the heavier side, and it’s also imported by the great firm of Louis-Dressner (R.I.P. Joe Dressner – I will always remember you with heartfelt respect and admiration (*)).

Although I often (usually) dine solo, I love dining with others because, well, there’s the company, but also it gives me a chance to try more things, and even more importantly, things I might overlook if I was ordering by myself. Case in point: the Pear & Endive Salad ($11) with hazelnuts, celery, and gorgonzola dressing, which was just a beautiful, classic combination, especially paired with this Grillo (which is the grape used to make Masala – now that I’m writing this, I recall with near certainty that Sebastian told me there was some Grillo in the Cataratto Nino Barraco I had on my previous visit as well). Anyway, these flavors were simple, flawless, and a delightful start to the meal.

Garganelli with Braised Duck, Tomato, English Peas, & Taggiasca Olives ($17) signaled the arrival of autumn, and confirmed that the pastas here are important and downright obligatory – I cannot imagine coming here and not at least splitting one. Of all the world’s olives, none could have gone better with this duck than the Taggiasca. Chef Friedman knows what he’s doing, that’s for sure. With this pasta, a side order of Zucchini ($8) was ordered mostly for color and texture, yet ended up lightening the course as a whole, not that it really needed it – the duck was extremely delicate.

Unfortunately, this was the time I (literally) got called away from the meal, and so I only got carryout nibbles of our two entrees, a couple of hours later: Seared Veal Sweetbreads with a Fried Egg, Bacon, Pea Shoots, & Soft Polenta ($19), aargh, this is the one that I really wish I’d gotten to try right when it was served – it was still delicious even later in the evening; and Wood Grilled Hen with Wild Mushrooms, Tomato, Cherry Peppers, and Roasted Potatoes ($23), also wonderful even hours later. But as good as these were as room-temperature carryout dishes, they would have obviously been that much better hot off the stove.

Wow, I sure went through a lot of this menu in just a few days, but sitting here typing this in the hinterlands of Virginia, not having eaten a thing today, I’m tempted to go back yet again this evening. I love The Red Hen, and the residents of Bloomingdale are fortunate to have a casual restaurant of this caliber in their midst. If I lived in Bloomingdale, and wasn’t Robo-Critic, I’d be there all the time.

Needless to say, The Red Hen is initiated in Italic, a strong, secure Italic, in the Dining Guide. Bravo.

(*) One other thing: Joe, I’m going to steal the last line of your obit because it is *exactly* how I feel about myself. If you object, speak up; otherwise, thanks (and knowing you, you’re smiling right now. Cheers, my friend.).

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