The Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia is
not a large restaurant. In fact, it is fairly small, so small that it
employs one chef, one waitress and a dishwasher. Though its size is
diminutive, its quality is not. Chef Tucker Yoder, the lone cook,
uses plenty of seasonal, local ingredients along with a few select
imports from outside the region, to craft a menu that is both
interesting, beautiful and most important, delicious.
The Red Hen was the first serious
culinary stop for my wife, my son and I as we headed below the
Mason-Dixon Line to experience the region's apparent cooking
renaissance for ourselves.
Chef Yoder works from an open kitchen,
which also happens to have three seats at a bar overlooking it. Of
course, that is where we sat. Some may prefer to simply eat their
meal and and leave the workings of the kitchen to those in the
kitchen, figuring that they are there to dine and that is sufficient
in itself. While the food experience is, of course, paramount, I
enjoy watching the choreography of a professional kitchen, whether it
include many cooks or just one. Observing enhances (usually) my
overall experience. If the cooks or the chef happen to be amiable, so
much the better. At the Red Hen, it was fun watching Chef Yoder work.
He is extremely efficient and methodical, but still outgoing and
friendly. It was just as much fun chatting and interacting with him
as he went through his paces and served the plates we watched him
prepare directly in front of us. Watching the act of creation
provides an additional connection with the meal, especially when it
is done with the grace with which Chef Yoder cooked.
We elected to have the Chef choose our
meal. I enjoy ordering for myself at restaurants I frequent or at
places specifically known for a special dish or two, but at creative
restaurants, I prefer to let the chef decide. While every item on a
menu should be good, I think the chef's decisions provide
additional insight into his thinking and tastes and is instructive to
see what he is actually most proud to serve. It is also generally a
good way to get variety. At the Red Hen, Yoder offers a five course
tasting menu for $55 as well as a five course wine pairing for $25 to
accompany it. For the quality of the food and wine served, the price
is a downright bargain. We actually received more than five courses
if one includes two amuses and a sampling of desserts.
Chef Yoder started us with a very
interesting, unusual, pretty and delicious salad of strawberry, shiso
and Mountain View Farms “Marmac” raw milk cheddar cheese.
Mountain View Farms, located in nearby Fairfield, Va, makes a variety
of cow's milk cheeses. The “marmac” was probably the tastiest I
have had from south of New York State and was comparable to some of
the better cheddars up there. The shiso added a distinct herbal
element that while now familiar, still remains somewhat exotic. The
combination of those ingredients with the fine local strawberries
proved a very pleasurable start. I finished a lovely cardamom
margarita with this course.
Yoder's skills and dedication to his
craft were further illustrated with the second amuse of beets,
house-made tofu, cracked wheat, cacao and walnuts. The tofu, silky
and tasty was well made and combined well with its texturally
contrasting dishmates. The beets provided their sugar, while some
lovely arugula added peppery notes.
With the first flesh-centered course,
Yoder's talents really started to shine even brighter. His roasted
halibut with fava beans, curry and gnocchi put the recent halibut
dish I had at Jean-Georges to shame. The colors and flavors were
bright without overwhelming the perfectly cooked and seasoned fish.
The fish was paired with a lovely, grassy 2009 sauvignon blanc from
Altas Cumbres of Argentina.
Seared Scallop arugula, bacon and leeks
followed and was a triumph. Scallops aren't exactly local to the
Shenandoah Valley, but these were wonderfully fresh and sweet. The
arugula in this dish was in the form of a bright green purée that
added color and depth, but it was the house-cured lardons that
brought it all together and added depth. Yoder successfully paired a
2008 Loire chardonnay/groslot gris from J. Mourat “Collection”
with this dish.
The next course, Rabbit BBQ with smoked
stock, biscuit and pickled seeds was good, but more interesting
intellectually than on the palate. It was fun, but not an improvement
over a good version of what inspired it. The 2009 Coteaux D'Ancenis
rosé paired with it, was crisp and delightful.
Skirt steak Grits, Onions and swiss
chard was marvelously full flavored. The grits provided an
appropriate welcome to the South. The dish was balanced by a deep red
malbec from Goulart Clásico 2009.
The wines paired with the savory
courses were not break the bank wines. How could they be when the
restaurant is only charging $25 for the pairings? They all, however,
are good wines and great values. The selections are all interesting,
complimentary wines that “come from vineyards using organic and
biodynamic methods.” For me, the wines I choose for pairing with a
specific food work best when they are chosen to harmonize with the
food, not overshadow it. These wines harmonized well. There are other
times, when I am focusing on great wines, I want food to be the
supporting player, but this was not one of those times.
The Red Hen's desserts are imaginative
and creative without being over the top. Delicious and satisfying,
they provided a wonderful curtain to this very lovely meal. They
included Blackberry Soup with Buttermilk Parfait; Lavender Custard
with black pepper caramel and raspberries; Basil Genoise tofu with
raspberries and Dark Chocolate with a white peppermint shroud. Chef
Yoder paired some luscious dessert wines for us including two ciders
from Foggy Ridge, the bracingly tasty First Fruit and the decadent
Pippin Gold as well as Adesso Cagnina di Romagna, a sweet red wine to
go with the chocolate dessert.
Contentedly full, our dinner came to a
close. We paid our bill, bid adieu and waddled back to our lovely
hotel, which fortunately, was within a comfortable walking distance.
The Red Hen is simply a wonderfully charming restaurant serving
delicious, fresh, creative food in a delightful location. No one
passing through the area should miss it and those who live around
there should do their best to make sure this little gem thrives.