Once in a while, a restaurant comes along where extraordinary preparation of locally produced food is the focus, and suddenly it becomes a favorite destination; its name is on everyone’s lips.
Such is the case with The Red Hen, an intimate place in Lexington that seats 26 in the main dining room and 16 in the black locust trellis and gate-enclosed patio area. The restaurant’s name comes from the title of the children’s book, “The Little Red Hen,” which is a favorite of co-owner John Blackburn’s family.
The cuisine reflects the culinary preferences of the investors and the chefs, who favor the farm-to-table way of eating. More specifically, most of the ingredients prepared and served at The Red Hen originate in Rockbridge County and arrive at the restaurant within an hour. Wines come from vineyards that use organic or bio-dynamic farming principles, hand-harvesting and minimal manipulation in the fermenting process.
A great deal of thought went into renovating the 115-year old Gothic building in Lexington’s historic downtown while maintaining its spirit and architecture. In keeping with the sustainable agricultural and environmental philosophy of the investors, the main dining room features the original vaulted ceiling with the king-post roof trusses in place, as well as sustainable bamboo flooring and re-harvested wood garnered from vintage buildings in the area. Additionally, there’s an alternate tread elm staircase going up to an area over the kitchen, as well as water-saving appliances and an adherence to composting practices. Herbs such as thyme, tarragon, fennel, dill and sage, along with edible nasturtiums, flourish in the turf roof garden located above the dish room.
The menus for lunch and dinner change every day according to seasonal availability, so the exact meals I ordered may not be on offer. On my first dinner visit, just a few weeks after the grand opening, my husband, Jim, and I marveled at the thought-provoking simplicity of the menu. We noted unusual combinations of ingredients, as well as imaginative names, for the five selections in each of the first and main course categories.
At lunch, the entire menu of seven meals attracted my attention, including the grilled hamburger on a homemade bun, with slow-cooked egg mayonnaise and cracked wheat salad ($12).
What We Tried
For appetizers, I selected pork belly with apples, squash and “blis” ($12), or maple syrup aged in bourbon; Jim decided on chicken leg terrine with walnuts and arugula ($9). These precious starters provided fascination for the eyes, palate, and appetite.
My entree consisted of roasted chicken breast and confit (small pieces) of chicken thigh formed into a kale leaf-wrapped package and served with a slow-cooked egg dominated by a vibrant yolk ($26). It offered the freshest flavors in a unique presentation of ingredients I’ve eaten before, but not had put together in such a way as this. The Virginia wine, Gabriele Rausse Vin Gris de Pinot Noir 2007, ($8/glass), went perfectly with my meal. Jim extolled the splendid taste of the boned brown butter trout accompanied by parsley risotto, Roma beans and yellow wax beans ($24).
Another dinner worthy of noting included a big starter portion of floppy-leafed mixed greens with homemade ricotta and toasted hazelnuts, all dressed with red wine vinaigrette ($8). Next came an abundant entree serving of poached chicken breast — tender, flavorful, and tasting just the way a perfectly prepared fresh chicken should taste — along with sides of cracked wheat, liver mousse and arugula ($26). A glass of Wall Cellars Napa Valley Zinfandel 2006 ($9) had been stored incorrectly in too warm an area, but was just fine after it cooled off at my table. One taste of dessert, large dry chunks of Earl Grey cake with milk, honey and walnuts, was all I needed to know it wasn’t my type of sweet finale.
For lunch with friends one afternoon, we ordered most of the seven dishes on the menu, which everyone enjoyed. I liked my main course of three large tender and delicate seared scallops with sides of salsify, a root vegetable, and small turmeric-colored, golden dumplings called spatzle ($10). The side dish of Parmesan grits I ordered lacked the punch of the Italian cheese, but had a smooth texture. The tall grilled hamburger required a knife and fork because of its ungainly construction, but was nonetheless delicious and satisfying. Desserts were in a class of their own, generously portioned and tasty: chocolate bacon cake with maple and thyme, vanilla braised rhubarb with buttermilk and pecan, and butter pecan soup with saba (fresh apple must, or juice), and shortcake.
The Bottom Line
The Red Hen is a welcome addition to the Lexington dining scene. Whatever flaws I’ve mentioned will undoubtedly be remedied. Local ingredients star in wonderful preparations that I will return for, especially the seared scallops, browned butter trout and poached chicken.
When I do, I will know I’ve had something extraordinary.