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.