The George Zimmerman verdict and the death of “Glee” actor Cory Monteith were two headlines that left many people reeling last weekend. I had just exited The Red Hen when we heard the outcome of the Zimmerman trial, and heading off to brunch on Sunday at Blue Duck Tavern when I learned about Cory Monteith. I had chuckled earlier when I realized the connection between the names of the two consecutive places I was dining. My friend suggested that my blog title reflect the fowl coincidence. But my sense of humor was flagging. The restaurant visits coincided with some foul news. On the bright side, the dining experiences were uplifting.
The Red Hen is the kind of place I wish I could visit on a regular basis. The prices are so reasonable, we almost think there are errors on the menu. An aperol spritz for $6.00 and entrees that range from $16- $23 are a welcome sight. The woodsy, comfortable decor brings one of my favorite restaurants to mind… I’m thinking about you Woodberry Kitchen. The Bloomingdale neighborhood is blossoming, but for three suburban couples in their 50’s, we are in undiscovered territory.
Then there is the food. In the current issue of Washington Post magazine, Tom Sietsema provides a good overview and a ranking of two and a half stars. I would go higher.
The menu is laden with crostini options. We can’t resist smoked ricotta crostini with balsamic brown butter and truffle honey, which I find swoon-worthy. Our server highly recommends the crostini of baby tomatoes, spring onion, and basil. This simple preparation sings, thanks to fresh, flavorful ingredients.
Salt cod brandade with chives and garlic toast doesn’t get a universal thumbs up at our table, but it reminds me of smoked whitefish, and I thoroughly enjoy it.
Garganelli pasta with braised duck, zucchini, tomato, and black olives is a lively combination of wonderfully tender, lean pieces of duck tossed with firm pasta. It’s just the right balance of flavor, with no ingredient overshadowing another. I am initially concerned that it’s a little too heavy for a hot summer night, and it may be. But this is soon forgotten, as I dig in.
My husband has gnocchi alla romana with hazelnut pesto. The dish is a surprise, first because of its unusual cube shaped pasta and second because it is so light and airy. He is pleased with the portion size, particularly since this is a $15 dish.
Our friends are equally enthusiastic about their food, including pan-roasted Alaskan halibut with corn and baby squash; seared scallops with English peas, farro, guanciale and dill; and seared veal sweetbreads with a farm fried egg, pea shoots, bacon, and soft polenta.
The ambiance at The Red Hen is charming, but as too often the case lately, the noise level detracts a bit from our enjoyment. Our server is nearly impossible to hear, and he has issues hearing us. Service is a little slow at one point. The reason? He tells us that extra attention is going to the table next to us, which includes at least one prominent local food writer.
Dinner ends on a sweet and smoky note. Chocolate cake with cherries, chocolate sauce, and roasted vanilla gelato is divine. The gelato’s smoky flavor is quite strong and id definitely not to everyone’s liking. On the other hand, since I enjoy it, I can benefit from a few extra bites.
Blue Duck Tavern is worlds away from The Red Hen, and not just because of its West End location. If The Red Hen is a neighborhood kind of place, Blue Duck is more of a special occasion destination. I’ve enjoyed dinner here, but have always wanted to try it out for brunch. It’s a perfect spot for a group of women from my neighborhood. We are seated at a communal table in a lovely private area. Since there are empty seats between us and another party, we feel like we’re on our own. It’s blessedly quiet enough so we can have a group conversation.
We are not really up for alcohol this early in the day, but pear and rosemary mimosa attracts our attention. We sheepishly order one to share. The server comes back moments later to tell us they are temporarily out, and it will be about 30 minutes before another batch is ready. We’re happy munching on bread, sipping delicious hot coffee, and reveling in the fact that it’s a Sunday morning and we’re out to brunch downtown. No worries.
We begin our meal with an order of thick hand cut BDT triple fries. These are a must for every diner who wants the full BDT experience. They are sinfully addictive.
I have probably picked the wrong main dish. Baked eggs, piperade, artichokes, goat cheese, and chorizo are a little too runny for my taste. I would be more satisfied had the goat cheese and artichokes been more plentiful. I’m part way through the dish before I can taste either ingredient.
I wish I had ordered the short rib hash with olive oil poached egg and horseradish sauce. This is the dish I want to taste again and again, even as I steer clear of the poached egg.
Wood-fired tuna with garden ratatouille and basil is beautifully prepared, and a light and summery alternative to some of our heavier dishes.
Summer vegetables and green asparagus with sabayon and citrus crumble, are bright and delicious accompaniments. There is nothing like servings of veggies (even with sabayon) to balance out fries.
We’re nearing the close of our meal when the server brings not one, but four pear and rosemary mimosas – on the house. We had totally forgotten our earlier request. We are thankful for the multiple drinks, as one would not have been enough. We share a divine piece of apple pie – a BTD specialty- and out it comes with three generous scoops of vanilla ice cream- on the house.
Here’s the thing about Blue Duck Tavern. The service is so impeccable and the meal feels so indulgent, that even when the food is a tad off it seems totally irrelevant to the experience. This logic is not completely rational, and doesn’t apply everywhere, but this is how I feel.
I spend Sunday evening glued to the television, as the news events are analyzed and dissected. Indeed, it’s been a time for foul news. I’m grateful to have great food and great friends to goose up my spirits.
The Red Hen, 1822 1st Street NW, Washington, DC
Blue Duck Tavern, 24th & M Streets NW, Washington, DC
Washingtonian, 100 Very Best Restaurants 2013 review