Food, family and personality. Jewish-American and Italian-American culture have much in common. But most Italian eateries don’t have the deep Jewish roots of The Red Hen, a new neighborhood gem in Bloomingdale.
Sure, a restaurant that serves grilled rigatoni with fennel sausage ragu—let alone caramelized scallops drizzled with bacon-infused vinegar—might not be the first place to look for Jewish character. However, co-owner and head chef Michael Friedman tells a different story.
Friedman is the product of northern New Jersey. He came from a Jewish family that settled in a largely Italian community. Growing up, the foods of both cultures were a large and informative presence in his life.
After a journey across the US, cooking and eating at a wide variety of restaurants, Friedman settled in DC, eventually landing a spot working with José Andres. It’s there that his passion for cooking took off, learning from Andres to cook food he loves.
When Friedman decided to start his own restaurant, the nostalgic idea of soul-warming, homey Italian food with Jewish influences came to the forefront. The Red Hen’s interior is a den of cozy—exposed brick walls, picture windows, craft wooden furniture and an open kitchen where chefs are visible, busily preparing ingredients and plating finishing touches. High above them, tucked into cubbies just below the ceiling are stacks of firewood. Many of the restaurant’s dishes are cooked tenderly over an open, wood-fired flame.
This rustic-style vibe is warm and inviting, a perfect setting that makes sure the food takes center stage. The menu, a simple yet delightful one-pager, changes by the season and reflects available ingredients.
What’s just as exciting is the emphasis on local sourcing. The rockfish, for instance, made its home in the Chesapeake, the chickens originate from Michael’s home state of New Jersey and the vegetables arrive from co-ops in Pennsylvania.
While creating the restaurant, Friedman drew on various Jewish elements from his past and then added his own twists. Many of these stand out on the menu including the chicken liver crostini with shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a wonderful melding of Italian and Ashkenazi Jewish foods. Grilled short ribs with shaved horseradish are a play on Grandma’s brisket. And the wood-fired chicken? As Friedman pointed out, “a good Jewish place has to know how to make great chicken.”
The Red Hen is also committed to the surrounding community. Friedman has a connection to Brooklyn where, he says, “every restaurant has a local vibe to it.” This is exactly the spirit of The Red Hen. In fact, the restaurant has only limited reservations to ensure space is saved for neighbors who wander in.
We’d be remiss not to point out The Red Hen’s unique drinking vessels. Water arrives not in nondescript cups, but in glasses emblazoned with the title “Heroes of the Torah.” Beneath that, the face of one of four famous rabbis graces each glass, resulting in a splash of humor and history with your hydration.
The finishes to the winter meal, like the house-made gelato and sorbetto or the spiced arborio rice pudding with dulce de leche and candied almonds, are certainly delicious, though with a bit more Italian influence.
There is one perfect exception: the Brooklyn egg cream, styled with Friedman’s touch, “modo mio” on the menu. Besides the requisite ingredients of soda, milk and chocolate syrup, a hefty scoop of homemade malted chocolate gelato sits proudly atop the heady mixture in its chilled glass. This addition truly completes The Red Hen’s sweet, effervescent Italian-Jewish combination.
The Red Hen, 1822 First Street NW, Washington, DC 20002. Phone: 202-525-3021. Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 5:30-10:00 pm, Friday 5:30-11:00 pm, Saturday 5:00-11:00 pm, Sunday 5:00-9:30 pm, Monday closed.