I will admit to a soft spot for small, storefront, chef-owned, BYOB restaurants. I had one myself, many moons ago, and I have a great deal of admiration for anyone with the courage and vision to launch such a challenging enterprise - especially in today’s economy. Red Hen Bistro is just the kind of place that warms my heart. Tiny – barely 20 seats – decorated with casual flair and located in an off-the-beaten track storefront, it bears the unmistakable stamp of a chef venturing out on his own. Proud proprietor Carlos Valdez’ menu is a mélange of French, Cal-Mex and American bistro dishes, all reasonable in portion and price.
The narrow dining room is a refuge of Gallic-inspired charm a stone’s-throw from chaotic Route 17 South, cozied with barn-red wainscoting, banquettes dotted with toile-covered pillows and amber-shaded pendant lights. A gallery of art photographs decorates the walls. The tables are small and can become crowded with plates and glassware; our pleasant but a bit too casual server was eager to clear plates as soon as they were emptied.
For starters, we happily tucked into an intriguing special of tempura shrimp with mustard aioli and cabbage and green apple slaw. The successful combination of flavors and textures – rich fried shrimp, earthy aioli and refreshing, lime and cilantro-dressed slaw – was an indication of Valdez’ deft hand. A classic salade nicoise and smoky, bacon-flecked split-pea soup were more traditional and equally savored beginnings. Thin, crispy French fries with the perfect amount of truffle oil, garlic parsley and Parmesan cheese were so astonishingly delicious, I almost ordered a second paper cone-full. Creamy macaroni and cheese was smoother and more delicate than most current restaurant versions.
Most of the entrees were just as nicely done. A California-style burger was appropriately big and juicy. Tender pork tamales were simple and good. An intensely flavored, well-prepared bowl of wild mushroom risotto was served with the fillip of a lacy cheese crisp. A skirt steak was perfectly cooked but could have benefitted from an accompanying sauce; the crispy Red Hen roasted potatoes we ordered as a side dish were a nice addition. The fish tacos were the only disappointment. Made from tilapia with little other filling, they were bland and the fried shell made them difficult to eat. Valdez says that customers can ask for soft tacos; we will be sure to request these next time, along with some extra lime and cilantro.
Desserts are in keeping with Red Hen’s casual style – crème brulee, ice creams and the like. A fruit-studded bread pudding was the ideal ending to our eclectic meal, just the right amount of sweet treat to send us back out into the suburban fray with a satisfied smile.