Storybook Charm

Lexington’s Red Hen is a cozy and elegant restaurant where chef Tucker Yoder is committed to innovative yet approachable food.

Perched on a hill on the eastern edge of historic downtown Lexington, the Red Hen exudes storybook charm. With its pointed tin roof, red-painted brick exterior, rustic stone and timber side gate, it resembles a one-room schoolhouse, a village chapel or—with a little imagination—perhaps even a not-so-little red hen. Surely there is a wishing well, cottage garden or a few pecking chicks nearby?

Given these literary resonances, I somehow wasn’t at all surprised to enter the restaurant on a bright Saturday afternoon to find someone hard at work as others—children, naturally—enjoyed the fruits of his labor. In the little open kitchen at the far end of this impeccably diminutive restaurant, chef Tucker Yoder was busy peeling just-steamed golden beets while two of his children sat on stools across from him, lavishing butter on day-old (still delicious) rolls. A few feet away, his youngest son napped on a cushioned bench beneath a big, sunny window. Ceiling fans whirred under the original exposed timber beams high above. A few minutes later, fresh from feeding chickens at an experimental garden plot nearby, co-owner John Blackburn arrived with his own two children. The little boy clutched a bouquet of green onions, soil still clinging to the white tips, while the girl held a scruffy little puppy, dirt still clinging to its once-white paws. When manager Beth Morrison strolled in a few minutes later with three more kids, the dining room was nearly at capacity. Lucky for the chef, the young crowd disappeared out the door a few minutes later. It was Saturday, after all, and every one of the 26 seats (there are 16 more on the patio) was reserved. Lucky for me, three of them—the much-coveted stools just inches from the kitchen—belonged to me, my husband and, of course, our own child.

Though the history of this circa 1898 structure is veiled in mystery—was it a law office? a pool hall? a grocery store? Why the chapel-like design?—the story of the Red Hen restaurant is clear. Charlottesville native John Blackburn, an instructional technologist at Washington and Lee and a highly engaged environmental activist, fell in love with the building on East Washington Street shortly after moving to Lexington in 1998. When the owner put it up for lease a year or so ago, Blackburn and business partner Stephanie Wilkinson (founder and publisher of Brain, Child magazine) decided to take a leap of faith and open a restaurant. Friends since bonding over deadlines at the same Charlottesville weekly newspaper, they had quickly learned to appreciate the unique virtues of their new home city, recently named one of Budget Travel’s “10 Coolest Small Towns in America.” “I have never been to a place where so many random people—people who could choose to live anywhere in the world—decide that this is the place they want to spend their lives,” says Wilkinson. But every time she and Blackburn reflected upon the many pros of Lexington life—nature, culture, architecture, community—they couldn’t help but notice one glaring deficiency: the town lacked innovative, locally sourced dining options.

Blackburn, who enjoyed reading a beautifully illustrated English edition of the popular folk tale (The Little Red Hen) to his children, came up with the restaurant’s name in a flash, but it took a bit longer to determine the Red Hen’s culinary profile.

Originally inspired by the gastro-pub trend sweeping England and the desire to support Shenandoah farms, the Red Hen vision became complete when Tucker Yoder entered the story. A veteran of many top Charlottesville kitchens (OXO, the Clifton Inn, X-Lounge, to name a few), this 32-year-old chef was looking for a new challenge. Impressed by his cooking as well as by his shared passion for locally sourced food, Wilkinson and Blackburn were thrilled when Yoder accepted the executive chef position and moved his young family to Lexington. “What Tucker brought to the mix was a deep personal commitment to innovative, yet still approachable, food that honors the ingredients at hand,” Wilkinson says. “We were confident that he’d bring an attitude and a style of cooking that would open new doors for people here.” Instantly, the Red Hen was transformed, in concept, from a casual pub into an intimate, fine dining restaurant, with a friendly, contemporary vibe.

As it turns out, the Red Hen is very green. “Our two main goals during renovation were to preserve the historic character of the building and update it in the most sustainable way possible,” Blackburn explains. The fact that the Red Hen received a Founder’s Award from the Lexington Historic Foundation proves that they undoubtedly achieved this dual goal. Working with architect and “sustainability guru” Lee Merrill, whose office happens to be across the street from the restaurant, the owners modified this little structure in some hugely innovative ways—18th-century reclaimed post and beam (from a local mill) frames the open kitchen, and wood from a single elm tree (blown over by a storm) was used to make the stairs, benches and the rough-hewn bar. Blackburn, who thrives on getting dirty, built the tabletops from locally harvested cherry wood, and he and Yoder installed the bamboo floor together, side-by-side. The pantry addition, built using pre-cast, super-insulated concrete panels, is lit with a solar tube skylight during the day and boasts a living roof: a flat rubber membrane supports the growth of herbs, flowers, salad greens and tomatoes in pots and flats. And all of the waste materials from both demolition and construction were either recycled or reused. As we were to discover later that Saturday evening, there is just as little waste in the Red Hen’s little kitchen.

After a brisk stroll through the enchanting Boxerwood Gardens just outside town, we returned to the restaurant for dinner. In the late-fall darkness, the Red Hen looked even more cozy and inviting, glowing from within with candlelight and silhouettes. As we approached from a block away, my daughter, Mila, gasped as a white horse-drawn carriage trotted past us and stopped at the restaurant’s front door. A few young cadets, dressed in formal attire, stepped down to assist their female companions, princess-like in long white gowns and gloves. It was ball night at VMI, and these students (and their parents) had decided to start the evening off right with dinner at the Red Hen. Students, parents, faculty and alums of both local colleges have become faithful fans of this one-year-old eatery.

Feeling terribly under-dressed, we entered the tranquil, elegant space, slipped past the fairytale party (and others, in more casual attire) and took our seats at the bar, directly across from Yoder and his sous chef. Tall, dark and handsome, Yoder is also very funny. It was such a treat to spend the evening in his company, watching him work (who needs the Food Network?) and eating the exquisite results just seconds later. “Everything on the menu except the seafood comes from this area,” he told us at the outset of the meal. Most local farmers had never sold to restaurants before. But with its farm-to-table mission, the Red Hen is giving businesses like Stone House Farm (produce) and Buffalo Creek Farm (beef) a new chance to shine.

The evening’s streamlined menu (it changes daily) consisted of five first and five main courses. Tempted by everything, we opted for the tasting menu, eliminating any decision-making and putting complete faith in our chef. After a delightful amuse of beef heart and shaved celery root topped with a red-wine and Coca-cola “gummy” came a colorful trio of beet salads. Purple beets, golden beets, red-and-white-striped (Chioggia) beets had been roasted, steamed, crisped, chopped, sliced and diced. Even the bits of chopped apple, which accompanied the beets along with a few leaves of just-wilted bok choy, had been pickled in beet juice. Once associated with old-fashioned country kitchens, pickling is reaching new heights in farm-to-table restaurants like the Red Hen. When the farmer gives you more beets than you can serve up fresh, what do you do? Well, instead of tossing them, you pickle them, can them, preserve them in one way or another.

Yoder had mentioned his smoked tofu during our interview earlier in the day and had clearly sensed my curiosity. Our next course featured a dollop of his homemade curdled soybean milk surrounded by Spanish and watermelon radishes and tender leaves of red Russian kale. Soft, delicate and ricotta cheese-like in texture, this tasted nothing like the tofu we knew—delicious. “I didn’t press it too much, to keep it crumbly,” Yoder explained as he plated six main courses for another table, “and I smoked it over leaves, so it would taste like fall.” Sunchokes—a.k.a. Jerusalem artichokes—starred in our next course: a steaming bowl of sunchoke purée, topped with pieces of roasted ’choke and a single plump, golden scallop that had been seared in beer caramel. Both earthy and buttery, familiar and new, this dish kept us quiet until we had sopped up the last of the soup with bits of warm bread.

As my husband, Enrico, and I sipped the last of our Austrian Riesling and ordered glasses of French pinot noir from the restaurant’s marvelously uncluttered wine list, two main courses were crafted before our eyes. A monkfish stew (mirepoix, red wine) was paired with a purée of pumpkin—the pumpkin had been cooked sous-vide with scotch, adding yet another dimension for our mouths to contemplate, happily. And we all devoured the Buffalo Creek steak, bright red except for the outer edge, which had been char-burnt in onion ash.

Yoder allows you to appreciate the simple goodness of his raw materials, but he also highlights this goodness through subtle touches of artistry and creative whims. He even has a way of incorporating seasonal vegetables into his desserts. Our late-fall supper came to a perfect conclusion in this way: a slender, steamed and peeled sweet potato, melted butter, a dollop of homemade marshmallow (torch-browned before our daughter’s wide eyes) and a bit of rosemary and brown sugar.

“We’re not in the middle of nowhere, but we’re not somewhere either,” Yoder says at one point in a chat about Lexington. Perched between a proud historic past and an unknown future, one thing is for certain: Today, this “cool small town” boasts a very cool little restaurant with a big, green heart.

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