The Dish: Hen Quarter Brings Southern Comfort to D.C.

by John Arundel

Deviled eggs, shrimp and grits and fried chicken are on the menu at the farm-to-table restaurant. 

Hen Quarter’s signature Deviled Hen Eggs, topped with Bread & Butter Pickle Relish, Hickory Smoked Bacon, Chive and Smoked Paprika (Courtesy Photo)

Southern food brings comfort like nothing else on earth.

And in a city super-heated by the partisan divide, and sidewalks which feel like they might just melt under your feet, Washington could certainly use a strong dose of Southern comfort these days.

Step off the hot sidewalks and into the new Hen Quarterat 750 E Street, N.W. and the restaurant wraps you like a cool, windswept embrace of Southern hospitality, like a cold glass of iced tea on a hot Summer day.

The spacious farm-to-table focused restaurant in Penn Quarter instantly cures whatever ails you with its Southern-inspired cooking — just like Mama used to make back home in South Carolina, Georgia, or certain parts west of the Mississippi.

We’re talking memorable Southern classics like deviled hen eggs, fried green tomatoes, fried chicken n’ waffles, and home-style, oven-hot biscuits.

If you’re from the South, your craving for which go-to comfort food to order at Hen Quarter likely says a lot about where you grew up.

If you’re from South Carolina, you’ve probably come here for the shrimp and grits, or the no-filler crabcakes. Hail from Louisiana? You’re probably the folks who came through the door hankering for some Delta Catfish. Direct from Texas? There’s “Smothered Rib-eye” served up hot on the plate.

Of course, some Southern food crosses all regional boundaries. In kitchens from Richmond to San Antonio, you’ll find tasty comfort food like chicken and waffles, pot roast, pound cake, buttermilk biscuits and mac-and-cheese.

Expert bartenders craft Old Fashioned cocktails with Hen Quarter’s large selection of bourbons. (Courtesy Photo)

The good news? They’re all right here.

And so is a bar that caters to the thirstiest of Southerners — or Northerners who just want to saddle up to the bar with a true Southern tippler to learn a thing or two about Southern bourbon, served neat with an ice cube the size of Kentucky.

There’s no shortage of Southern-derived adult beverages here, with a vast array of whiskeys, ryes and bourbons, all available as flights. Original craft cocktails infuse local flavors with traditional favorites.

The menu features an all-star Southern lineup from The Garden and The Coop, along with Main Plates that we washed down with aged Breckinridge malt mash whiskey.

Hen Quarter DC’s Grand Opening guests enjoyed meeting a pony upon entry (Courtesy Photo)

Dining Below The Mason Dixon

On a steamy evening in July, my companions and I tucked into a tantalizing array of menu items that we only thought we could find south of the Mason Dixon line. Our waiter was prompt and efficient, describing the ingredients and preparation of all of the menu items in great detail, with a breadth of knowledge that might make any Southern mama proud. The iced water was delivered lickety-split, as were the craft cocktails.

Let the culinary journey into the Deep South commence!

To start off, our super-helpful waiter suggested we try a few of the Small Bites & Shares. Out came a smorgasborg of palate-tantalizing small plates: Southern fried pickles, deviled hen eggs, fried green tomatoes, fried chicken crackling with roaster hot honey, a skewered smoked pork belly with a sugar brule, as well as a skillet of hot bacon pimento cheese with grilled naan flatbread.

Given the heat, we moved on to a second course of cool and delicious Watermelon Salad, with farm fresh tomatoes, English cucumbers, torn basil, glass noodles, fennel and Ciliegene mozzarella, topped with a citrus vinaigrette.

Others at our table opted for the shaved kale and strawberry salad, which came adorned with a medley of matchstick apples, dried cranberries, pecans, strawberries, and drizzle of feta and lemon curd vinaigrette. A third option was the Southern Caesar Salad, composed of grilled Romaine heart, sweet corn, Sea Island peas, Reggiano cheese, garlic confit dressing and waffle croutons.

Hen Quarter’s signature Belly Pops: Skewered Smoked Pork Belly, Rosemary, Sugar Brûlée and Fig Gastrique (Courtesy Photo)

Our Southern culinary journey moved on to The Coop, where our waiter suggested the Cedar Roasted Chicken — essentially a quarter bird smothered in Georgia Peach Barbeque, with a skillet of mac-and-cheese on the side — while others at our table chose the Hen Quarter Special: two pieces of Southern fried chicken, collared greens, with smashed Yukon potatoes and a biscuit.

But the crowd favorite was clearly the Chicken & Waffles:  A cheddar and corn waffle topped with chicken, and drowned in Honey Pearl Butter and Tennessee bourbon maple syrup. The compressed melon on the side added to the flavor explosion.

For the main course our waiter offered four Southern originals, including Cedar Plank Salmon, Low Country Catfish, Shrimp & Grits and something called a “Southern Sampler,” essentially the best offerings from the kitchen that night: Hen Quarter chicken, smokehouse chicken, seared pork belly, butternut squash and biscuit.

The salmon was served on a delicious succotash skillet and was coated with a Cane River BBQ glaze and candied pecans, while the Southern Fried Catfish was served up Southern style with creamy grits, collared greens and remoulade sauce.

The shrimp n’ grits plate was also Southern delish: A bed of stone ground creamed grits coated with Charleston pan sauce, topped with Louisiana shrimp, herbed farm cheese, andouille sausage and arugula.

For dessert, all of us opted for the same Last Temptation: A fried twinkie with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

Suprisingly, we left Hen Quarter feeling super satisfied but not stuffed. It’s all about portion control, and the folks at Hen Quarter have clearly thought a lot about portion control. The dishes are compact, not oversized like the large portions you often find in the South.

Ron Hallagan, President of Pheast Food Group, and Warren Thompson, President & Chairman of Thompson Hospitality, flank a guest at the Hen Quarter DC Grand Opening (Courtesy Photo)

Let the Pheast Begin 

The Penn Quarter location is the third outpost of Pheast Food Group’s newly conceptualized southern restaurant, and its first in the District. In the past year, Hen Quarters have opened in Old Town Alexandria and downtown Silver Spring.

A subsidiary of national food retailer Thompson Hospitality, Pheast Food Group transitioned all of the Austin Grills in the area to Hen Quarter, evolving Austin Grill’s simple Texas roadhouse food to “better fit the needs and desires of its longtime customers,” says Robyn Leenaert, Pheast Food Group’s chief marketing officer.

“We are  excited  to  bring  our  home-grown  concept  and  classic family favorites  to  a  bustling  city  environment,  allowing  us  to  provide comfort  food to  even  the  busiest  city  dweller,” Leenaert said. “Due to the success of our other locations, we knew it was time to give our DC friends their own location, with subtle menu variations specially curated with that delicate southern touch.”

The Washington dining scene — which once took a back seat at the nation’s culinary table — has in recent years evolved with some of the country’s most sophisticated restaurant concepts, and a few of its very best restaurants.

A spread of Hen Quarter favorites: Watermelon Salad, Fried Chicken, Deviled Hen Eggs, Pork Belly Pops, and Biscuits (Courtesy Photo)

Before Hen Quarter, it’s safe to say that very few DC restaurants had such distinctively Southern-style dishes on the menu. ”It’s no secret that the palates of restaurant goers has evolved over the last decade, given more dietary restrictions and a craving for casual food that has character,” said Pheast company’s president Ron Hallagan. “We believe that’s a need that Hen Quarter satisfies, by boasting true Southern comfort food.”

Hen Quarter’s menu is sourced from locally-raised meats and all natural ingredients. Chef Fred Raynaudhas helmed the menu development, sourcing regional artisan food producers and sustainable agriculture to create the dishes. “We aim to to satisfy guests’ appeal  for  knowing the  food that they are consuming,” Raynaud said.

Pheast Food Group was created in 2016 “by foodies, for foodies,” he says, with the mission to create an incubator dedicated to farm fresh, sustainable and edgy food concepts be it fast casual, quick service, or full service, “and to have a lot of fun doing it.”

After launching Hen Quarter as its first concept, Pheast took over the management of other DC-area restaurants such as The American Tap Room, Willie T’s Lobster Shack and Be Right Burger holdings, and has plans to update those concepts by later this year. Launched in early 2016, Pheast was founded by Hallagan, Raynaud and Leenaert, all longtime food and restaurant professionals.

“We are ready to plant a flag in the ground of culinary greatness,” Hallagan states unabashedly. “The company wanted to join in the farm-to-table  movement  while paying  homage  to  the  evolution  of  the  restaurant goer’s experience….Part of our own evolution was the creation of Pheast to help usher in a new era of dining.”

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