Review by Scott Cherry Photos by Matt Barnard
Kathy Bondy recently was shuffling through papers in her office at the French Hen and came across a couple of jewels — a menu from the year it opened, 1979, and a New Year’s Eve menu from 1986.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, look at that,’ ” Bondy said. “The filet was $14.75, if you can imagine that, and the New Year’s Eve menu had veal piccata for $10.50.”
I couldn’t help but notice the original menu also had such dishes as liver and Roquefort terrine for $3.95. It has been beaucoup years since that dish has been on any menu, much less at that price.
Terry Turner was the founder of the French Hen, and David Rivest was chef for 19 of the 22 years Turner owned the restaurant. Turner sold the restaurant to Dick Clark, a former partner with Greg McGill and Charlie Mitchell in the restaurant and club business, and Clark’s son, chef Richard Clark, in 2001. The Clarks sold it to Bondy in 2011.
Bondy recently said she has made some plans to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the French Hen, tucked away out of sight from main thoroughfares in the middle of the Lighthouse Shopping Center on the southeast corner of 71st Street and Yale Avenue.
“I’m going to do prix fixe $40 monthly dinners, offered any time during the month, and probably featuring some of the old dishes, such as veal piccata and breast of chicken chasseur,” Bondy said.
“I’m also going to do some $40 wine specials with some really nice wines, and we probably will have a big anniversary party in the summer. We will continue our monthly wine dinners, which have been very popular, too.”
In the almost eight years Bondy has owned the restaurant, the menu has had few changes. Remarkably, the prices have remained the same, too.
We recently stopped in for dinner on a bitterly cold night and warmed up quickly at a table for two that overlooked a garden in the middle of the center. I previously had been introduced to Charlie, the center’s longtime resident gray cat, and I had to wonder where he hunkers down on nights like this.
We thought it only proper to have a glass of French wine, and we ordered a Loire Vouvray and a Rhone red blend and both proved to be food-friendly selections.
Along with the wines, our server, Tom, brought an amuse-bouche — a free, bite-sized appetizer — of truffled egg salad on crostini. A truffled egg salad sandwich is on the lunch menu, so I am guessing this was left over from lunch. No matter. It was delicious and closer to three or four bites.
Generally, one of the benefits of fine dining is the servers are adult and professional. It takes about 10 seconds to detect a real pro at work. Tom, who said he has been at the French Hen for eight years, is a pro.
We followed the amuse-bouche with French onion soup ($7) and a wedge salad ($10), and both were memorable and menu staples.
The soup had a crust of Brie cheese that sat over a reduced broth with a rich flavor that also had bits of green onion, yellow onion and crostini. The salad was simple but well-executed with leaves of romaine topped with a lemon-blue cheese dressing, blue cheese crumbles, bacon bits, and red, dark red and yellow cherry tomatoes.
For our entrees, we ordered the roasted lobster tail ($46) and grilled duck breast ($26). For our tastes, both were undercooked, especially the lobster. The duck was supposed to be medium-rare, but these slices were much closer to rare.
The duck came with a choice of brandy peppercorn cream sauce or orange and cherry glace. I got a little of both, and both were tasty.
We took a good portion of our entrees home and cooked them in a little butter on the stove top for just a smidgen longer, and they were awesome. The lobster, a big guy at about 10 ounces, and the duck were more flavorful and tender. I suppose as doneness goes, to each his own.
Our sides included haricot verts — long, thin green beans — and pommes Anna, another French Hen staple. Pommes Anna is a classic French dish of thinly sliced potatoes that had been covered, top-weighted and baked in a shallow pan. After baking, they were inverted onto the plate and came out brown and crisp on the outside and soft and buttery inside.
The menu offers something for almost all tastes, including rack of lamb, quail, brown trout, salmon, chicken Dijon, scallops, steaks, osso bucco and bouillabaisse.
The lunch menu is much different than the dinner menu and includes a variety of sandwiches for $10 to $12 and entrees in the mid-teens.
We didn’t stay for dessert this time, but they have been terrific in the past.
The French Hen is one of the few fine dining spots left that is quiet enough to carry on a normal conversation with tablemates, which also makes it a romantic destination for special occasions.
Tables are covered with white-over-black cloths, and each table was decorated with a fresh rose in a vase.
The 65-seat room has cinnamon walls that hold photos and paintings of French scenes, multipane floor-to-ceiling windows and quaint alcove seating areas. The granite bar is separate from the dining room, and a patio is available in good weather.
French Hen is closed Sundays, except for Easter and Mother’s Day.