Review

Little Hen's agrarian accent leaves a mouth-watering experience

CorrespondentJuly 26, 2012 

  • Little Hen 5160 Sunset Lake Road, Holly Springs 919-363-0000 www.littlehennc.com Cuisine: American Rating: *  *  *  *  1/2 Prices: $$$-$$$$ Atmosphere: contemporary bistro with an agrarian accent Noise level: high Service: well-trained, occasionally overwhelmed Recommended: take your pick Open: Dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays. Reservations: encouraged Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited but excellent vegetarian fare; patio; parking in lot The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *   Extraordinary. *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *   Above average. *  *   Average. *   Fair. The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

The closest thing to a standing item on Little Hen’s daily evolving bill of fare is the Pork Big Board. And there’s no guarantee that even that menu staple – a nose-to-tail sampling of humanely raised hog and seasonal produce served up on a cutting board – will be the same from one visit to the next.

The selection of cuts depends on the heritage breed that owner/chef Regan Stachler has most recently gotten in from Okfuskee Farms in Chatham County. Sides are determined by the local harvest, delivered directly to the Holly Springs restaurant by the farmers who grew them.

The one thing you can count on is that jaws will drop when the Pork Big Board is delivered to your table. A recent board groaning with porchetta, beer-braised belly, squash and trotter ragu, unctuous jowl on a locally baked roll, and a fat, juicy chop caused eyes to widen as far as two tables away. A feast for two healthy appetites, with grilled peaches and a snappy succotash among the farm-to-fork accompaniments, it was well worth the $56 tariff.

In the rare event that the Pork Big Board is not offered, you’ll find consolation in whatever board is available that night. The Street Vendor’s Big Board, say, which recently featured house-made Italian sausage with peppers and onions; grilled beef kofta over a summer vegetable couscous; bratwurst with fresh sauerkraut; and the chef’s twist on the Asian street vendor classic chicken-on-a-stick, served on a roll with garlic cream and hot sauce.

That’s not to say you have to order something that comes on a slab of wood to be assured of a memorable meal. The chef’s local riff on prosciutto and melon – ruddy petals of Johnston County “Parma” ham wrapped around wedges of cantaloupe, surrounded by a scattering of red and yellow melon balls and a blue cheese semifreddo – is a kaleidoscope on a plate. And every bit as colorful on the palate.

White ceramic is the backdrop for a stained glass window of sliced heirloom tomatoes, too, whose vivid reds and yellows are punctuated by chives, crumbled sheep’s milk feta and a drizzle of olive oil. And for veal and beef meatballs, whose rustic texture and deep, meaty flavor are set off nicely by grilled squash, a salad of local peppers, and a bright lemon salsa verde.

You’ll usually find a steak among the handful of entree options. A recent menu presented the dilemma of two steak choices: the sirloin for $27 or the rib-eye for an additional 10 bucks? Judging by the succulent sirloin I scored, I’d say you can’t go wrong. If you’re especially lucky, smash-roasted fingerling potatoes will be among the accompaniments.

The chef sometimes uses the same technique – parboiling before smashing and roasting – with beets, which he may pair with rye spaetzle, orange-sherry gastrique and a sunny-side-up egg in a presentation sure to make a vegetarian swoon. Or a diehard meat-eater, for that matter.

A seared breast of free-range Poulet Rouge chicken shows just how extraordinary the humble fowl can be in the hands of a talented chef. Orange-braised thighs, crisp-tender green beans and pecorino cheese grits accompany the breast for a presentation that will spoil you for ordinary chicken for a good while to come.

If desserts don’t always measure up to the lofty expectations set by the savory fare, they usually come close. Cheddar biscuit pudding with apple compote was just OK recently. Peach and blueberry crostata came closer to the mark. Pound cake with fresh peaches, honey-cinnamon frozen yogurt and a home-style caramel sauce hit the bull’s-eye.

Homespun dishcloth napkins and fresh flowers on white table linens, set against a backdrop of farm implements (including an antique wooden plow suspended over the knotty pine bar) and chalkboard illustrations of barnyard animals make for a setting that might be termed contemporary bistro with an agrarian accent. You almost forget you’re in a suburban strip mall, though high ceilings and hard surfaces make for a rather high noise level.

To alleviate the problem, and to temper the glare from the setting sun, Dawn Tan-Stachler recently installed drapes in the windows spanning the west-facing wall. Regan Stachler’s wife and partner (the couple met while attending the French Culinary Institute in New York), Dawn manages the front of the house, setting a warmly welcoming tone for a small, well-trained (and only occasionally overwhelmed) wait staff.

Barely five months old, Little Hen is all the more impressive for being a first venture. Dawn Tan-Stachler says it’s still a work in progress, noting tentative plans for an expanded patio and a still-emerging schedule for a possible Sunday brunch or supper.

The menu, of course, will continue to be determined by what the local farmers bring to Little Hen’s kitchen. You can check the restaurant’s Facebook page, where the daily offering is posted a few hours before opening.

Then call for reservations, which aren’t required but are strongly encouraged. And get ready for a mouthwatering, jaw-dropping experience.

ggcox@bellsouth.net blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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