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January 2008

The Review:
Fat Hen
Written By: 
Patricia Agnew
Photographs By: 
Christopher Brown

Lowcountry French fare meets farmhouse chic with delicious success at Fat Hen, the cozy John’s Island café that has patrons clucking with delight.

The newest solo offering from chef Fred Neuville (formerly of 39 Rue de Jean, COAST, and Good Food Catering acclaim), this busy neighborhood restaurant blends the best of local produce, fish, and fowl in signature dishes inspired by French fare yet also featuring Southern cuisine at its finest. Provisions obtained from local farms and purveyors also provide an apt sense of place.

Once a small family cottage, the friendly space includes a sunny bar area with a community table, a main dining room, a seasonal porch, and an open patio to accommodate groups of various sizes and energy levels. Its bungalow-style interior, designed by Neuville’s wife, Joan, along with Heather Barrie-Ahern of Gathering event design firm, features expansive windows with views of oaks and palmettos that lend a lazy Lowcountry mood. Pleasant blues and yellows warm the comfortable collection of antique barn-wood benches, chairs, and barnyard art. Decorative chalkboards feature daily specials and regular items, such as the Fat Hen specialty drink made with local muscadine-flavored Firefly Vodka, Champagne, triple sec, and pomegranate juice. The wine list includes numerous smaller boutique finds available by the glass and bottle, knowledgeably served by confident staff who boldly recommend pairings that we found to be right on target.

Sunday morning brunch was our first opportunity to visit, and we found the line forming early for luscious buttermilk pancakes with warm syrup and strawberries and fluffy omelettes made with fine herbs and fresh local eggs from Green Grocer Farm. The smooth, rich grits were especially memorable in this locale of self-proclaimed grits experts. Lunch brought the occasion to enjoy macaroni and cheese flavored with country ham and the house version of the BLT—apple-wood-smoked bacon, French fried green tomatoes, and lettuce on house-made potato caraway bread with sassy horseradish aioli. Both were good enough to inspire return engagements at a later date for more of the same.

Starters include crab soup with sweet claw meat, cream, and sherry and tomato-and-­roasted-corn salad served with that well-known Southern delicacy, boiled peanuts. And the plump scallops marinated in pomegranate barbecue sauce, wrapped with bacon, and grilled for a robust finish did not disappoint. In honor of my friend’s recent return from France, the charcuterie platter was our second appetizer choice. It featured light chicken liver mousse, hot smoked salmon, and garlic and pork saucisson served with a traditional array of condiments, unfailingly comforting as always.

The traditional coq au vin and seared duck served with local butter beans and garlic spinach are but two of the entrée options that make ordering a delicious challenge at Fat Hen. After many questions and patient guidance from staff, we finally chose the unusual shrimp and crab. Brimming with jumbo lump crab meat and plump sautéed local shrimp served over the house rendition of hoppin’ John lightened with tiny julienned carrots, this entrée is quite worthy of its place as a signature dish. Tender butcher steak with mushrooms and onions in luxurious veal demiglace also brought sighs and smiles as much for the steak as for the decadent house fries. Lest they despair, lovers of fried seafood have standby options for the traditional platter as well. The final course menu, which changes daily, offered fresh cobblers, a lemon tart, crème brûlée, and a cheese plate. We enjoyed a tasty lemon square with fresh strawberries and berry sauce and expertly made espresso and cappuccino.

The Fat Hen is a welcome local mainstay already, worthy of regular return trips for fresh comfort food, good wines, and amazingly efficient, lighthearted service and camaraderie. If your fondest childhood memories include fresh farm fare and barnyard magic, in the gleeful words of my favorite two-and-a-half-year-old, “Fat Hen is open!”

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