Hands down, the most popular dish at Royal Hen—the brand-new bistro on Balboa Island by Tim Goodell of 25 Degrees and A Restaurant and so many other great OC restaurants over the years—is the chicken pot pie. The night of my visit, I overheard the twentysomething brunette at the next table tell her server that she'd been craving it ever since a few friends posted pictures of it on social media. But alas, the waitress had bad news: It had just sold out. She told the girl the chef only makes a limited number per day.
I looked at my watch. It was 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. Apparently, I got the last one. As I guarded my pie from her envious gaze, I scanned the dining room and realized half of the customers—from a blue-haired retiree to the well-coifed socialite at the communal hightop—were finishing up their own pies.
It occurred to me that Goodell probably didn't anticipate this. From the looks of the first draft of the menu, he originally envisioned Royal Hen to be an Irish/Scottish/English pub. Of the five pies he'd planned to bake—including a shepherd's pie, an Irish stew pie, and a beef and Guinness pie—only the chicken pot pie survived, and it's as American as Betty Crocker. Yet there are still hints of the U.K. on the menu. There is, for instance, “haggis,” but it's not anything Robert Burns would recognize as such. Instead, it's four breaded, deep-fried Ping-Pong ball croquettes that resembled Japanese korokke more than the meal immortalized by the Bard of Ayrshire. In fact, I'm not sure I found anything resembling any sort of organ meat or, actually, any meat inside it.
It's not that Goodell is afraid of offering offal, either. It's just that there's a limit to what his Newport Beach audience will swallow. The sheep hearts and lungs of real haggis? Not so much. But foie gras? Absolutely. Especially when turned into a mousse-like fluff, then smeared as the filling for fancy French macarons. I ate the first of the three chewy, sweet cookies that came in my order, waiting for it to clash with its salty goose-liver filling, but it never did. Instead, the sugar highlighted the savory. I devoured the other two in quick succession.
I also loved the appetizer of chicken cracklings, although the $5 price tag was a bit high for what amounts to just three potato chip-sized flecks of crunchy skin topped with tiny dollops of avocado purée, spicy nduja and aioli. For $2 more, the Kennebec fries were a better deal. A serving came out with three dipping sauces, hot in a cone, cut into non-uniform spears, each one the perfect balance of crispy blond outer crust to steaming inner core. If Goodell ever does fish and chips, as he originally planned, he already has half the equation figured out with these fries.
Until that day, and if you strike out on the chicken pot pie, an entrée of milk-braised Kurobuta pork is a worthy comfort-food consolation prize. I might even argue it's the restaurant's homiest dish since it's essentially a pork pot roast—soft and warm, the meat melting on top of creamy polenta—that an Italian grandmother would serve her brood for Sunday supper.
You may also want to consider Goodell's most expensive dish: four hand-harvested scallops patiently seared and bathed in butter, then served with asparagus and the house mushy peas. The peas, by the way, were excellent—a verdant distillation of spring and another British element from the original menu that survived the cut. The addition of it to the dish, along with salty morsels of crispy pork belly, made the scallops worth the $27 Goodell charges.
But back to the chicken pot pie. It wasn't a deconstruction, an interpretation or even an update; it's chicken pot pie in its most classic form. It reminded me of the frozen pot pies my mom brought home from the supermarket—something I've always considered a treat. Royal Hen's was better, of course, with higher quality ingredients, such as chicken that came off a whole roasted bird and gravy that tasted as if it were made from scratch. Still, this pie didn't stray from the peas-and-carrots of pot pie canon, with a golden, flaky and buttery sealed top that I tore into like a Christmas present. After I ate its contents, I used my spoon to scrape the edges for what remained of the caked-on crust. Others did the same.
“It looks like you didn't like it at all!” a server said to the blue-haired retiree as she cleared out her spotless pie plate.
“I licked it clean, didn't I?” the retiree replied, blushing. The brunette glared with jealousy.
Royal Hen, 311 Marine Ave., Newport Beach, (949) 873-5603; www.theroyalhen.com. Open Tues.-Thurs. & Sun., 4-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 4-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $30-$80, food only. Full bar.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.