Washington diners can breathe easy for now. James Beard Award-winning chef Frank Ruta, whose mounting debt forced him to close the much-admired Palena earlier this year, will return to the kitchen next month. He and former Palena pastry chef, Aggie Chin, will collaborate on small, prix-fixe dinners at Mark Furstenberg's recently opened Bread Furst in Van Ness.
The multi-course, family-style dinners, billed as Bread Feast, are expected to begin Thursday, Sept. 11. Diners will need to check the Bread Furst Web site for the rotating menu and to make reservations. Seating will be limited for each service, Furstenberg says, likely no more than 3o to 35 guests during warm weather when Bread Furst can open its patio. There will be only one seating per night.
Much remains up in the air about the Bread Feast dinners: their frequency, their price and even how long Ruta and Chin plan to serve as the creative forces behind the meal.
"Frank is a friend, and I said to him, 'You should come here, because it would give you a chance to cook in your old neighborhood,'" Furstenberg says, noting Palena's location in nearby Cleveland Park, "and you would need not make a long-term commitment.”
Even before Palena closed, Ruta says he was fielding offers about other projects. He's still pondering a couple, but the Bread Feast gig "seemed like a good thing to do for right now.”
Ruta says many logistics need to be hammered out before he and Furstenberg determine how many dinners they'll host each week. It could be as many as five; it could be as few as two. But the pair needs to figure out how and when Bread Furst will make the transition from bakery to restaurant and other important details. Bread Furst doesn't even have the china necessary to serve dinner yet.
"It’s not a restaurant, so there are a lot of things that we have to get up and running and perfect," Ruta explains. "There’s a lot to figure out."
Ruta is advocating a slow start, perhaps with two dinners a week, and then adding more days as the systems are running smoothly.
Neither chef has a firm idea yet what the Bread Feast menu will look like, other than the general outline that chefs of Ruta's caliber typically follow: seasonal, creative, farm-driven. The menu will likely adhere closer to the one at Palena's cafe than the one in its formal dining room, borrowing influences from both America and Italy. A pasta or two might carry over from the cafe, and Ruta hopes to set up a grill outside. He even wants to incorporate Furstenberg's excellent line of breads into his meals.
"It would be hard to put a fancy place inside this bakery," Furstenberg adds. "I think it’s going to be very informal.”
Furstenberg hopes to lend a hand with the meals, perhaps offering up a fried chicken recipe, a personal favorite of his. Or maybe he'll step behind the bar once Bread Furst secures its liquor license. "Maybe I’ll be bartender from time to time," the baker says. "I’m not going to be Derek Brown, I promise you . . . But I can fix a martini."
The only thing that seems certain: The gig is temporary for Ruta. He clearly has other plans in the works, although he can't discuss them. But at least Washington hasn't lost one of his prized chefs. Ruta apparently is not headed back to Pittsburgh, his hometown, as some had feared.
"Not yet," the chef says. He may be joking. Or not.