2011 Fall Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Whenever I get homesick for San Francisco, where I once roosted, I head to the cafe at Palena. If there's one restaurant in Washington that comes close to the California ideal - profound freshness and easy elegance - it's this golden-lighted Cleveland Park creation of former White House chef Frank Ruta. His salads are gorgeous, his wood-fired pizza is better than ever, and if there's saffron pasta with sweet crab on the menu, go for the feathery, chili-kissed composition. Whatever you order here tends to be superior to its match elsewhere in town, be it a gin gimlet that arrives with crushed emerald herbs floating on its surface, a seafood stew that summons a coastal village in Italy or even a doughnut (Palena's is orange-scented and lemon-glazed). Introducing the pleasures are attentive and gracious servers; helping out the home cook is Ruta's tiny food shop, where the chef sells some of the same ingredients - pasta from Naples, local honey, pumpkin moutarde - he uses in one of the best restaurants anywhere.
Dining Room shines at enhanced Palena
Enlarged Cafe loses a pinch of luster
By Tom Sietsema
February 13, 2011
"We moved from Logan Circle to Cleveland Park to be closer to Palena."
If the stranger had invoked the name of just about any other restaurant in Washington, I would have smiled and quietly dismissed the statement as hyperbole. But there he and I were, sitting just a table away from each other at the newly expanded establishment in question, our significant others in tow and some uncommonly beautiful plates of food in front of us.
Yes, I found myself saying to the stranger and his wife, I could see myself relocating for more dates with chef Frank Ruta's cooking, too.
If the names don't register, either you just landed in town or you haven't been able to indulge in the Washington food scene. For a decade now, under the conscientious watch of the former White House chef, Palena has been the go-to destination for food that marries Italy with France and relies heavily on things the master makes himself, from the vinegars for the salads to the grissini in the bread basket. Since 2003 and the addition of a cafe menu in the front of the restaurant, Palena has also won hearts and stomachs with first-rate versions of comfort food. Many have tried, but no one grills a better burger than Ruta, who prefers the role of chef's chef to "Top Chef."
The formerly spotlight-averse Ruta, 53, responded to his restaurant's 10th anniversary by expanding his brand. By taking over the former Magruder's market space next door, Ruta was able to install a wood-fired oven, move his cooks from cramped basement quarters to two adjoining kitchens upstairs and triple the number of seats for patrons of the Cafe. His cozy Dining Room, meanwhile, got a little more refined.
The refigured Palena Cafe has been met with as many barbs as bouquets. "There's no decor!" some critics complain, as if the original had ever been considered by Architectural Digest. "They charge $3 for bread!" they lament.
Granted, yellow paint and a few mirrors do not a photo spread make, but for the first time, diners can see Ruta's fine cooks in action, thanks to the Cafe's open kitchen. The spare design definitely keeps one's focus on the food. (And isn't $3 a small price to pay for very good bread?)
I seldom leave Palena without ordering pasta. In Ruta's hands, rigatoni is presented as tender rings of pasta tossed with loose spiced sausage and bits of rapini: home cooking, elevated. Tagliatelle is scattered with halved shrimp that have been sauteed in butter flavored with their shells; chilies weigh in with some heat, bread crumbs zapped with lemon deliver some bright crunch. A master of restraint, Ruta is his own best editor.
The Cafe's growth means its perfectionist lead doesn't have control over everything anymore. From that glowing domed oven come a chicken that is good but doesn't approach the glorious roast fowl I remember, and pizzas whose sturdy crusts take a back seat to their decoration. (Fresh spinach with pinches of fresh ricotta sparked with lemon zest are among the stellar toppings.) The delicate and greaseless fried seafood plate that had a lot of us swooning is a tad heavier these days. "We have a long way to go," Ruta told me in a recent phone interview.
Yes and no. Where, with the possible exception of Rome or San Francisco, have you had better roasted artichokes, lashed with a vinaigrette and best enjoyed after a swab in sunny aioli? In addition to steak frites there is tuna frites, deftly seasoned and cooked just right. People often ask me what my favorite food is, and my typical response surprises them, because my preference is for what's simple, expertly prepared. If you think all liver and onions tastes the same, for instance, the version in the Cafe will change your mind. The organ meat is staged as little totems in sheaths of thin pancetta, each silken morsel dappled with mustard sauce and flecked with airy sea salt and a crack of pepper.
Like everything that comes before it, dessert in the Cafe is a little less fussy. It should also be mandatory for anyone trying to earn a foodie badge. Banana tart with crackling bruleed fruit and fragrant honey-kissed madeleines, served warm from the oven and fanned over a fennel-laced orange marmalade, are just two reasons to linger at the table after entrees are cleared.
I have a hunch the Cafe will only improve in the months to come. But even now, more Palena is a pretty good thing.
Read Tom Sietsema's accompanying review of Palena's Dining Room.