Why are we the only customers in the Dining Room at Palena in Cleveland Park? I can only believe it’s because it’s early in the week in August and Washingtonians are still away. Or everyone is eating in Palena’s more gently priced cafe a wall away. Anyway, “Tastes of the Season,” a four-course sonnet from chef-owner Frank Ruta, deserves a bigger audience.
His rich foie gras terrine with totems of sweet-and-sour eggplant and a sprinkling of black-eyed peas is an urban landscape with a little country thrown in, while his tender sweet corn agnolotti with truffles from Umbria and buttery burrata cheese and basil capture summer in every forkful. Chatham cod roasted with lime and lavender is a divine fist of fish set on sliced potatoes, a shimmering parsley coulis and “locally foraged mushrooms,” a suave server points out. Meanwhile, spiced duck is nearly upstaged by its accompaniments: crisp wax beans, marcona almonds and juicy, juniper-kissed peaches.
Desserts are sweeter than I remember. If you’re anything like me, though, you’ll devour the plate of confections — tiny blueberry macarons and such — that precede the bill.
The room is as spare as ever. It’s a comfort, however, to see linens on tables, a rarity anymore, and not to have to shout through dinner. Plus, with food this enticing, interior distractions aren’t necessary.