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Tom Sietsema on enhanced Palena: Dining Room shines, enlarged Cafe loses a pinch of luster

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, February 13, 2011; W31

"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.

Remember the spots on the carpet and the service that didn't always match the sophistication of the food? They're gone. The tables in the refreshed Dining Room have also been upgraded with luxe linens and arty plates.

As for the service, it now hovers right up there with that of the esteemed Komi, which is where Ruta found maitre d' Sean Alves, the suave and entertaining overseer of Palena's fine-dining concept. His staff moves through the room with the easy grace of dancers to a backdrop of classical music. One delightful amuse bouche is followed by another. A snack of grilled artichoke decked out with prosciutto and strewn with toasted sourdough crumbs is so sumptuous, I could have made a meal of more of them.

There are two ways to explore the Dining Room. One is to opt for the four-course "Taste of the Season," in which there typically are three choices per course. The other approach, "Tonight's Proposed Meal," is six courses, with everything decided for you by the chef. Eager to sample a variety of dishes with my guests, I prefer the first path.

The rewards are rich. Ruta serves food that a lot of other chefs do, but why does his foie gras terrine taste so much finer? Maybe it's a core of veal heart. Perhaps it's the thinly sliced veal tongue that borders the plate. Then again, mustard-laced fingerling potatoes and cushions of brioche elevate the first course, too.

The chef's consomme inspires another question: Why don't more chefs offer it? His golden broth, drawn from oxtails, is decorated with thin coins of carrot and tidbits of cauliflower, but also tender twists of pasta and just-warmed-through sweetbreads. Divine.

Sauternes and butter are a liquid canvas for tiny, delicate-tasting oysters that get pricks of flavor from grapefruit and ginger. Squab is lapped with an intense, subtly sweet sauce made with the game bird's liver and some port. The entree comes with an emulsion of the same sauce that disappears into the dish but surfaces in every bite. Loup de mer is a perfect piece of fish bedded on beadlike Sardinian pasta swollen with hints of saffron, tomato and vinegar. The centerpiece needs no embellishment, but if you squeeze onto the fish the accompanying slice of lightly cured lemon bonded to a bay leaf, you add a Mediterranean breeze to the scene.

Agnes Chin, 26, is the talent behind the dazzling chocolate torte set off with tiny chocolate tiles and a glorious malted caramel parfait made with dacquoise. Working from the original downstairs kitchen, the July graduate of L'Academie de Cuisine bakes with a finesse that complements her boss's savory contributions. As always, there are sweets bringing up the rear of the fixed-price menu, including buttery caramels bound in wax paper. "For your pocket," suggests Alves, the maitre d'.

They never make it that far.

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.

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Palena

Dining room: Three and a half stars(Excellent/Superlative)

Cafe: Two and a half stars (Good/Excellent)

3529 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-537-9250.

hours: Dining Room: Dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Cafe: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

prices: Dining Room: Four courses $69; six courses $82. Cafe: Lunch appetizers $8 to $14; entrees $13 to $19; dinner appetizers $9 to $14; entrees $13 to $26.

Sound check: Dining Room: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy.

Cafe: 79 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

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