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Capella Washington hires former Palena chefs Frank Ruta and Aggie Chin

Frank Ruta had, no pun intended, reservations about working for a hotel.

The former chef and owner behind Palena, the Cleveland Park institution that closed in April, worried that the layers of management typical to a hotel chain might blunt his impact on a dining room, but the Capella Washington D.C., assured Ruta that he would have complete control over menus and kitchen staff at the boutique hotel in Georgetown.

So, yes, the rumors are true: Beginning Jan. 1, Ruta will walk away from his weekly Bread Feast dinners and start work at the Capella property, which struggled to attract a local clientele in its first year of operation. Ruta has already hired his former Palena partner, Aggie Chin, to serve as pastry chef, and together, they will execute breakfast, lunch, dinner, bar and room service menus for the luxury hotel, where a room or suite can run from $500 to $7,000 a night.

Among other things, Ruta wants to make the hotel's Grill Room and Rye Bar more accessible to local diners by, perhaps, lowering price points, stripping them of their "special occasion" designation and broadening the menus beyond steaks and seafood.

"It's a hotel dining room," Ruta says about the Grill Room, a white-tablecloth operation overlooking the C&O Canal. "But we're trying to make it not a hotel dining room." The chef hopes to transform the restaurant into a regular destination for diners, much like Palena was during its 13-year run in Cleveland Park.

Ruta expects to weave more French and Italian influences into the menus. "I think we'll lean on them," the chef says. "We might do some other stuff. I don't think you can predict how things are going to evolve." He suggested that his famous truffled cheeseburger and roast chicken could make appearances, whether in the main dining room or the Rye Bar. He doesn't anticipate rolling out new menus until mid- to late-February.

Before tackling the food, Ruta says he has other tasks to handle, such as hiring a staff, evaluating the kitchen and implementing new systems. There are also key positions to fill in the dining room such as maitre d' and sommelier. Ruta has been busy placing calls to find cooks and other staffers, a task made somewhat easier with the recent closing of CityZen at the Mandarin Oriental. Ruta notes he has final say over his staff, a key point in his negotiations with Capella management.

The only concession Ruta apparently could not wrangle from management was the name of the restaurant itself. The Grill Room moniker remains.

"Unfortunately for me, the name stays," Ruta says. "But I'm not going to give up that fight."

In the meantime, Ruta and Chin will prepare three final dinners on Dec. 17-19 for Bread Feast, the multi-course meals at Mark Furstenberg's Bread Furst bakery and cafe in Van Ness. Once Ruta and Chin clear out, Furstenberg says he will take a break and ponder the future of Bread Feast. He has a few options, such as hosting family-friendly dinners, inviting local chefs to cook meals outside their usual cuisines or asking visiting chefs to prepare special dinners for their D.C. fans.

Furstenberg is leaning toward the family-friendly dinners prepared by the Bread Furst staff. The dinners would include kid-friendly dishes such as pizza and spaghetti, Furstenberg says, but "we'd do them well enough that parents would enjoy them, too."

Furstenberg expects to make a final decision in January, after the holidays.

This post was updated at 2:55 Wednesday, Dec. 10.

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