Palena: Still on top

Palena, one of the city’s well-regarded culinary gems, sits on the quiet end of a Cleveland Park strip mall; its backlit black sign and traditional windowed front are a tranquil contrast to the neon lights of its strip neighbors. With more than 10 years of unflagging success in Washington’s restaurant world, Palena doesn’t need to be showy to fill its tables. 

Chef Frank Ruta opened his Italian culinary monument, naming it after his mother’s Abruzzo hometown, in 2000. Prior to that, Ruta served at the pleasure of a series of pre-eminent families in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (e.g., the Carters, Reagans and Bushes) and earned culinary stripes at a two-star Michelin restaurant in Italy, at Le Pavilion and Yannick’s under the wing of Yannick Cam, and then at the River Club in Georgetown. 

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Given this pedigree, it’s no wonder Ruta is still tantalizing the taste buds of powerbrokers, well-heeled American University students and pasta aficionados alike. Not only that, but Ruta is on the eve of opening Palena Market next door to Palena in the former Magruder’s footprint. Just weeks from serving its first cheeseburger, the space will expand the café menu and capacity and include a wood-burning oven and grill. 

The original dual restaurant (the Café and Dining Room) are virtually untouched by the Market expansion; one recent Friday, every seat was claimed by well-sated diners, perched at the bar, cradled in a booth or tucked behind a white tablecloth-clad corner table in the dining room. While the walk-in café does a steady clip serving casual, a la carte Italian- and French-inflected dishes, the dining room in the back of the restaurant is reserved for Ruta’s more high-minded — and higher-priced — Italian-focused prix fixe meals. Here, you’re in for a minimum of three courses ($58), with four ($67) and five ($76) also options; you choose your dishes from a diverse arrangement of first, second and main courses that are seafood intensive, seasonally apt and enhanced by intriguing ingredients, like crab apple mostarda, smoked octopus and cockscomb. 

First-course standouts included the fall consommé and Portuguese sardines, which individually featured a host of textural and flavor contrasts. The consommé, enriched with oxtail, was crystal-clear, deeply flavored and gilded with tender bites of acorn squash raviolini, miniature flotillas of fatty foie gras and sunken treasures of pink corned veal shank that gave the dish even more substance. The cockscomb — the wiggly red baubles on a rooster’s head — was a curiosity-piquing addition to the soup, its texture blurring the lines between tender, springy and crunchy. But its chicken-fat flavor didn’t go out of its way to invite back the spoon. (It’s an acquired taste and texture that a diner tends to like or dislike.)

In the category of oily fish, the sardines performed well, the filets festooned with slivers of tomato and apple made into a tangy-sweet marinade. The only vegetarian option, a roasted and shaved heirloom beet salad, was pretty, but the beauty was only skin-deep. While the beets were nicely roasted and vibrantly colored in shades of gold, dark fuchsia and candy-stripe, the other salad components were out of whack and overwhelmed the careful earthy flavor of the featured root vegetable. One bite gave a mouthful of horseradish while other forkfuls were made bawdy by whole cumin seeds or overly pungent shavings of Pipe Dream goat cheese. 

Second courses were replete in seafood and starch. The hand-cut saffron noodles, threaded with flakes of Maryland lump crab, were golden, buttery and delicate — seemingly light and un-filling, but surely not in any category of reduced-calorie. Sturgeon was an eye-catching menu item (its scarcity due to depleted fish stocks worldwide); the meaty white fish was wrapped in house-made pancetta, which provided the effect of a crisped skin, and served on a tomato-y broth with rice and a medley of fork-tender seasonal vegetables. 

The suitably named creamy cannellini beans and braised fennel fans, cooked to a pleasantly yielding texture, were the stars of the roasted Chatham cod dish. The spotlight could have been on the lightly smoked octopus, but because the dish was served without the octopus, who could know? (The server never accounted for the missing cephalopod — even when asked about its absence.) The cod was tasty, but not as good as the legumes and vegetables. For the vegetarian diner at the table, the kitchen made the Yukon gold potato gnocchi al ragù sans ragù; the portion seemed diminutive, especially without the added bulk of the veal Bolognese sauce. The flavors were rich, no doubt from the fonduta and reggiano cheese. However, the gnocchi, although tender, were undercooked and doughy. 

The main-course menu included two fish dishes, chicken and humanely raised veal. The Bobo Farms chicken breast was ordered precisely for the foie gras sauce — and that is precisely why it should be ordered again. The sauce was unctuous, intensely savory and perfectly suited to the mild flavors of the chicken breast, barley and squash. Slow-cooked loup de mer with gulf shrimp presented itself nicely in its bowl, adorned with vibrant, curling pea tendrils and edged in red paprika sauce. The fish was tender and pleasant, just like the plump shrimp; the glazed radish and turnips were made sweeter by the presence of purple-skinned fresh Mission figs.

A dessert course is a foregone conclusion to every prix fixe meal at Palena. Since the departure of pastry queen Ann Amernick, Ruta has taken over the dessert menu. He did well in offering a chocolate-hazelnut cake that will satisfy just about any cacao lover and by spinning a Concord grape sorbet that redefines grape sorbet altogether for its silky texture and unadulterated Concord grape flavor (the accompanying wine-soaked pumpkin was gratuitous). But Ruta hit a home run with his warm Honey Crisp apple pie. The crust was lightly crisped on the outside and tender next to the thinly sliced apple filling that’s cooked only enough to take the hard edge off the fruit and leave a snappy, sweet-tart interior. If you were never an apple pie person, this dish might convert you.

What keeps Palena humming after all these years is not only Ruta’s fierce dedication to top-notch ingredients, but also his straightforward approach to cooking flavorful food. There are no bells and whistles, trendy culinary catch-phrases or even a whisper of a foam or gel to be found on any dish. That’s not to say his food is unexciting — he changes his menus daily to adjust to what’s available, so you could go weekly and have something new each time. What Palena offers is consistently great food — with no guessing or pondering about how he makes fish with a chicken skin or fennel into a foam — in a relaxed fine-dining setting. Ruta makes running a successful restaurant — not to mention expanding during a recession — seem so easy.