|This is the most incredible roasted chicken. Seriously.|
It may be a cliché to say that Palena is the jewel of Upper Northwest D.C. dining but it's true. In an area of the city with many restaurants but few great ones, Palena stands out as the leader of the pack, offering consistently well-executed and satisfying dishes. I've yet to try the restaurant's tasting menu, but I'm no stranger to Palena's cafe, the casual (and more affordable) dining experience that used to be the restaurant's bar menu but has since expanded to comprise the bulk of the operation.
The cafe's main dining room, which was added when the restaurant was remodeled and expanded in 2010, features low lighting and big windows that look out onto the Cleveland Park neighborhood. It's a cozy feeling akin to sitting in your family room with the lights off.
Identifying the restaurant's signature dish is tricky. For a long time, I would have insisted it was the cheeseburger, which earlier this year I declared the winner in my Burger Madness challenge to find the city's best burger (and I'm far from alone in saying so). The burger is served simply, just a perfectly cooked patty with some truffle-enhanced cheese and garlicky mayonnaise. No salad necessary. You can tell its a signature dish, since it's one of just two menu items with the restaurant's name in title.
The other would be the roasted chicken, which is absolutely divine. It rivals Zuni Cafe for the best chicken I've ever had in a restaurant. The half chicken breast with attached wing is so incredibly juicy with crisp skin. The seasoning is a bit of a mystery. I tasted clove, but others have said it's cardamon, star anise, vanilla or tarragon. I've read online that Chef Frank Ruta doesn't share the recipe; however, during a recent online chat with the Washington Post's restaurant critic Tom Sietsema, I learned that Ruta brines the chicken with sweet spices and garlic, changing the flavors through the seasons, and then cooks the chicken "hot and quick" in a wood-fired oven.
The wood-fired oven is also used to churn out pizzas, which are good, but not spectacular. They are the only thing I've eaten at Palena that hasn't blown me away. Still, if you find yourself in Cleveland Park on a Sunday evening craving pizza, you could do far worse than try Palena's pies, which are constructed with simple pairings that sound authentically Italian.
Pastas are another sure winner. The lobster roe tagliatelle is particularly good, served with generous portions of lump crab meat, spotted skate wing and chilis for a little kick. But it's the dish's lemony toasted breadcrumbs that really make it sing. A recent rigatoni with sausage and tomato was also very good. Of course, in both cases, the pasta was cooked to a perfect al dente. Another winner: the potato gnocchi, which I had topped with warm, buttery sweet corn, lima beans and cheese.
For starters, you can't go wrong with a good salad. The Caesar features two romaine hearts with a bright lemon-anchovy dressing, fried capers, parmesan and a fried lemon slice that brings back memories of the famous Palena Fry Plate, which has been unfortunately M.I.A. from the menu the last few years (please Chef Ruta, we'd love if you brought it back. It goes so nicely with those juicy cheeseburgers). Also good is the cafe salad of perfectly roasted beets and hazelnuts served on greens.
As long as corn is in season, I hope the cafe continues to offer the corn brulee tart with peaches for dessert. The exquisite sweet just might make me a peach fan yet. Sadly, I've tried few of Palena's other pastries. I've always made such a pig of myself by the time the dessert menu comes that I usually pass.
One of the reasons I like Palena so much is that its food reminds me a bit of my own, an eclectic homey mix with a decidedly Italian bent, although obviously executed at a level well beyond my means. I could only hope to stick poultry in the oven or a burger on the grill and have them come out as masterfully perfect as Frank Ruta makes them.
Palena Café, 3529 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. (Cleveland Park), (202) 537-9250. Reservations: City Eats.