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Photography by Greg Powers

The Greater Good

by By Mary Beth Albright | DC magazine | February 5, 2011

During Snowpocalypse a year ago, my husband and I bundled up and trudged through the swirling tundra to a snug café room in Cleveland Park. We were the first people in at 5:30PM, but not the last. Six o’clock chimed with every seat taken. A typical night at Palena, it was a scene—for everyone but the chef.

            Famously fame-averse Frank Ruta keeps such a low profile that a friend recently asked me if he was still cooking. This is a lot like asking whether Daniel Boulud is still with Daniel. Ruta and Palena are inseparable, and in an age when celebrated chefs can brand anything from toasters to sunglasses, it’s refreshing to encounter a cook singularly focused on cooking for his diners.             Not that Ruta has gone unnoticed. First Ladies love him. As a White House chef, his meaty, refined consommé shot Nancy Reagan to the stars faster than her astrologer. Last November, Michelle Obama dined on Ruta’s subtly swooning French/Italian flavors one room over from my happily feasting two-year-old. Ruta’s just-expanded café and kitchen at his decade-old restaurant is a cause for a soulful, savory celebration.             “What are they trying to improve?” whined Palena devotees when notified of the upcoming changes. In a setting that doubled in size mere weeks ago and is already apologetically offering 90-minute table waits, loyalists nail-bite over Palena delivering its trademark style, substance and deliciousness. But increased capacity is half the story, along with a new cavernous wood-burning oven, wood-fired grill and talented pastry chef.             Palena offers two dining experiences, the no-reservations café and the already-booked-for-Valentine’s dining room. The latter already reigned as DC’s best white tablecloth experience; now it has its own kitchen, rather than sharing a kitchen with the café. The aforementioned consommé still thrills, recently paired with floating foie gras slivers and partridge raviolini—but the menu changes twice or more each week, and truffles or seasonal vegetables are equally worthy accompaniments. “I’m intent on elevating the dining room, making it even more special,” Ruta says. It feels that way.             Technical refinement extends to the café in a $12 squash soup with delicate Brussels sprout leaves and barley.
Wood-grilled swordfish with lemons, olives and bay is as juicy as a summer peach. It’s my seafood mainstay.             In Ruta’s café, the familiar becomes interesting and the unfamiliar turns comforting. The burger is too good to saddle with “burger” baggage, and the only one in town I order rare for the full experience of the delicately flavored (and treated) hand-ground meat. What started as a staff meal—layered with truffle cheese on a soft brioche bun—is a symphony to other burgers’ ditties.             I order “bucatini et polpetini” whenever it’s on the menu, just to experience the name roll off my tongue. “I like naming things,” Ruta says of the hollow spaghetti coated inside and out with magically robust and light tomato sauce, topped with tender veal meatballs. “It goes back to my White House days.” He’s dubbed wild onions pulled from his own backyard garden “Arlington Ramps”—a sure sign of a chef with a sense of humor and connection to his food, his diners, his sense of place.             The Bitter End cocktail (Campari, vodka and lush chocolate bitters) is a perfect, almost necessary, astringent accompaniment to the decadent Palena fry plate, tossed fried potatoes, dauphin potatoes, onions and lemons with a side of Sriracha-topped mayonnaise. Each cleansing sip prepares my palate for the next rich bite, and vice versa. Ruta occasionally temporarily removes the fry plate from the menu, and he’s done it of late. This is tragic. I’ve pleaded for its quick return. The fritto misto plate with seafood, broccoli, and lemons, fried in the same light and perfect batter is quite good but usually makes an appearance when the fry plate disappears. It always arrives with a tinge of sadness.             But restaurants are living entities that grow and evolve, lest they turn from familiar to stale. Remember, nail-biting loyalists, that Palena started as just a dining room; the café debuted in 2002, serving robust crispy roast chicken with a bigger cult following than the Birkin bag. Ruta’s current wood-cooking lifts the bird to new heights with a delicately smoky note that I never missed before and now can’t live without. Wood-fired pizza at Palena’s new lunch service is tangy from a 20-year-old dough puncher, slightly thicker than Neapolitan style, but still judicious in size. Ruta’s savant abilities nail correct portion size, providing one or two bites more than necessary for satisfaction.             Where the kitchen thrills, the revamped seating area sometimes trills. Original century-old marble floors and wide windows feel expansive, but offer a more boisterous experience than the cozy original café space (still available for seating upon request). A mix of piped-in jazz, blues and indie-folk music is calming and familiar.             Palena’s staff mastered serving food with friendly calm in the former space. You’ll benefit from their professionalism, as doubling the number of seats is less evolution than growth spurt, and occasional waits for drinks or bread baskets are expected hiccups. This is a place you come for tuck-into-your-table comfort and for Ruta’s unpretentious ability to endow a spare space or simple-seeming dish with powerful emotional resonance and sensational seasonal flavor.             Ruta’s low profile as a chef is intentional, especially now that increased volume gives his support staff added creative opportunity. In a world of sommeliers-come-lately, Palena’s multitalented floor director Kelli Walbourn pairs wines from her longtime knowledge of Ruta’s cooking. New pastry chef Aggie Chin already mirrors Ruta’s sixth sense of transcending the formula of a familiar food. A sundae of pumpkin sorbet and crunchy, spicy gingerbread croutons rivals her seasonally delicious gingersnaps, a new addition to the beloved cookie and caramel plate. Order anything with cream—clotted or whipped or iced. Donuts return when Palena opens for weekend brunch this month. They had been on permanent hiatus since legendary area-baker Ann Amernick left the partnership a few years ago. I expect equally long lines for fritter love affairs the second time around.             Palena was once a kitchen-in-the-basement place, a throwback to before chefs signed autographs. I suspect that Ruta wears prominent black eyeglasses when he cooks so that no one recognizes him when he takes them off. This chef doesn’t aim for his food to be any more “accessible” than he is, but on this single point he comes up short. Each new dish arrives like an old friend.   Palena Restaurant Rating: ***** 3529 Connecticut Ave., NW, 202.537.9250, palenarestaurant.‌com   What the stars mean: * = fair, some noteworthy qualities; **= good, above average; ***= very good, well above norm; ****= excellent, among the area’s best; *****= world-class, extraordinary
in every detail.   Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.   Who’s There: Me, all the time. I bought my house because of Palena’s half-mile proximity and should have escrowed Palena money with my property taxes.   Good to Know: Tavola di Perpetua e Felicità, the café’s nose-to-tail beef feast available with 24-hours’ notice, is café chef Jonathan Copeland’s brainchild. A centuries-old tradition? Nah, on a whim the kitchen named it after the patron saint of beef.   Coming Soon: Palena Market, serving take-home pantry staples and versions of the restaurant’s snappy grissini, fluffy and crusty white bread and dense and chewy brown bread. I suppose I’ll stop stuffing extra into my purse.   Hours: Dining room, Tues.–Sat. 5:30-10pm. Café lunch Tues.–Sat. 11:30am-2pm. Café dinner, Mon.–Sat. 5:30-10pm.   What it costs: Dining room three- and five-course menus ($69-$82). Café starters $8-$14, pasta and pizze $12-$14, entrées $12-$24, snacks $3-$6, sides $7, desserts $9.