Finally, after all these years, Palena Cafe gets its very own identity: They are wisely (*) not offering the dining room menu in either of the cafe areas anymore. There are two separate kitchens upstairs, and there is currently no overlap (or very little overlap) between them; the old downstairs kitchen will be for bread, pastry, etc.
If you’ve never actually seen Frank Ruta, now’s your chance! He looks fit and lean, and I’ve never seen him as stoked (*) as he was last night.
Do not hesitate to order one of the least expensive bottles of wine on the list when dining here. The 2009 Baudry-Dutour Chinon RosÃ© ($35) may not seem intuitive, but the deeper you plumb this menu, i.e., if you want to try vegetables, seafood, pasta, and meat during the same meal, this is the wine that will take you “from head to tail.” It’s a Chinon (from the Loire Valley), thus made with 100% Cabernet Franc, the lighter-colored wine bled off the top of the vats in order to make the rosÃ© (and to give their “regular” red Chinon more pigment). It’s dry, weighs in at a healthy (but not excessive) 12.7% alcohol, and has all the components you need for the entire meal. Get this wine because it works with nearly everything.
A controversy has apparently ensued over Palena charging $3 for a basket of bread and grissini, whereas before it was complimentary. Keep charging it, I say, and maintain the integrity of product. Three types of house-filtered water (still, sparkling, room temperature) are free.
And you’ll still get some of that bread if you order the right snacks. Smoky Tuna Rillettes ($5) comes as a spread, and brings back haunting memories of Underwood Deviled Ham (in a good way)! Deviled Eggs ($3) are three halves, spiced, peppered, and oiled just right, and remind me that the Ruta kitchen has become bolder in recent years with its subtle use of non-traditional spices.
One thing about me is that I’m a notoriously slow eater, and while noshing on these snacks, the Chinon somehow disappeared. So from the wood-fired grill, next in line was an absolute no-brainer: Octopus ($14), with chick pea purÃ©e, marjoram, and lemon. Wood-fired grill items come with a choice of one side (normally $7), and so I asked the inexplicably underrated Kelli Walbourn to recommend both a carafe of white wine (a 2009 Argiolas Nuragus di Cagliarai “S’elegas” from Sardinia ($12)), and our server Kelly (who recently came from Addie’s) to ask the kitchen to choose an appropriate side (Roasted Broccoli with Pecorino Sardo). Want your octopus fork-tender? Then stay away from here and go to Cuisine Solutions. This is exactly what a great octopus tentacle should be: a knife-and-fork cut, with great chew and proper char. There were little “white things” in the broccoli dish that were clearly not the shavings of Pecorino, and so Kelli volunteered to go on a fact-finding mission to the kitchen — not surprisingly, they were the shaved innards of the broccoli stalks themselves. This has Frank Ruta all over it — head to tail, even with broccoli. And it was brilliant.
Remember the name Agnes Chin. She’s Palena’s new pastry chef, and the desserts here ($9) are as good as they’ve ever been. Autumn Sundae with pumpkin pie sorbet, gingerbread ice cream, pumpkin bread croutons, and brown sugar streusel; Almond Quince Cake with poached quince and almond milk ice cream; and Brown Butter Apple Tart with Earl Grey ice cream and bergamot caramel were all tremendous for their complexity, seasonality, and just plain old primitive hedonism. If I can make one small nitpick, it would be that there was a certain “sameness” to all three (there were six desserts on the menu) — these three movements were all marked Allegro con Gusto. And yet, there’s not a single one I would have given up.
In what has largely been a multi-year decline in the DC dining scene (yeah, I said it), this is one opening that has me firing on all cylinders. Not only because we’ll all have a better chance of getting a seat at Palena Cafe! But …
(*) … because this is only going to make the back dining room (now featuring 3 courses + dessert, $69; and 5 courses + dessert, $82) better, the key, freeing it from the shackles of cheeseburgers and roast chicken: We now have two supercomputers running in parallel, each performing its own function.