Palena Cafe, Cleveland Park

(See December 1, 2010 Review here).

Palena Cafe has taken some recent criticism on the internet for … existing, but also for expanding, for no longer offering the back-room menu, and for some reported service glitches as well. Last Monday evening (January 24th), there was an all-star team of chefs out in force to support Frank Ruta & Company: in separate parties were Barry Koslow, Johnny Monis, Peter Pastan, and Eric Ziebold.

While Ruta maintains a strong presence in the Cafe (he was greeting customers on the floor for a solid hour), the Chef de Cuisine is Jonathan Copeland – Ruta runs the connected kitchen which serves the main dining room (of course, he’s always only a few feet away which never hurts in a pinch).

At 8:30 PM on a Monday evening, there was a 30-minute wait for a table, but it was worth it – not a crumb of food remained on the table, and it’s not just because the portion sizes are a bit on the small side.

The Bread Basket ($3) is worth getting unless you’re ordering something that already comes with bread (hamburger, terrine, etc.). I got a taste of some of my friends’ dishes, but not really enough to comment on, so I’ll stick with the ones I ordered.

Burrata ($16) is listed on the menu as “for 2-3 people,” but it’s really only enough for two. Served with sweet potato and cured olive stew, it comes with more grilled bread than it needs. I’ve had great Burratas before, and none greater than some that I’ve had at Palena, but I thought this particular version was a bit rubbery, and perhaps a couple days past its prime. Honestly, it was a bit disappointing for $16.

Being one-quarter Italian, I grew up on chicken cacciatore, and could not resist Palena’s Cacciatore ($20) because I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen one on any menu. Served with only one perfectly braised organic chicken leg, with white wine and vegetables, and an oven-fried farmer egg, it was delicious, and needed only a milling of salt to wake it up. I can easily see someone saying this dish is too expensive (after all, it is $20 for one leg of chicken), but it was worth it for me.

Among the desserts were a Bittersweet Chocolate Tart ($9) with candied blood orange and orange caramel, and a Lemon Posset ($9) with honey madeleines and lemon-thyme sorbet. In my December 1st review, I raved about the desserts here, and my only complaint was that there was a certain “sameness” to them – well, that sameness is completely gone, but I really think the desserts I had last month were a lot better, both in terms of price and execution. These two desserts were good, but not up to Palena snuff (the madeleines are an example, although the candied blood orange was (forgive me) bloody awesome).

On a repeat visit last night (Saturday, January 29th), I ordered very differently, and had an even better dinner.

Last Monday, I got nibbles of two pasta dishes that I thought were spectacular; this time around I ordered one for myself, the Tagliatelle ($14) with shrimp, calamaretti, chilis, lemon-toasted bred crumbs, and bottarga. A sensational little bowl of pasta that went perfectly with a carafe of the 2009 Paitin Arneis Langhe “Elisa” from Piedmont ($14 for 8 ounces). The calamaretti was not included in this dish just five days before, so that should tell you something about how often Palena changes and tweaks its menu depending on freshness and availability.

Humanely Raised Calves Liver ($14) surprised me because the liver was cut into three cylinders, each wrapped in house-made pancetta, and served with onion marmalade, outstanding glazed turnips and apples, and just the right amount of mustard sauce (too much would have been too much, but it wasn’t).

The CafĂ© Salad ($9) looked wonderful, if hastily plated, but I only got to stare at it; on the other hand, I took one bite of a terrific little plate of Wood Grilled Artichokes ($12) with zesty greens and aioli – this dish is more complex than the menu describes, and if you don’t mind a small portion, then I would urge any vegetarian out there to order this.

I tried the same two desserts as last time, the Bittersweet Chocolate Tart ($9) and the Lemon Posset ($9), and they were exactly the same this time around – consistent, but not at all spectacular. Bring the December desserts back, please!

Since I’ve started writing these reviews in December, Palena Cafe is only the second restaurant I’ve been to three times – there’s a good reason for that, and it won’t be long before I’m back yet again.

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