Palena Cafe, Cleveland Park

(See the September 5, 2011, Minibite here (yes, it was a play on Dalí) and the March 13, 2011, Review here.)

As things seem to be shifting eastward, from Cleveland Park towards 14UP, Palena and Palena Cafe become ever-more valuable to the suburban diner. There is parking, there is seating, and there is Frank Ruta – everything is, as it was.

An early diner, I was the first at the bar, and ordered a Gin & Tonic ($9), requesting Plymouth, and assuming I’d get Fever Tree; unfortunately, it was made with Schweppes (which uses corn syrup). Still, a decent drink made by a very courteous, professional bartender (a girl, perhaps of middle-eastern ethnicity, wearing glasses, with a few subtle tattoos).

Can someone name me another restaurant in town serving Cacciucco? ($13) Striped bass and cod in a rustic Tuscan-style fish stew, it had a refreshing lemony component in the nose, and needed to be woken up by some fresh-ground pepper and a couple pinches of salt – once these were added, the stew became irresistible. There were two slices of grilled bread on top which immediately got cut, mangled, mashed, torn, and distributed throughout the soup, underneath the surface, where they acted as a thickening agent for the broth. It was imperative that this soup was served piping hot (I realize I’ve used “piping hot” three times recently, and I need to think of a more original descriptor – I write all these reviews on the fly) because it takes some time for the broth to thicken, and it was still hot after it did – a wonderful stew that was both satisfying on the palate, and perfectly healthy to boot.

To finish the soup, a carafe of 2007 Cantina Sociale Cooperativa del Copertino Riserva ($17) from Puglia, a light-to-medium bodied red that indeed went perfectly with this tomato-based stew. My friendly bartender was also experimenting with cocktails, and I was treated to a taste of the Bivona (gratis), a thick, apricot-based cocktail made with Bourbon, and a delightful palate cleanser in between courses – I sipped it for a period of about 15 minutes, despite there being about one ounce in my glass (this was a thick drink that you want to sip, not gulp).

I’d also ordered what every diner at Palena Cafe must order: Bread ($3), and got a basket with about 8 slices in it, along with a ramekin of creamy, nicely salted butter – I only need 1/2 slice to swab up what was left of my soup, but it came in very handy with my next course: Polpettini con Polenta ($18), lamb meatballs in an Abruzzese-style sauce (also tomato-based, and thank you to my bartender for alerting me to this, fearing I was double-ordering a somewhat similar sauce), served with Pecorino Romano and a fried hen egg – the white, well-griddled; the yolk, hot and runny. Like the Cacciucco, this dish needed (and got) some fresh-ground black pepper and a few pinches of salt – Palena was a bit mild on the seasoning on this evening, but salt and pepper were all that was needed to enliven the dishes. I knew I would order this as my second course, and that had greatly influenced my wine strategy – the wine (which, by law, must consist of at least 70% Negroamaro grapes – MS and MW candidates, are you paying attention?) was a fine match for this dish which was heavy on the polpettini and somewhat light on the polenta. Palena would benefit, both financially, and qualitatively, by amping up the polenta and reducing the number of meatballs in this hearty, pleasurable, winter dish, although I suspect I’d be in a very small minority in saying that – I suppose at $18, it needs to have a fair amount of meat in it (I certainly wasn’t complaining). And, as before, my order of bread meant that not one drop of sauce remained on the plate which had been wiped clean.

This dinner was on the eve of our (hopefully) final snow of this particularly cruel winter, and knowing that I had no food in the house, I ordered my lunch for the following day as well – items that I knew would be just as good tomorrow.

The Cafe Salad ($9) was a non-decision for this situation. Consisting of local greens and lettuces, roasted beets, and a hazelnut vinaigrette, my plastic tub of hazelnut vinaigrette unfortunately did not survive the trip from my car to my front door, (during which I was carrying about four things) and popped its lid – I saved a bit of it, but not much. Fortunately, the quality of the salad’s ingredients were such that they were still perfectly enjoyable with but a few drops of dressing.

Lancaster County Rabbit “En Porchetta” ($18) has become one of Palena Cafe’s signature dishes, the boneless saddle stuffed with chard and herbs, and served with a spot of coarse, grainy, brown mustard, glazed beets, house made cornichons, Mostarda (always excellent here), and celeriac remoulade. This dish typifies Frank Ruta: many ingredients combining to form the simplest of dishes – a casual diner would never realize the labor and effort that went into this deceptive treat.

With plenty of leftover bread (which also went with my morning coffee), and some Kerrygold butter (just about the only foodstuff in my entire house), these two items were left out overnight, remoulade be damned, and made for the perfect lunch, both in terms of quality and quantity.

I’d also ordered a slice of Pineapple Upside-Down Cake ($7 – Aggie, was this you?) which I enjoyed with my coffee two mornings later. It had begun to dry out by then, of course, but it was easy to see the quality and love that went into this, and I’d love to try a fresh order one day.

A good showing for Palena Cafe – on Frank Ruta’s night off – which serves as further evidence of the decline of Washington, DC as a “great food town.” No, it isn’t “Palena Cafe” itself that’s the evidence; it’s the lack of diners in it, the customers and their money being herded to the “latest and greatest,” as annointed by the marketing experts who don’t know the first thing about cuisine. Make no mistake about it: Greatness is to be found at Palena Cafe, and so are empty seats, and so is parking. And so should you. See you there?

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