Palena Cafe, Cleveland Park

(See the March 8, 2014 Review here.)

The following course was oven roasted sea bass with coriander and lime that was the best piece of fish I’ve eaten in years. A crispy buttery salty crust atop a moist, perfectly done thick filet, with some roasted vegetables alongside.

After picking up some wines at Weygandt Wines on Friday, I stopped into Palena Cafe for dinner, grabbing the last seat at the bar just as a trio of people got up to get their table. I opted not to pay the $25 corkage fee, despite having a trunkful of wine, and order of Palena’s list. Note: I was parked in Sam’s parking lot (the one right there), and both Weygandt and Palena stamped my ticket, giving me 1-hour of free parking each, and allowing me to park for free for the 2-hour duration I was there (it would normally have been $4/hour).

I started off my meal perusing the menu and sipping a really well-proportioned, nicely stirred Campari and Soda ($8). It was then I decided to order of the “main dining room” menu, and mimic a dinner from The Real Thing, instead of “just” the cafe (there are always about three items available from the main dining room’s menu on the cafe’s menu).

For an appetizer: Crudo ($16) of Tasmanian Sea Trout, served with blood orange sabayon, ginger, and pumpkin seed. Man, this was a wonderful, elegant plate of crudo, taking the Tasmanian Sea Trout sashimi, and one-upping it by adding the very restrained amount of sabayon (sweetness), and the “pumpkin seed” which was, yes, a few seeds, but also a few slices of unimaginably flavorful roast baby pumpkin (saltiness). This is the kind of dish I would eat every single day of my life if I was a multi-millionaire with a personal chef.

For the second part of the Crudo, I would have normally switched to a white wine, but I was sitting in front of the the Haus Alpenz-imported Dolin White Vermouth, and knew that it would go perfectly with what I was eating. An aperitif-sized glass with two rocks, and I had the perfect food-wine pairing. Don’t forget Dolin (instead of that IPA) when you’re starting off a meal.

And for my entree, I got the Striped Bass ($26) that weezy had. Slow-roasted with cardamom, bay leaf, and lime, and served with kumquats (!), glazed carrots, and baby bok choy, I am in full agreement with weezy about how great this piece of fish was. An unimaginably delicious rub, accompanied by the most elegant sauce imaginable – it was spice on silk, and one of the best fish presentations I’ve had in a long time.

This dish called for a glass of wine, and I went with a carafe (at least 1 1/2 glasses) of 2012 Paolo Scavino “Sorisso” ($15) from Langhe, a perfect blend of 40% Chardonnay (heft), 40% Sauvignon Blanc (tang), and 20% Viognier (aromatics) that sang a duet with my kumquats (stop laughing).

The food portion of this meal (the crudo and the striped bass), while reasonably ample, contained what I would bet is less than 1,000 calories. Not only was it perfect, it was also the epitome of health food.

So of course I got a carryout order of Cookies, Nougat, and Caramel ($10), and let me tell you that Pastry Chef Aggie Chin has rewritten the definition of nougat. I wasn’t sure if the top-and-bottom “lining” of the nougat was paper to pull off, but it wasn’t; it was edible film, encasing the best nougat I’ve ever eaten in my life. And thanks to the lord, there were about four pieces of it in the dessert plate. Do not overlook this great plate of treats when you order dessert here!

And yet another mind-blowing showing from Palena Cafe, technically, the main dining room. It is more important to document every single time Frank Ruta scratches his shoulder, than it is trying to run around and hit every strip-mall ethnic dive in town. Thank you to Palena Cafe for yet another magical evening.

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