Friday, June 17, 2011

Palena - 06/10/2011

3529 Connecticut Avenue Northwest
Washington D.C., DC 20008
(202) 537-9250

Somehow when looking for restaurants in DC I managed to overlook Palena despite the restaurant having been open for a decade. Moreover the restaurant has been a fixture on the Washingtonian's top 100 restaurant list since 2007 and consistently within the top 20 and twice within the top 5 to boot. Palena is run by Chef Frank Ruta who turns out Italian-inspired New American cuisine at this restaurant and more casual fare at the adjoining cafe. The main dining room offers two menus, a three course prix fixe and a five course tasting, naturally I opted for the longer menu.

Oddly in a time when top chefs are becoming celebrities in their own right, Chef Ruta is renowned for avoiding the spotlight at all costs. Chef Ruta's professional career began at the American Culinary Federation in Pittsburg where he graduated second in his class in 1978. The next year saw him moving south before settling in DC for the first of two stints at the White House where he would remain for 8 years. After an 18 month sabbatical to Andrea in Italy where he studied under Andreus Helrigl, Chef Ruta returned to the White House at the personal request of Nancy Reagan. After leaving again in 1991 Frank bounced around a number of positions before taking his first Executive Chef position at The River Club in Georgetown. In 2000, after working in industry for over 20 years, Chef Ruta finally opened his own restaurant Palena which is named for his mother's home town in the Abruzzo region of Italy.

Canape 01: Goat Cheese Panna Cotta - asparagus, sausage
First up was a small tangy cuboid of goat cheese and asparagus panna cotta; the accompaniments of asparagus and sausage just felt disjointed against the the pungency of the goat cheese.

Canape 02: Cheese Fritter
Unfortunately I don't remember the exact name of this canape but it was delicious. Grilled to a savory twist and accented with a distinct twang from the cheese this reminded me of an elevated grilled cheese sandwich.

01: Chilled Curry Bisque - Maryland crab garnish, cucumber, thai basil, and pickled ramps
First up was a rather thought provoking course, and one that I'm still not sure if I like or not With cucumber, Thai basil, and pickled onions, I was expecting a lighter more delicate flavor for the soup. Instead the thick potage is brazenly dark and almost bitter at times. Quite the contrast from the refreshing vegetal elements and sweet crab.

02: White Aspargus - Roasted with anchovy and summer truffle with toasted brioche and a coddled organic pheasant egg
Sometimes the simplest looking dishes are the most impressive. What is little more than an open faced sandwich proved to be the most enjoyable course of the night. The flavors of the asparagus, greens, and egg were on point and perfectly harmonious. The anchovy's potent salinity was key to giving the dish sufficient seasoning and the truffle adds the right touch of earthy luxury.

03: Slow Cooked Sitka Sound Alaska Wild King Salmon - Soft asparagus crust, crispy fried pencil asparagus tips
The salmon was cooked in name only, with cooked its color and mouthfeel more akin to the raw form of the fish. The salmon was clearly the star of the show, immensely tender and exuding heady fish oils and a palpable oceanic brine, it completely overwhelmed the subdued flavor of the asparagus.

04: Risi e Bisi - Vintage carnaroli rice with a variety of Path Valley peas, Amarone jus and our lightly smoked ham
In keeping with the springtime emphasis on bright vegetables, Palena's risotto is infused with a soothing green hue and the characteristic earthy sweetness of fresh peas. The ham was a nice touch adding an undercurrent of porcine richness that reminded me of a split pea soup.

05: Gilson Martin's Pennsylvania Raised Lamb - Marinated and roasted loin, glazed cippolini and asparagus, Pomerol sauce
A very refined lamb dish, the meat possesses a dense succulent tenderness and simple meaty sapor but none of the heady game that I typically associate with lamb. The sweet onion and thick stalks of asparagus complete the typical meat and vegetable pairing but aren't particularly impressive.

06: Goat Cheese Bavarian - Rhubarb frozen yogurt, Manjari dark chocolate, mint
I was surprised to find that the goat cheese was far more effective here than the earlier panna cotta. The tang of the cheese was tempered by the sweeter elements of the dish resulting in a balanced savory sweet attack accented by hints of dark chocolate and mint.

A trio of homemade sweets: truffle, macaroon and salted caramel end the meal on a high note.

One can almost taste Chef Ruta's deliberate and methodical personality in the food at Palena. Aside from the first canape, the food feels especially polished and refined. While not the most innovative cuisine, the dishes are well thought out and the execution spot-on; truly a fitting tribute to the "cucina genuina" of his heritage.

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