January 2007: 100 Very Best Restaurants

No. 4: Palena and Palena Cafe 

You may know Palena by its partridge-and-foie-gras terrine, so luxurious you imagine Marie Antoinette nodding approval. Or maybe it’s the kitchen’s killer hot dog with kraut. Frank Ruta’s Cleveland Park gem may be elegant throughout, but it’s really two restaurants in one.

The dining room in back remains one of the finest spots for a five-course dinner, but these days a banquette in the bar area—which Ruta converted into a no-reservations, jeans-friendly cafe—is the place to be. It’s where you’ll find that hot dog—a snappy sausage made in-house—along with other superlative $15-and-under dishes, including a few expertly made pastas, a truffled cheeseburger, a perfect roast chicken, and the best charcuterie in town. Cafe diners also can poach from the back-room menu, where Ruta, who worked in the White House kitchen under Reagan and Bush Sr., invests his French-sounding dishes with the lightness and simplicity of Italian cooking: a creamy, citrus-brightened lobster stew dotted with chestnuts and sunchokes; a petite pot-au-feu made from a rich consommé filled with slivers of veal tongue and brisket; a roast of venison with Armagnac-soaked prunes. Meanwhile, simpler Italian fare, like the gnocchi and minestrone soup, have uncommon depth.

Though the culinary highs are as high as they come, the rest of the experience can be erratic: Service is smart and warm one night, bumbling the next. Tops on the dessert list is pumpkin-goat-cheese cake, but other sweets, such as apple pie and German chocolate cake, feel more like they belong in a bakery.

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