100 Best Restaurants 2008: Palena

No. 7: Palena

Cuisine: Chef/owner Frank Ruta combines the soul of an Italian peasant with the perfectionism of a French culinary master at his Cleveland Park restaurant. The result? Dishes that shimmer but never cross into egotism or lose their rootedness.

Mood: Refined touches abound in both the sconce-and-chandelier-accented dining room—which offers three-, four-, and five-course tasting menus—and the no-reservations cafe up front.

Best for: Revelatory soups and stews at the bar, thrillingly original multicourse feasts.

Best dishes: In the cafe, the house-made hamburger topped with truffled cheese on a freshly baked bun; roasted chicken; minestrone; a fry plate of frizzled lemons, onion rings, and potatoes dauphinoise; charcuterie plate; foie-gras terrine; an inspired take on bollito made with veal tongue, Ruta’s own corned beef, and a coddled duck egg. In the dining room, sardine galette; kabocha-squash-filled raviolini with shavings of aged goat cheese; gnocchi with bleu-cheese fonduta; sturgeon over braised cabbage; German-style apple cake; orange-poppyseed gelato with citrus salad.

Insider tips: Up front in the cafe, you can order from either the lower-priced menu, which changes daily, or the more intricate tasting menus, and you won’t worry about being underdressed. But you can’t reserve a table, so if you don’t want a wait, show up early or late.

Service: ••

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.