100 Best Restaurants 2009: Palena / Palena Cafe

No. 5: Palena and Palena Cafe

Cuisine: Franco-Italian dishes both rustic and refined—expert terrines and pâtés, soups of subtle complexity, ethereal pastas—from chef/owner Frank Ruta, a hard-working throwback who shuns publicity, never works the room, and is content to sequester himself in his subterranean kitchen perfecting his compositions. The cafe menu served out front is simpler but no less rewarding.

Mood: The 30-seat cafe has a festive air—you can come dolled up or in jeans and shirttails. The dining room in the back has the feel of a relic—dark, serious, and formal.

Best for: Serious foodies. All food lovers will rejoice in the excellence of Ruta’s cooking, but those who can suss out the nuances of his complex, subtly seasoned dishes will find the greatest reward.

Best dishes: Truffled cheeseburger; roast half chicken subtly flavored with star anise; hand-rolled pastas; house-made pâtés and terrines; any of the extraordinary soups, including a spring consommé with morels, favas, and nettles and a fall consommé made from pheasant; wonderfully light gnocchi; ricotta pie; German apple cake.

Insider tips: You can eat exceptionally well and economically by arriving early and sitting up front—there are no reservations in the cafe—and ordering off both the front menu, where most dishes are around $11, and the dining-room menu, which is offered in three, four, and five courses.

Service: **½ (two and a half stars).

Open Monday through Saturday for dinner.

See all of 2009's 100 Best Restaurants 

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.