100 Best Restaurants 2010: Palena / Palena Cafe

No. 18: Palena and Palena Cafe

Cuisine: You won’t see chef Frank Ruta crisscrossing town to hit his other restaurants (he doesn’t have others), or hawking his book (he hasn’t written one), or doing publicity events (he claims shyness). Almost without fail, Ruta stays in his kitchen, a subterranean lab where he churns out an array of French- and Italian-inspired dishes for his restaurant and casual cafe that ride the border between lustiness and elegance.

Mood: This is two restaurants in one, so it depends: The one in the back, more formal, conjures a drawing room, all faded elegance. Up front is the cafe, a casually elegant setting where diners feel free to carry on and pass plates.

Best for: Jaded palates.

Best dishes: An Asian-spiced roast chicken; truffled cheeseburger; any of the exquisite and wholly original soups; any pâté, terrine, or sausage that appears on the nightly menu; the rotating roster of pastas, ranging from a simple and immensely satisfying pappardelle with ragu to more intricate and refined arrangements; cookie plate.

Insider tips: On Mondays, Ruta combines his cafe and restaurant menus, making for interesting high/low eating full of variety and affordability; diners can, if they wish, have a burger and a delicately roasted turbot, too.

Service: •••

Open Monday through Saturday for dinner. Moderate to expensive.

See all of 2010'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.