100 Best Restaurants 2011: Palena and Palena Cafe

No. 11

Only the top 40 restaurants were ranked in 2011's Best Restaurants list.

Good news for anyone who’s spent an hour waiting his or her turn for a truffled cheeseburger at the no-reservations cafe that fronts Frank Ruta’s Cleveland Park dining room: Expansion into a space next door means 100 extra seats devoted to his more casual—and less expensive—menu. Although not much in the cafe tops $20, Ruta makes his cooking there feel just as important as the five-course meals offered in the chandeliered back room.

Terrines, such as a silky rabbit version with sweet mostarda, are as well crafted as you’ll find. His freshly made gnocchi and other pastas are always excellent. And his soups, whether a rustic minestrone or foie gras pot-au-feu, emerge complex and comforting.

The same principles apply in the dining room, where the ever-changing menu offers three choices for each course. There, the gnocchi get more refined, made with sweet potatoes and served in a skillet with Calasparra rice and Parmesan. Ruta’s fish dishes tend to be restrained—meats, such as a cut of tender young pig over sunchokes, and pheasant with foie gras are often better bets.

Accordingly, there’s a new feature in the cafe: a $50-a-person nose-to-tail dinner, which requires a day’s notice and is served family style for six or more.

Also good: Fritto misto with oysters, lemons, and rockfish; deviled eggs; aromatically seasoned roast chicken; monkfish persillade; tagliatelle with shrimp, chilies, and bread crumbs; cookie plate with caramels; pear-custard tart.

Dining room open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner. Cafe open Monday for dinner, Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. Moderate to expensive.

>> See all of 2011's 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 Logan Circle.