100 Best Restaurants 2012: Palena

No. 5


If we had to choose one chef to prepare a meal, it would probably be Frank Ruta, whom other chefs call a “chef’s chef.” That’s a nice way of saying he doesn’t do publicity, doesn’t make the rounds of the dining room, and pursues his craft with fanatical devotion. Ruta’s profile might suffer as a result, but his diners don’t.

Palena is two restaurants under one roof: a softly lit dining room with some formality and a casual cafe where the smell of the wood grill fills the air. The former is a stage for Ruta the exacting artist, weaving French and Italian influences into a cuisine that resembles no other. The latter showcases the chef’s pastas, expertly roasted chicken, and cheeseburgers.

What to get: In the dining room, coddled egg with smoked shoat and trumpet mushrooms; any soup; chicken ballotinewith mustard sauce; halibut with grapes and celery; beet ravioli in goat-cheese sauce. In the cafe, meatballs in abruzzese sauce; fritto misto; Sicilian-style braised swordfish; the area’s best gnocchi.

Dining room open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner. Cafe open Monday through Friday for dinner, Saturday and Sunday for brunch and dinner. Moderate to very expensive.

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.