100 Best Restaurants 2012: Palena

No. 5

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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.

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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.