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In his review of Palena Cafe (Young & Hungry, “Franking Privileges,” 3/12) writer Todd Kliman was responsible for the following inaccuracies:
The Palena Hot Dog, described as a veal hot dog, is a pork hot dog.
The mocha stout from Oregon referred to is a mocha porter.
The review indicated that desserts are listed on the regular menu as opposed to the cafe menu; they are listed on the dessert menu.
For a big-name restaurant, Palena is awfully unassuming. Being right next door to an Exxon might have a little something to do with it. (The noise, by the way, is buffered; that infernal whir in the front area is only the bartender, juicing lemons). The bigger reason might be chef Frank Ruta, whose Italian continental cooking eschews almost all of the major trends of the past decade and, in this age of Pollocky saucings and teetering mounded creations, isn’t all that much to look at on the plate, either.
So Palena is one of the last restaurants in town you would expect to go adding a bar menu, an add-on on its way to becoming a default setting for high-end restaurants eager to attract young people. But far from being a sop to the supposed needs of a changing market, the bar food at Palena Cafe comes across as a natural extension of what Ruta is doing elsewhere in the restaurant with more flourish and finish. In fact, the honesty and directness that undergirds all his cooking is all the more resonant in these simple, quietly composed plates. The restaurant within a restaurant turns out to be what a high-end bar should be: a relaxed, casual setting in which discerning eaters can sample some of the city’s best cooking without having to sweat the cost of their indulgence.
Most of the nine plates on offer are priced at nine bucks a pop—which, depending on the plate in question, is either a merely good deal or a certifiably great one. The top half of the cafe menu, computer-printed on a single sheet, is taken up for the most part with all-American staples: a burger, a hot dog, a plate of fries. Though Ruta tweaks the menu weekly and sometimes even daily, this trio hasn’t budged from its spot in the lineup since the chef brought out the dog sometime last summer.
I love watching the faces of the young, approachable wait staff as customers put in their orders for Ruta’s version of the classic ballpark snack, the sly smile that crosses their faces that says: You are about to be surprised. The first time I ordered the hot dog, the waitress filling my water glass chirped, “I ground the veal myself this morning.” That’s the first, and biggest, departure from expectation. Ruta aggressively seasons the freshly ground veal, then cases it. The resulting wiener, grilled not boiled, and with an appreciable pop that accompanies each bite, has much more in common with a sausage than a standard-issue frank. And Ruta, elaborating no less with his hot dog than he does with, say, his custardy boudin blanc, swaddles the meat in an airy yet crusty house-baked bun, tops it with a homemade sauerkraut and a coarse-grained mustard, and, for good measure, adds a couple spoonfuls of lightly vinegared potato salad on the side. It’s one of the great dishes in the city. Period.
My good friend Matt—who had expressed his skepticism at my
dinner-venue choice with the inevitable “Nine bucks for a hot dog?”—spent a few minutes trying to come up with the sort of SAT analogy that would adequately convey what he believed to be a needless, if “tasty,” bit of extravagance. “Ballpark hot dog is to Ruta’s hot dog as baseball as is to…jai alai?”
If he wasn’t entirely won over by the Palena frank, Matt had no such reservations about the Palena cheeseburger. In part, this makes sense—we’re more accustomed, by now, to seeing burgers gussied up. Ruta’s burger, though, couldn’t be simpler. What makes it so good, so luxurious, is not the freshly ground meat, which also happens to be perfectly cooked, or even the layer of truffled cheese that sits like a skin atop its lightly charred surface, but the sesame-seed bun. The top is not the golden-brown of advertisers’ art-directed dreams but rather a rich caramel, lavishly egg-washed on the outside, that makes a majestic dome above the patty. It’s substantial but not heavy, buttery but not rich, and delicious all by itself. I’m tempted, almost, to say that McDonald’s squishy, lightweight Big Mac holder is to it as—I don’t know—cafeteria liver is to foie gras.
The junk-food trio is completed by the “Palena Fries,” a variety plate that includes dauphine potatoes, shoestring fries, onion rings, and even thin slices of Meyer lemon. The onion rings are clean and virtually greaseless—perfectly fried—but otherwise this dish is only middling great—that is to say, no better than at least a half-dozen other worthy contenders around town. I’d rather lavish my nine bucks on either of the menu’s two other perennials, the roasted half chicken (a well-seasoned and incomparably juicy bird) or the beet-and-radish salad (whose tender, quartered red and golden beets, lightly dressed with horseradish, lime, and cumin, convey an unmistakable note of summer even in the midst of a raw, gray winter’s day).
The bottom half of the menu is where Ruta cherry-picks from his repertory of more Continental-leaning dishes. There are usually two kinds of fish, often an arctic char, sometimes a salmon, with any number of saucings and condiments to accompany them. A recent addition was a dish of “Hawaiin” ahi tuna. The lack of spell check can be forgiven, as can the extra three bucks that Ruta had tagged on, if only because the dish that hit the table was otherwise so carefully executed: two small cylinders of seared tuna, napped by a smooth red pepper coulis, and adorned with bright, briny olives. I’m also taken by Ruta’s duck pâté, studded with pistachios and served en croute, with a single, burstingly sweet baby cipollino and a host of pickled adornments carefully arrayed about the plate.
The missteps have been relatively few, although their failure is a bit more conspicuous as a result. I wasn’t much enamored of a pasta alla chitarra topped with a duck ragout that, although lusty, was so thin as to invite visual comparisons to the oeuvre of another chef—guy by the name of Boyardee. And an uninspired “Mediterranean Fricassee,” with stuffed calamaretti, langoustines, and mussels, stood out only for being the most obviously disappointing dish I’ve tried here.
Admittedly, Palena Cafe is not a night out for everyone. Larger meals must be cobbled together from sometimes ill-fitting parts (a burger and a piece of arctic char, anyone?), and the costs of this sort of assembly can shoot upward quickly. Nor are there any real bargains when it comes to wine, although you’ll do OK with beer. A gorgeous mocha stout from Oregon, say, is only $4.50—and is presented, like wine, with a tilt for your inspection before pouring. What’s more, although there’s a good selection of imported cheeses, Ann Amernick’s desserts are conspicuously absent from the cafe menu; you’ll have to consult the regular menu if you want her elegant, sublime napoleon.
Then again, making a full meal is not really the point; eating sumptuously well, and economically, is. If only for the remembered bliss of the hot dog and burger alone, I am contemplating frequent visits to Palena Cafe, where the food is to ordinary bar food as a fresco is to a graffito.
Palena Cafe, 3529 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 537-9250. —Todd Kliman
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