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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Palena

Plaudits: Washingtonian 2010 #18, Washingtonian 2009 #5, Washingtonian 2008 #7, Washington Post 2009 Top 50 Restaurants
Neighborhood: Cleveland Park

The Setup

Official Co-Writer of DCWD CC just started herself a new job, and hand-in-hand with that was the need to have a painted mug (on the one hand, I don't really get that, but on the other I also have a painted mug for work). So, there being only two ceramic pottery painting places that I know of in DC, we headed up to Cleveland Park, where I decided we should make a day of it, and hit up Palena/Palena Cafe, which was only a block away.

The Vibe

Unlike most upscale casual restaurants, which have a different menu for their small bar area, Palena actually is split into two different dining areas: the upscale white cloth Palena, and the low-key Palena cafe. Having come from painting pottery, we opted for the cheaper Palena Cafe. That being said, there was full service at the bar, and the full menu was available, which is always much appreciated.

The cafe is composed of the six seats at the bar, about nine two-tops by the window, and three large, semi-circle booths. Even late on a Saturday night, the room was full and energetic; there was already a couple hovering over us for the last twenty minutes of our meal, sucking down Manhattans and waiting to steal our seats at the bar. The decor between the two areas is similar; both painted beige with iron lattice work chandeliers and forest green. The walls are lined with Roman head statues, and a smattering of sketchings and paintings. The seating in the more upscale area, from the glimpse I got of it, featured large family-style circular tables, as well as a few red leather two-top booths.

As for the service, the bartender was wonderful, just the right amount of professional but friendly. He let CC sample the wine she chose, and then ultimately recommended a new one for her which was much more suited to our tastes. He also gave us fresh plates, when we probably didn't need them. What's more, it was almost a Cheers-like atmosphere, with two sets of patrons chatting him up as if they met before (one from inside the restaurant business, the other seemed to be from around the neighborhood). It also meant that the cafe was buzzing, and at one point, when couples were now standing behind us waiting for seats, the noise level was particularly energetic. It made for a interesting albeit pleasant eating environment.

The Food

(Editor's note: CC wants it known that, despite how this may read, she doesn't hate food. She loves it in fact. She just has unreasonably high standards, and just was reserved in her praise because she recognized she was also starving.)

It should be noted that the menu for Palena (the restaurant) is either a three, five, or seven course menu, and is decidedly more expensive than the cafe (though the tasting menu is still offered at the bar). It also looks fantastic, so there's that. Since we don't make that much money, we went with the cafe menu.

Entrees

CC and I decided to split two dishes from the cafe menu, though we kept ogling everybody else's fry plates as they came out (shoestring fries, potatoes dauphin, and onion rings). The cafe menu being short, we quickly narrowed it down to the estouffade de lapin, boneless rabbit braised in red wine with olives and served with potatoes and rabbit sausage, and the roast chicken.

The rabbit came out first, and was overall a good dish. The braise was well done, and between the olives and the sauce, I thought the flavor profiles reminded me positively of a Moroccan chicken dish my mom makes all the time; for me, there were strong notes of cumin and paprika that came across. For CC, the key factor was that the rabbit was a bit overcooked, and so came across just a tad bit chewy. She was also a little unsure of the combination of the braise and the olives; again, since it reminded me so much of another dish, I didn't share this opinion. The standout for both of us was the rabbit sausage, which was just the right combination of spicy and savory.

As for the roasted half-chicken, one of the key reasons I wanted to go so badly to Palena in the first place was I had heard so much about it. Normally, I don't order the chicken at restaurants; my ceiling for chicken just isn't that high. But after hearing so many rave reviews of it, I had knew I just had to try it for myself. And when the bartender told us it would take at least 45 minutes, I almost wanted to say, "when you've made the sale, you don't need to keep selling it to me."

Now CC was more reserved on the chicken, but for my part, this was one of the best, if not the best chicken I've had in a long time. Like the rabbit, it hearkened back to the chicken that hangs in the windows of Asian supermarkets that we used to get all the time. The skin was perfectly crispy, which texturally worked amazingly with the perfectly-cooked chicken. CC commented that she usually didn't eat skin (internal monologue: that's the best part!), but this chicken made her rethink that. That it came on a bed of sauteed greens and broccoli rabe was the added kicker (CC doesn't like rapini, but I love it, and I think it works really well with chicken). A brilliant dish.

Dessert

Feeling a little frisky, we decided to ask for a dessert menu, and went with the most unique dish: a sheep's milk ricotta cheesecake, crusted with coconut and served with stewed figs and prunes. Having finished my Allagash White and CC's Three Valleys Zinfandel, we also decided to get ourselves a glass of port. The bartender stepped up here again and recommended a Dow's 10-year, which was a really good match to the dessert. Again, on a run of good cheesecakes myself, I had high expectations for it, and luckily it met them. The cake was creamy but surprisingly light, and it worked really well with the figs (now the second time I've had figs with cheesecake, a combination I would have never thought of myself). Another plus dish here.

The Verdict

It probably should be said that we were very hungry going into Palena (CC almost had us stop at Lebanese Taverna for some hummus). But that doesn't take away from the brilliant chicken, and the great dessert, which for me earns the restaurant 4 stars. More importantly, between the cafe and the restaurant, the vibe shifts easily enough to accommodate any level of date, whether it's catching drinks at the bar (which offered a pretty interesting lineup of cocktails), or an intimate dinner for two. That it has both an option for casual and white-cloth is also very much appreciated. All-in-all, a wonderful restaurant for a date.

Food Rating: **** (out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Bar Rating: Classy Crowd
Vibe:
Chatty to Energetic
Cost: $$$-$$$$ (out of 5) ($50-$75 in the cafe, $75-$100 in the restaurant)
Pairing: Like I said, the reason we were up in Cleveland Park at all was to paint pottery, and actually, I've always thought painting your own pottery was a really cool date. All Fired Up is a block from Palena, as well as a half-block from the Metro, and unlike other places, doesn't charge fees for paint, studio time, or firing. They also have a huge selection of things to paint, a helpful and friendly staff, and a policy that allows beer and wine in the store.

Palena on Urbanspoon

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