Palena is one of those places that foodies rave about. Right on the main strip in Cleveland Park on Connecticut Avenue is where you can find this culinary gem of a restaurant that recently expanded into a larger space to accommodate the high demand. The restaurant is split into two parts which includes the dining room which requires reservations and provides a high-end tasting menu in a romantic and intimate setting, as well as the cafe which is casual and presents a menu that changes daily and includes comforting favorites such as roast chicken and traditional pastas. Years ago I had the chance to enjoy a wonderful meal in the dining room as chosen and led by The Atlantic food critic Corby Kummer. However, it is not every day that anyone gets such an experience, and I have been anxious to get back to Palena to try some of the basics that everyone says they do so well.
The menu is filled with interesting options, but I decided to order the cafe salad with beets and hazelnuts to start while my two friends ordered the gnocchi in a simple tomato sauce to share for their appetizer. The salad was light and included pink and red beets with a champagne vinaigrette that was a nice start to the meal. The gnocchi's were substantial in size, but soft and pillowy in texture. We all agreed that the sauce was simple yet flavorful and wished the dish had been more of a soupy ragu rather than pasta with sauce lightly drizzled on top, however it was still really enjoyable and clearly homemade.
For my main dish I had the cheeseburger which I have heard so much about. The burger comes with a truffle cheese on top and is served on a fluffy brioche-like bun which really helped the burger to stand out. I enjoyed the smoky flavors in the meat which also separated this burger from many others. In addition to the burger I ordered a side of the brussel sprouts which were served cold and dressed in lemon and olive oil with hazelnuts and chunks of sharp pecorino cheese. They were fantastic and a perfect side snack to go with the main course. Finally, we ended the meal with a cannoli sundae that included ricotta ice cream, pieces of cannoli shell, touches of chocolate, and candied ginger. It was the perfect mix of ingredients and provided a few sweet bites for each of us to end the dinner on a high note.
During our meal I was eyeing the food at the other tables and saw the roast chicken which looked as good as one could possibly imagine. The waitress told us it takes about 40 minutes to make, so next time I'll likely remember to order that as soon as I arrive. I also saw some soups and pastas being delivered to other tables and everything looked really simple yet to the highest quality which I believe Palena is known for.
Palena is a unique restaurant given the different dining options it provides to customers, however there is one common thread that remains throughout: their focus on serving local ingredients that are in-season and food that is simplistic yet elegant and keeps people coming back for more.