Ruta’s Refinements Pay Off in Cleveland Park
- Palena’s cocktails. Stop at the bar before dinner for the best Manhattan in Washington.
- The adorable canapes that start the meal, maybe a medallion of shoat terrine with pistachios, a delicately fried, herbed rice ball or asparagus panna cotta.
- The refined miniardises that end the meal, perhaps a raspberry pate de fruit, a s’more petit four, coffee macarons and buttery homemade caramels.
- The unobtrusive, soft-spoken, well-informed service.
Good to Know
- There is a small pay parking lot next door to Palena (not associated with the restaurant; no validating); otherwise, you’re left to find street parking. Showing up right at 6:30 pm Monday to Friday is your best bet.
- Although there is no dress code, guests in Palena’s Dining Room tend to dress more formally than those in the café.
- Spring for the cheese course, available for a $12 supplement, if only for Ruta’s famed Tyrolean almond bread.
- Chef Ruta cures his own bacons and hams is well-known for his particularly fine charcuterie.
- The noise level is hushed, calm and soothing.
Best Dishes (menu changes often; some that represent the best):
·Foie gras with port gelée, vegetable salad and toasted brioche
·Alaskan King Salmon with chanterelles, tomatoes and sauce paloise
·Vintage carnaroli risotto with fresh peas, summer truffles and carrot coulis
·Pan-roasted loin of Angus beef with smoked ham and a sauce of sour cherries and chocolate
·Frozen fromage blanc parfait with warm vanilla aprcots, Sicilian pistachios, pumpernickel and honey apricot sorbet
Best Bottles (sample pairing with Tonight's Proposed Meal)
·Bisol Prosecco Jeio Brut NV
·Clement Klur Gentil de Katz 2010
·Domaine Brusset Cotes de Ventoux Rouge 2010
·Jean-Paul Brun Beaujolais "l'Ancien" 2010,
·Colosi Nero d'Avola 2010
Starting as a dishwasher and working his way up, Ruta, 54, entered the food business in the late Seventies. He landed a spot in the American Culinary Federation’s apprenticeship program and then came up through the ranks of the Pittsburgh area’s restaurant scene, eventually becoming the chef at a country club.
Then the White House came calling. He worked there as an assistant chef and personal chef for the Carter, Reagan and Bush families from 1979 to 1987, when he left to do an 18-month stint at Andrea restaurant in Merano, Italy. He then returned to the White House as sous-chef, leaving in 1991 to work for Yannick Cam at Le Pavillon on Washington, DC. By 1993, landed his first chef job, making a name for himself as a talent to be reckoned with at the River Club.
In 2000, Ruta opened Palena in Cleveland Park. The food world embraced the fluidity with which he blended high-style, technique-focused French and Italian cooking. When, in 2003, Ruta turned half the restaurant into a café, the public quickly availed itself of his more accessible rustic-but-refined cooking.
In 2010, Ruta took over the space next door, expanded Palena’s Café and menu and added a retail Market in which a wide range of bakery items are sold, along with products used on Palena’s menus.
Ruta’s well-deserved accolades include Best New Chef Food and Wine 2001, Washingtonian Restaurateur of the Year 2002 and Best Chef Mid-Atlantic James Beard 2007. His plans for the future do not involve reality television.
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