(Today’s post written by special guest star, Mrs.DCFoodie, aka Amalah.)
In a burst of non-creativity, I took Jason to Palena for his birthday last night. I’d been hoping to take him to Laboratorio del Galileo or the Minibar at Café Atlantico, but I didn’t get my act together soon enough to get a reservation. So for a Tuesday night, we decided to stay close to home and go back to Palena.
We’d been there once before: Jason took me there to celebrate after my college finals were over. And we were extremely impressed. The food was delicious, the service was attentive and our courses were nicely spaced. (Palena's menu is price fixe and you can order three, four or five courses for $50, $57 or $64, respectively. We chose the four-course option.)
So I copied his idea and made a reservation for 8:30. We arrived early to check out the wine-bar portion of the restaurant (which serves a separate, more casual menu) and told the hostess we were fine with having a drink at the bar before she sat us.
And the trouble began immediately.
There were two bartenders working the front area of the restaurant, and while they were clearly busy, we weren't even acknowledged for about 10 minutes. And then another five minutes went by before we were actually offered drinks. I would have liked to have looked at a wine menu, but at this point I figured I'd damn well better order before I lost the bartender's attention forever. We ordered glasses of Pinot Grigio and were given Palena's equivalent: a wonderful Coda di Volpe by Grotta del Sole. The bartender, while beyond distracted, did know the wine list quite well and made excellent recommendations. (Another peeve: we were both carded, and when Jason presented his ID I sort of expected the bartender to notice his birthday. I'm sure he just glanced at the year, but seriously, I've met bouncers in Adams Morgan who pay better attention to detail.)
After we got our wine we were pretty much ignored again. We finished our glasses and started trying to guess how much time had gone by (no watches or cell phones at the birthday celebration!). It certainly felt like 8:30, but the hostess (who was also helping out at the bar) hadn’t offered us a table yet. Finally, Jason got the bartender’s attention, which triggered the hostess’ memory and she offered to seat us.
There were about half a dozen empty tables in the main restaurant section. Well then!
And the distracted service continued. I don’t believe our waiter ever really made eye contact with us. (Our waiter, by the way, looked EXACTLY like the kid who played Finch in American Pie. You know, the one who slept with Stifler's mom? This unfortunate resemblance led to much giggling by me whenever he came to our table. Very mature, Amy.)
For our first courses, we chose the antipasto primavera and the chilled pea soup. They. Took. Forever. We'd finished our second glasses of wine by the time they arrived. The waiter passed on the chef's apology for the delay, but didn't give a reason or explanation for the wait.
Anyway, I'd ordered a slightly different antipasto on our last visit (one that paired smoked salmon with pesto, mozzarella and sweet vegetables) and enjoyed it. Jason felt this version (buffalo mozzarella, beets, fennel salami, artichokes and some wild greens) fell a little flat. I have to agree: the flavors were certainly nice and fresh, but there was nothing distinctive about it.
My soup was…interesting. And very green. It seemed to use both regular green peas and snow peas, flavored with a little mint and garnished with shitake mushrooms and a small square of unidentified cheese. (The menu may have named it, but unfortunately I’ve forgotten.) My first few spoonfuls were delicious, but soon the pea flavor became a little dull. The cheese was completely overpowering and far too ripe for a sweet soup. The chef was obviously aiming for a contrast in flavors but stepped just a tad too far.
Our second courses came slightly faster than our first, but still seemed a little late. Jason ordered the gnocchi and I ordered a homemade sausage plate. Last time, we both ordered the gnocchi and thought it to be a highlight of the meal. This version was a little different (spinach gnocchi) but just as good. The homemade sausage was also excellent—flavored with cinnamon and some savory spices, served with a little dollop of potatoes and a sweet sauce.
On to the main courses! There were four choices: lamb, Kobe beef medallions, day-boat halibut (not sure I really buy the whole “day-boat” fad, but whatever), and Alaskan salmon. On our last visit, Jason ordered a lamb dish and I ordered the beef. This time, Jason ordered the salmon and I...ordered the beef. What? I liked it. Sue me.
Neither dish disappointed. Both were cooked perfectly and plated with root vegetables and delicate sauces. I was also pleased that our waiter remembered the glass of red wine I'd requested to arrive with my main course. Jason was dismayed, however, that the salmon came with just three of the tiniest mushroom raviolinis you have ever seen, which were some of the best we have ever tasted. Please, offer an entire dish of these!
As usual, the dessert menu was amazing. Ann Amernick of the Amernick Bakery, is the executive pastry chef (and co-owner) of Palena, so desserts are always a highlight. Jason ordered cheesecake with fresh berries, and it was fantastic. Served with raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and cherries, the cheesecake was perfect. (Unlike some fluffy whipped-cream-like cakes that basically taste like ice cream. Do not screw up our cheesecake.)
As usual, I'm a sucker for a cheese plate, so I ordered the three cheeses of the day, served with fresh almond and fruit bread. Yum.
We also ordered coffee, but this didn't arrive until we flagged down our waiter and reminded him.
Gazing around the restaurant, it appeared that Palena was having an off-night all around. Everybody seemed to be perpetually waiting for something. The next course, a wine refill, a dessert menu, the check. I noticed that desserts had a tendency to come out sporadically, so one person's dessert would sit at the waiters' service station for quite some time until the rest of the table's desserts emerged from the kitchen. We counted two waiters, a good number of expeditors, and one busser. The waiters were clearly overwhelmed and the kitchen must have had its own staffing shortage.
The bill came to $191 with tip. Huh. I felt a lot better about that price tag last time.
That said, I really believe our last visit (on a Saturday night) was more typical of Palena than our experience last night (on a Tuesday). It's an ambitious and seemingly well-run restaurant that really lets its chefs get creative and show off. While it's a shame we had to encounter some kind of staffing snafu on Jason’s birthday, we'd certainly go back and give it another chance. (In particular, I’m really interested in trying the under-$9-wine-bar menu and plan to bug Jason endlessly about going there.)
3529 Connecticut Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20008
Hours: Monday - Saturday 5:30-10 pm; Closed Sundays
Cleveland Park Metro (Red Line)
Dress code: Business casual (Sportcoats recommended)