Excellent Article on the DC Indian Food Scene

Palena: Was It Really?

(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
(202) 537-9250

Hours: Monday - Saturday 5:30-10 pm; Closed Sundays
Cleveland Park Metro (Red Line)
Dress code: Business casual (Sportcoats recommended)



Well Amalah, first of all let me apologize on behalf of the restaurant for giving you such a lacklustre experience. It is our mission to make sure that all of our patrons leave more than satisfied, and feel that they recieved their moneys worth.

We certainly seek out constructive criticism, and do our best to take those suggestions and apply them to the operation. Service, timing and hospitality in general, are all things that any given business can always improve. No one is perfect. And it really is unfortunate that your service was "distracted", and believe me when I say this is something that will be improved. So when you do decide to dine with us again(which by the way, we are glad to hear)we're sure that you wont be dissapointed.

Theres just one thing that upsets me when I read your review. The part about the waiters "unfortunate resemblance" to an almost universally unattractive actor. Well, I genuinely believe its not your place (or anyones for that matter) to criticize someone (who provided you with a service) based on their looks. It has little to do with the restaurant, your service or the qaulity of your food. Its not only hurtful, but unprofessional. So as a favor to Palena, the waiter, and the idea of open restarant forums, we respectfully ask to you to edit your review, and remove the part about the the waiters looks. We wouldnt want you to remove anything that we believe influenced your experience. But an unattractive waiter has nothing to do with the flavor of your soup.

Thank you for your time.


I am glad that you are taking Amy's review into consideration. I hope no one was insulted by her one, very short remark. I'm sure that if you check out Amalah.com, you will see that Amy is also a comedy writer and she can't help but notice these things.

As far as professionalism goes...This is a blog (and a hobby), not a newspaper. No one here is getting paid or recognized in anyway except for positive emails from readers. So we don't have to be 100% professional all the time. Sometimes we mix a little comedy into the reviews and that will continue.


Also! I think that actor is cute! ReallY!

When I said "unfortunate," I meant unfortunate for Jason, who had to listen to me quoting a teen sex comedy and getting the giggles all through his birthday dinner.


Um, is it wrong that I am highly amused by a comment that criticizes your professionalism after promising that you won't be "dissapointed" on your next visit?

Yeah, I didn't think so, either.


I wonder if Justin realizes that he's actually the one who's demeaning the waiter in question? It was he who called the actor "universally unattactive", which is certainly not that case. I think Eddie Kay Thomas is quite cute as well. What I got from Amalah's statement was that she was a little distracted by the cute waiter who didn't make eye contact. Sounds like sour grapes to me, Justin. Shame, shame...we know your name!


Ok, about Justin's remarks: 1) I used to work at Palena with him. 2) He doesn't represent the restaurant as a whole because... 3) he IS the waiter in question.

Now his comment makes a little more sense, no?

I am no longer at Palena, and neither is Justin, but I still love it. I sincerely believe that you went on an off-night (which every person/business has) and, in addition, I know that Palena has just gone through a major change in staff (not the great managers, just servers/hostess/etc). Try it again - and definitely also try the more-relaxed cafe, in which you can order a la carte from the prix fixe menu as well - and you won't be disappointed.


Why do you get mad when Bartenders card you? They're just doing their job. As a former bartender, I can tell you that people who make a fuss about being carded come off as silly and self-important. It's just part of the restaurant experience--get used to it. The penalty for bartenders who fail to card people is far more severe than that for the underage drinker: fines, jail time, community service and termination of employment. With all these things on the line, why should a bartender not err on the safe side? I would be a little more understanding if you had gray hair or wrinkles, but, judging from your picture on this site, you really don't look old enough to be complaining. On a lighter note, I do enjoy your reviews. It's nice to read reviews that aren't from a snotty elitist food critic every once in a while. Keep 'em coming.


Wait a second! I (Amy, Jason's wife) wrote this review, not Jason. And honestly, I do not care when we get carded. I get annoyed when I'm NOT carded, because I'm in my late 20s and hanging on to that under-30 look for dear life.

No, if you reread the review, you'll notice that my peeve was not that we got carded, it was that the bartender didn't notice Jason's birthday on his ID. (We were at Palena on his actual birthday.) I know he was busy, but like I've said, we've had bartenders in Dupont and
bouncers in Adams Morgan notice our birthdays on our IDs and mention it or offer a drink on the house.

Anyway, not being defensive or anything...we TOTALLY understand that bartenders have to card and welcome it. We both waited and bussed
tables and know the crap that restaurants can get for not following the rules.

Tony Mannino

Anyone know if the name 'Palena' originated from a small town of the same name in the Chieti province of Italy???


Wow - it appears that not one but TWO of your readers cannot fully comprehend the written English language.

Even half drunk it is clear that you were neither calling the waiter "unfortunately" ugly nor were you complaining about being carded.

What is truly "unfortunate" is justin's inability to catch your subtle wit. Luckily, thanks to fantastic restuarant reviews like this one, I can now go to Palena with my girlfriend and tell everyone we say Finch. Hopefully it wont be an off night!

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