In my endeavor to try out most of the restaurants in the neighborhood, I elected to finally give Palena a go of it. Friends and professional acquaintances have all recommended the place to me, as one that provides well prepared, technically correct dishes. And it is consistently ranked highly in all of the local DC rags.
It was a Tuesday evening. I went unaccompanied and sat at the bar around 6:30 pm. The bartender greeted me warmly and offered the wine list and menu, and went on to explain how the menu works in the café area of the restaurant. A skinny kid with a slight attitude: the usual young cha-chy type whom DC restaurants seem to prefer over experience and knowledge.
In the café/bar area one can choose ala carte from the café menu proper, or ala carte from the dining room menu or take advantage of the 3 available prix fix options. I selected the “Pipe Dreams Farm Shoat Belly: Lightly Smoked & Braised with Coddled Organic Hen Egg, Caramelized Cauliflower and a Black Trumpet Mushroom and Salsify Veloute,” from the dining room menu.
First an aperitif in a glass of Bellenda Prosecco di Conegliana—Valdobbiadene Brut 2008. It came to me fresh and lively, a real feat for By-the-Glass. It was simple and unpretentious, as one would expect from a good Prosecco. There was some nice pear fruit present with just the right amount of acidity to keep it all wound together. There was an interesting texture and mild heft to it which I didn’t expect. The mousse was medium and not particularly coarse. The finish was moderate yet clean. This little sparkler without a doubt reinforces my preference for first courses one doesn’t have to chew.
By now you’re probably gripping the edges of your laptop screen agonizing in anticipation and the same ignorance I felt—what the f**k is a shoat? “Why sir, it’s a baby pig,” the bartender informed me with that glaring chip on his shoulder and the look of knowing condescension smeared all over his smirking face. So I ordered it and sipped my Prosecco awaiting the entrée’s arrival.
Less than ten minutes later the shoat emerged from the kitchen in funeral procession carried by its former mother: the thirty something female with the obvious trappings of assistant manager. The dish was visually well composed and set within the now obligatory wide rimmed bowl so fashionable in many restaurants nowadays. A simple plate would have satisfied the individual components and the gestalt they comprised. The lightly smoked shoat belly was very tasty in and of itself, except for the approximate teaspoon of cartilage I had to remove from my mouth. Have you ever noticed there’s no graceful way to expel unwanted particles of inedible nasty bits onto your fork and then transfer to some far off Siberian corner of the plate, in hopes they don’t re-mingle with the surviving good stuff? Tis especially soooo not dainty when one looks like a state prison guard such as I.
The coddled egg was cute and cooked perfectly. Hey bacon and eggs—my favorite meal! What I didn’t understand were the paper thin over cooked slices of cauliflower micro florets. I can envision how, in theory, they’d provide textual contrast, yet in practice they really served no purpose hiding under the braised belly. Now the black trumpet and salsify veloute; it was, well, black and bland. It didn’t stand up to the belly nor the egg. I anticipated what never was to be there: some mushroom earthiness and the oyster nuanced like flavor from the salsify.
Immediately after the presentation of the entrée I asked for a glass of red wine. My good buddy the bartender tried to steer me toward Barbera. Well…no. I felt the Ridge Zin, Three Valleys 2008 would be more to my sense of pairing, but they were out. So then he suggested a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot from the Piedmont. Well…no again. It was tired; must’ve been opened since Saturday. Finally I chose the regional level Bordeaux comprised primarily of Merlot with some Cabernet Sauvignon behind it. (Sorry folks, I didn’t write the name of it down.) My favorite dude behind the bar poured the glass and hurried off to the other end of the bar. I looked at the meager glass and thought, “That little short pouring bastard.” I caught his attention immediately and he came over.
“That’s a pretty short pour isn’t it?,”
“Well sir, we pour five and a half ounces here.”
“That’s not five and a half ounces; more like four,” I countered.
And then he gave me the LOOK. Yup, that sneering gaze of distain bartenders and servers throw at you when they’ve been caught in the act or they’ve just had enough of you. Either way… At this point I was valiantly fending off the overwhelming desire to reach over the bar and thrash the cocky bugger. But true to my gentlemanly and good hearted nature, I refrained. But as some vindication, the lady dining next to me did mention that Palena is notorious for short pouring in general.
Are you bored yet? There’s dessert still to come. The dessert was very good, in fact it out paced the entrée. Sheep’s Milk Cheese Cake crusted with Coconut and Chocolate, with Stewed Figs and Prunes. The cheese cake had a coarse/creamy texture, mild flavor and not overly sweet. The lightly toasted coconut accented it very well. However I still don’t know where the chocolate was hiding. The stewed fruit in syrup acted as a pretty good foil to the cake, but any sweeter and it would’ve dominated and ruined the balance. Couldn’t find the figs; appears something like kumquats and apricots came in off the bench during the final innings. Hey, the prunes were there and thank the universe for that at my age. There was a Vietti Moscato di Asti involved with dessert. Typical and paired well.
OK. I’ll return to give Palena another shot, but I’ll go with someone else and try the dining room prix fix to get an idea of table service. All in all I’d give the joint a 2.5 out of 4 particularly in terms of value and staff attitude.