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Palena - YUM (but why is the service always a bit off?)

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Palena - YUM (but why is the service always a bit off?)

DC in DC | Oct 21, 2004 12:24 PM

Palena is in our immediate neighborhood but for whatever reason, we don't go often. We remedied that this week:

We sat in the front room and two of us ordered:

One salad to share, from back-room menu: Healthy-sized portions (presented nicely on two plates, though we didn't ask) of greens with roasted yellow and red beets and a side serving of layered berry-flavored gelatin (size of small Rubik's cube). The beets were yummy but otherwise unremarkable. The gelatin was an unexpected treat: sweet and creamy enough to balance the natural bitterness flavors of the salad but not desserty either. The greens (husband guessed they were dandilion-esque but we weren't sure) were good-tasting: crisp and slightly bitter in flavor, but their texture was a bit tough for our taste. They were dressed very lightly and unobtrusively. The salad can also be ordered with lobster but we forwent (?) that option. Verdict: yummy.

One order buckwheat blini: A nice country-style adaptation of this classic. Puffier than previous versions we've had elsewhere, it was probably 3/4 inches tall, about 5 inches round, and medium-brown in color. When it arrived we joked that it was hockey-pucklike in size and appearance - but not to worry: when we cut into it it bore no resemblance in texture or flavor. It was substantial and "meaty" but not dense; fluffy but savory. Mushrooms appeared with herbs both in the blini itself (presumably incorporated into batter) and on top, sauteed. We cleaned the plate and decided it was a perfect fall/winter appetizer.

One order roasted chicken: The piece de resistance. It arrives simply on the plate, without sauce or dressing to distract. The skin is dark golden brown, as crisp as any I've ever seen. Cutting in, the meat is very very juicy - not greasy, but very moist - and not (thank you!) overcooked. The meat was incredibly flavorful but this perplexed us; no herbs were in evidence, as there are for Peruvian or other good-tasting chicken. Could it be that this is what good chicken ITSELF tastes like? Hmm. Verdict: as good as we've ever had. We wondered if we could get it, take-out, for Thanksgiving instead of turkey.

One dessert: At least 10 or 12 options were offered - more than appetizers and entrees combined. We decided on one piece of German chocolate cake to share. It's a classic version: chocolate cake layers with a cream-cheesish (?) frosting, with roasted coconut sprinkled atop. A scoop of the lightest-ever vanilla ice cream accompanied it. We cleaned the plate. We never clean the plate. (An aside: They also offered for dessert a classic chocolate layer cake, whose rarity in Washington is lamentable. To our knowledge, among mid-to-high-range restaurants, only Carol Greenwood regularly offers it, with most other places opting for fudge-ganache-caramel-torte-flourless-death-by-chocolate-whatever concoctions that never satisfy as well. Thank you, Palena and Bucks, for keeping this gem alive!)

Total for two including tax, tip and one drink each: about $75. Not cheap, but well worth it. The atmosphere is lovely: classic and modern both, soothing, homey and elegant all at once.

One word in closing, however, not about the food: In our experience, Palena's approach to service is, well, uneven. Each time we return, we hope to discover that its service is working reliably smoothly. Not so. This time, though the place was almost empty, we sat for nearly 15 minutes at our table with no menu and no drink and no introduction from server. We finally got up, asked the hostess for menus and that seemed to kick things into gear. Then, when ordering, the server refused to allow us to pre-order the chicken as our entree, and because it takes 40 minutes, we had to wait that long between starters and entree. (Note: she was nice and professional about it; it's the policy that seemed unyielding.) Odd and unaccommodating, we thought, but we were amply rewarded when the food arrived.

We'll be back.

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