Restaurants & Bars 5

Palena (long)

dinwiddie | Apr 10, 2005 08:16 AM

My wife and I ate at Palena last night on sort of the spur of the moment. Our son was at work so I called at 2pm and got an early reservation (6 p.m.) with the intention that we would be back home in time to go get him when he got off.

There is only one way to describe the food at Palena - Absolutely stunning. The dining room is simple, pleasant and elegant. Up front of the restaurant is the Cafe where a simpler menu is available and there is seating on the patio in front of the restaurant.

Dinner in the dining room is priced at $55 for three courses, $62 for four, and $69 for five. You can select from any of the three sections (first second and main courses) which have 4 selections each. The fourth course is traditionally a selection of artisanal cheeses and the fifth dessert. However, if you want to mix and match, no problem.

My wife started with an absolutely delicious Manhattan as we were trying to decide what to eat. Believe me, it is harder to do than you would think even when there are only 12 dishes to choose from, because you keep saying, but that looks good too.

She finally decided on one dish from each course. She started with the salad of roasted heirloom beets, lobster and blood orange. The beets (golden and red) were sweet, the lobster a whole claw, and the blood orange gelee sweet and tart at the same time. A thin slice of dried, candied blood orange garnished the gelee and was a treat in itself. Next she had the Dover Sole filet. Pan roasted sith yello flesh potatoes and leeks with Kumanoto oysters in a sea urchin sauce. The sole was to die for, firm yet flavorful. The potatoes were just the right texture and the flavor of the sauce was so good you had to check that you still had bread to make sure you could sop up the last drop. The oysters were plump, briny and smooth and the sea urchin sauce added just that touch of the sea that made the dish. Her third dish was the Spring lamb from Gilson Martin Farms (PA). It was served marinated and pan roasted with rapini braised with raisins, almonds, potatoe and piquillo peper. Ablsoutely wonderful. She likes her lamb cooked medium and this was perfect. Again every drop of the sauce was captured with the bread before letting the plate leave.

I chose one selection from the second courses and two from the main. I started with a ricotta and nettle ravioli with Gaeta olives, trumpet royale mushrooms, and a light tomatoe sauce with shaved pecorino cheese. The ravioli were light and tender with an absolutely stunning filling. The tomato sauce was so light as to be almost magical, presenting the ravioli with a perfect counterpoint that only enhanced the ricotta. My second course was the New Zealand Snapper. Braised with endive, black truffle and crayfish, it was served with a spinich flan and warm tomato saffron vinaigrette. This is the best piece of snapper I have ever eaten. The spinich flan was delicate, full of flavor without being overpowering like spinich can be, and perfectly paired with the fish. The snapper was firm yet flaked easily. The vinaigrette accenting the flavor well. This is the kind of dish that makes one put down his fork between every bite just so you can enjoy. Third I had the Grilled Snake River Farms Prime Kobe Style American Beef. Now I was in Heaven. It was served with Piemontese corona beans, puntarella, and a warm anchovy-balsamic vinaigrette. The beef was perfectly grilled, rare just as I asked, with a flavor that was intense and restrained at the same time. The beans and puntarella were bursts of flavor that counterpointed the beef perfectly.

We finished by sharing a cheese course and a dessert. The cheese came with an dense date bread that was made in house. Sliced thin, it was the perfect server for the cheeses. The cheeses (as does the menu) change based on what is available and good (or excellent in the case of Palena). Five cheeses, all served with just enought that the two of us could get a couple of bites of each. First came a Robiola Rocchetta (Italian made with cow, sheep and goat milk) soft and creamy with a mild flavor it was Karen's favorite. Next was a ash washed goat cheese from Pipe Dreams Farm in Pennsylvania. One of my favorites, it was tangy and smooth with just the perfect texture. Third was a Spanish sheeps milk cheese called Manchego. A firm hard cheese, it was almost like having a fine Picorino, good, but not our favorite of the selections. Fourth was a Fougerous from France. Wonderfully creamy, brie like with a rich and pungant odor and taste. Last was my favorite, a Gorgonzola Cremificato from Italy. A rich, soft, pungant cheese that attacked your tastebuds with an agressive rush of powerful flavor. Perfect on the dense datebread, it was everything one could want in a Gorgonzola yet had a creamy texture like a brie. Wonderful.

For dessert we split a pumpkin cheesecake with a pomogranite coulee. Light, creamy and delicous. Coffee for both of us accompanied dessert.

I took a 2002 Brian Loring Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir with me. While Palena's wine list is very nice if short, and well priced, it is nothing special. The wine service was excellent. Due to the size of the table, the server suggested that the wine be kept at the service table in the middle of the reastaurant (which made for a nice touch as there were quite a few bottles there) and he would be glad to pour. He was not pushy at all about it and appeared to pour more into our glasses at just the right time.

Service was attentive yet the pacing of the meal was leasurly. Partly because of the early hour, partly because we wanted it to be that way. We arrived at 6pm and left the restaurant at 8:45. Even thought the portions seemed small, they weren't. Served on large plates and presented beautifully, we were absolutely stuffed when we left. Dinner, tax, 20% tip, and corkage ($20) came out to just over $200.

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