I know that Joe considers Laboratorio, Citronelle and Maestro to be the top three DC restaurants, and numerous others inhabit the tier below--it seems that Joe is putting Charleston up there, based on his notes below. I think the time has come to elevate Palena to that top group, too.
Visiting older relatives from Boston, calling a few days before their arrival, suggested we make a reservation "someplace special." Palena was a perfect choice -- quietly elegant, not too over-the-top trendy, and extraordinarily delicious food.
The menu policy has changed since we were last there, offering three, four or five course meals. Like Maestro, one can choose from any of the courses to construct their meal, in any order. Three courses was $50-- and the waiter said that one could have three entrees for that price, if one chose to...
We opted for the traditional first course, entree and dessert. For my first course, a house-made boudin blanc, which was a delicate silken pillow of meat that was packed with flavor, served with a bit of its poaching broth and some baby root veg. Jonathan had a rice-crusted skate wing, which was fresh and flavorful. Karly, our 13 year-old on again-off again vegetarian, had buffalo mozzarella with roasted beets and house-made fennel salami and coppocola. Before she ordered it, she wanted her parents to eat the meats. When the plate was put in front of her, she decided that this would be one of those "special" nights when she set aside her vegetarianism. She did let me taste the salami and the ham, and they were fabulous.
For my entree, I had roasted squab, which was served like duck, with the breast meat off the bone, sliced and rare, and the leg served whole (complete with foot) and cooked through. This was served with a chunk of grilled foie gras, roasted fig and cabbage which had been poached in broth to sweet, melting tenderness. WOW is all I can say. This dish was perfect-- all of the disparate elements came together, the rich, earthy squab meat, the creamy duck liver, the juicy, tender, slightly sweet wedge of cabbage and the intense sweet note of fig. I was MWP (moaning w pleasure) when I wasn't fending off my kid, who kept begging for "another little taste of foie gras."
Jonathan had a "Trio" of Niman Ranch pork, with tenderloin, house-made bacon and cotechino sausage. This was served with fingerling potatoes and baby golden beet and turnip. I had the house-made bacon as an appetizer on a previous visit-- a chunk of meltingly tender, salty-smokey deliciousness. I can't say enough about Frank Ruta's artistry as a charcutiere. All of his sausages and cured meats are superlative. Karly had gnocchi in an herb sauce, which were the teeniest gnocchi I'd ever seen. Karly thought they were delicious, but I was too enamored of my squab dish to taste them.
For dessert, I had a coffee-toffee torte with chocolate and caramel sauce. All my favorite decadent sweets in one intense flavor burst. Karly had a coffee daquaise with cashew ganache, and Jonathan had a plate of cookies that had shortbread, mini-brownies and caramels. Cousin N had a cheese plate (the rest of their choices were the same as ours)--which had taleggio, manchego, an aged chevre, and burrata, which had been flown in from Italy the day before--a ball of fresh buffalo mozzarella with liquidy ricotta inside. The waiter brought me a little taste of the burrata, which I had always wanted to try. Frankly, I thought the mozz was a bit rubbery, and compared to the ricotta from Dupont farmer's market...
We ordered a white wine from the list for the first course-- a pinot blanc from Northern Italy, can't recall the name. It was clean, fresh and with plenty of acidity to accompany the food. And I brought a California "Rhone Ranger" red from home: 2000 Tablas Creek Vinyard Esprit de Beaucastel, a Chateauneuf-du-Pape style blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre et al, which I double decanted at home, so by the time we drank it, the tannins had softened and the intense black fruit and spice shone through. A perfect accompaniment to both the pork and the squab.
The service was good -- the sommelier and waiter both were helpful while we were ordering, but we waited a long time for our first course-- an amuse of some sort would have been appreciated.
The relatives travel quite a bit, and enjoy the finer things of life, and they were mightily impressed-- it was the perfect place to take them. Not flashy or trendy or witty. Just ingredients of the very finest quality prepared with great skill and care.