For a restaurant to really achieve excellence, it has to do so on its own terms. But winning over stomachs while defying conventions that other restaurants take for granted - and that customers often expect - isn't easy. One requirement is an eccentric personality under the chef hat.
If you agree, then Chef Frank Ruta at Palena is your man. Not that you'll ever see him at this Cleveland Park restaurant - he hangs out in an underground kitchen. It's in this lair that he produces some of the best French and Italian inspired foods in D.C.
Chef Ruta isn't one of those chefs who spends all his time trying to nail a spot on Top Chef Masters and opening new restaurants. He's what Anthony Bourdain calls a "chef's chef" - he'd rather be behind the stove than in front of a camera crew. Did I mention he's eccentric?
Joyce, Ehsan and I all got the tasting menu (it runs $58, $67, or $76 depending whether you get three, four, or five courses), and it wasn't long before we started noticing a few more of Chef Ruta's quirks.
"Is this sausage?" Ehsan said about his chicken. "One of these is a lamb sausage," I said about my entree of lamb cooked two ways (the other was braised shoulder). "What's that next to your octopus?" Joyce wondered.
It was sausage.
Frank Ruto, apparently, is a man obsessed with more than just privacy.
Another fixation: morels. They first popped up in the Ehsan's chicken sausage, then made no less than three encores in other dishes.
But what if you don't like sausage or morels? Then you can go to another restaurant. I'm pretty sure Frank doesn't care. Whereas most restaurants make sure the menu has something you like, Chef Ruto is clearly more concerned that you have things he likes - and a lot of it.
Lucky for him he's got good taste. The creamy raviolis, the smoked almond flavor of the morels, and generous amounts of butter combine for a lusty appeal. Really, the food needs to be sexy to compensate for the dining room, which looks like the one in that mansion from Remains of the Day. And when he makes contact, it's out of the stadium; the following are three of the top dishes I've had in DC. Trust me, you need to go try them - and quickly. The Chef changes his menu on a daily basis.
Yukon Gold Potato Gnocchi With a Tuscan style sauce of hare and olives
Raviolis with Sausage, Morels, Swiss Cheese, Raviolis, and Butter Air
Lamb Two Ways: Braised Shoulder and Sausage
Here are the rest of the dishes we had at Palena:
Strange - Joyce fell asleep with her mouth wide open for a few seconds
Quail (too bony if you ask me) and Beets
Ehsan, fighting the urge to make a joke about Palena being a real sausage fest
Rockfish with Artichokes
Dish # 5 of the night for yours truly: the Cookie Plate