Classic Tables: Palena

Palena is a destination for every season

A decade after its doors first opened, Palena still feels like an insider's secret.

The Cleveland Park space is split into two parts: the casual café–known for its superlative roast chicken ($15) and cheeseburger on a house-baked bun ($12)–and the serene back restaurant.

Though the chicken and burger are legendary, the back dining room's menu is the place to experience chef Frank Ruta's most inspired cooking.

These days, Ruta creates light, summery dishes from even the heartiest of ingredients on his prix fixe menu ($58 for three courses; $67 for four; $76 for five).

With delicate corn flan and chanterelles, oxtail pot-au-feu is light and enticing even on the hottest days. Silky sweet corn tastes freshly cut from the cob in Ruta's ravioli with local crabmeat.

Vegetables also stand out in supporting roles: Earthy cumin oil-poached halibut (pictured) gets sweetness from bright red and orange heirloom beets. Grilled heritage pork comes with a veritable garden of Swiss chard, eggplant and peppers.

Ruta plans to expand his offerings soon. Later this year, Palena will open a market in the empty neighboring space, creating a wood-fired oven, a grill and a larger café.

Palena, 3529 Connecticut Ave. NW (between Ordway and Porter sts.); 202-537-9250 or palenarestaurant.com