Palena is known as much for the cheeseburger on the café menu as for the more elegant, seasonally driven food that is served in the dining room. After a stint as the White House chef, it was an interesting move for chef-restaurateur Frank Ruta to set his restaurant in Cleveland Park, far away from the glitzy, lobbyist-packed K Street dining scene. Though the restaurant’s dining room offers sophisticated menu items like a guinea hen ballotine, the café really shines as a low-key neighborhood spot, turning out a simple roast chicken from the wood-fired oven and homey pasta dishes like spaghetti with cauliflower, pine nuts, and egg.
The burger at Washington, D.C.’s Palena Café is certainly a fancy-pants one, but that doesn’t mean it’s at all precious. Chef Frank Ruta’s burger starts with a loosely packed 7-ounce patty of Angus beef (mostly chuck and trim from aged steak cuts) that’s got a 60:40 fat ratio, about double the fat of your average burger. He gussies it up with a slice of a truffled Italian cheese called Sottocenere al Tartufo and a smear of powerfully garlicky mayo, and it’s served on a big fluffy bun that compresses nicely once you get into it. Make sure you have napkins handy, and be ready for a flavor bomb. — Dan Myers