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INTERMITTENT NOTESXML

Palena

Palena logoWhile we're on the subject of food in northwest DC it's worth noting the recent closing of Palena. Former White House executive Sous Chef Frank A. Ruta opened Palena in 2000, in the Cleveland Park neighborhood. The location he chose was iffy on account of parking difficulties, never resolved, and no doubt parking was a large factor in the closing. But Palena's real problem was with Ruta himself. Well known for being admired by his peers, Ruta is a culinary genius. But after a few years he stepped somewhat out of the kitchen to concentrate more on management. His food suffered. He says he belatedly realized what was happening and went back to more full-time kitchen operations but the damage had been done. Lots of his clientele left, too few returned. The money people hammered the restaurant for overdue rent. Quite suddenly, it closed. Sad, especially the photographs of all of Palena's restaurant equipment, furnishings, etc., posted online for a speedy auction...

Some have argued that Palena's closing means northwest DC residents aren't willing to patronize a great restaurant but that's a badly mistaken view. Palena's closing, rather, is an object lesson to even the most brilliant restaurateur that northwest DC residents won't pay quality prices for inferior food.

Palena, when it started, had a superstar, limited seating, reservation only restaurant with an attached non-reservation only cafe. The brilliance of this, from my point of view, was that you could get extraordinary food in the cafe, plus the full wine list, for a not unreasonable price. On two or three special occasions Sharon and I went to the restaurant but that was an extravagance. Worth it, certainly, but very expensive. The cafe, though, if you wanted to eat judiciously, could be reasonably cheap for a couple of cheeseburgers and fries with beer and wine. We used to eat there once or twice a month. But then we noticed the quality go down and, worse, I started getting sick after our meals. The reason being, as a consequence of my medical condition I'm a bit unusual, more or less a human Geiger counter where germs are concerned. A few bad germs that the overwhelming majority of people don't notice can make me severely ill. Once I realized that every time I ate at Palena I had nasty problems, well, I stopped going.

My guess is that Frank Ruta worked extraordinarily hard at the beginning for barely any money. It wouldn't surprise me if he'd wanted to cut back on his work and earn more, which with a popular restaurant should be doable, in theory. But implementation is the key and Frank wasn't so good at making decisions outside the kitchen. It's a pity, and I'm sorry that one of his brother or sister chefs didn't take him aside and try to straighten him out. Or if they did, that he didn't learn from his mistakes... He's young enough, though, and he should really try again. Next time in a location with better parking!

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