It’s amazing that after living in Cleveland Park and routinely walking by Palena for several years, I’ve only been to the Cafe once, and that was about four years ago. I remember the food being excellent back then, particularly a delicate pasta dish I ate, but it was the famous roasted chicken and burger that I had always heard about. It was definitely on our list to return to, especially now that they expanded into the old Magruder’s space.
My friend Livya and I decided to try our luck and head to the Cafe for dinner on a Tuesday night. When we walked in, it was almost a shock to see that the old neighborhood grocery store space has been completely transformed into a dining room with an open kitchen in the rear. The front entrance is closed off for now, and the plan is to open a market there soon.
Since they do not take reservations, we hoped it would not be too much of a wait. Fortunately it wasn’t (that is once the hostess finally paid attention to us and remembered to get us a table). I have to admit, after reading some Yelp reviews I was prepared for the food to be excellent and for the service to be spotty at best. Unfortunately, many of them were right.
Once we did sit down, with only drink menus presented, our waiter finally came over with dinner menus and asked for our beverage order. We decided to each try a different cocktail, and I ordered the Stormy Monday. It comprised of El Dorado spiced rum, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, fresh lime, and Prosecco float. It was very refreshing and tasted like a refined margarita martini. It definitely hit the spot after a long day at the office.
After some debating, and a long absence from our waiter, I decided I had to try the famous roasted chicken, and added roasted sweet potatoes as a side. Livya ordered the burger, fries, and the Cafe Salad. Given that the Palena Cheese Burger was ranked among Food and Wine Magazine’s Best Burgers in the U.S., she couldn’t really go wrong.
Now I had been told that the roasted chicken takes at least 30 to 45 minutes to prepare, but it felt even longer because we were sitting for quite awhile before we actually ordered. By the time our dishes finally arrived, we were starving. But I have to admit, it was well worth the wait.
I had never seen nor ate a more flawlessly cooked chicken, with crispy skin on the outside and perfect tenderness inside. Maybe it was the presentation, but this chicken was more refined and meant to be savored. At $16, this entree was a steal for basically half a bird with lemon braised greens. The entire dish had a lemon aroma to it and it was very comforting. The sweet potatoes were a nice complement, but didn’t stand out in their own right.
I was able to try some of the burger too, and I will definitely have to order that the next time I go. The meat was incredibly juicy, if not a little rare, and went perfectly with the buttered toasted bun and truffle cheese.
Of course, we had to get dessert, and we opted for the Spring Ahead Sundae. This shows how often some of the menu changes, since daylight savings was just this past weekend. It was a nice twist on a carrot cake sundae, with a scoop of carrot ice cream, one scoop of vanilla frozen yogurt, and then topped with shaved carrot ribbons, raisins, and nuts. It essentially tasted like carrot cake and proved to be light and refreshing.
All in all, we loved the food, and would definitely come back to sample something different. Brett happily ate my chicken leftovers at home since that dish is definitely meant for two people. I’m not sure if the service was just off that night, or if it’s to be expected. Considering we were there for three hours, it seemed a bit excessive at the time. This isn’t the Inn at Little Washington now!
Palena Cafe is located on 3529 Connecticut Ave in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, DC.