Great Expectations at Palena Cafe (closed)

When I go to a restaurant or a movie or a show that has garnered high ratings, I start out on a high.There’s a smile on my face and my heart beats a little faster. My senses are prepped for an adventure and my one to five ratings scale is already primed for the five.  Then the actual experience begins and what comes next must live up to my expectations.  Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.

Palena Cafe has been on my restaurant to do list for almost as long as I’ve had a list, which is to say years.  I’ve always passed it over, partly because someplace else interested me more or was more conveniently located. My New Year’s resolution to focus on Washingtonian‘s top 40 moved Palena Cafe up on my priority list.   Palena is rated 28 on Zagat, out of a possible 30.  It is rated #11 on the 2011 Washingtonian 100 Very Best Places to eat list.Chef Frank Ruta is a James Beard award-winning chef. With credentials like these, I am ready for excellence!

I enter Palena Cafe and immediately like the vibe.   The no reservations policy isn’t my favorite, but we come prepared for a wait and hunker down at the bar.  I can’t compare the newly-revamped restaurant to its former self.  I’ve read that some people are unhappy with the change.  I find it warm and pretty and cozy.  I feel pleased to be here, like I have achieved something worthwhile.

I order a signature cocktail, featuring ginger liqueur and honey syrup which is a departure from the sweeter drinks I normally favor (although it doesn’t sound like it).  This is a refreshing change.

We are seated about an hour after our arrival.  At this point we are anxious for some food.  Our server arrives and seems detached and unenthusiastic.  My husband and I share an appetizer, which is listed as an antipasto for 2-3 people (at $18 it seems a little steep.).  It consists of burrata cheese sitting atop roasted sweet potatoes and olives, served with four crostini.  The flavor is complex and interesting.  I’m feeling confident..

burrata cheese

Two friends order soup, one has lentil and one tuscan bean. They each remark that the soup lacks pizazz. (They  may not have used that word, but that’s the idea.)

The remaining starter is an onion and cheese souffle, which is described as “good but different.”

I want to try the Palena burger, which is supposed to be on par or even better than Ray’s Hell Burger.    My friend and I opt to share the burger and an order of scallops. My husband and a friend order bass and the other two friends in our party order Palena’s chicken.

The wait for our entrees seems inordinately long.  They finally arrive and I anxiously dive into the burger.  I wait for an explosion of flavor, but it doesn’t arrive.  The meat itself is good, but there is NO comparison to the burger I had days earlier in the week at Ray’s.  I am deflated.

The scallop dish that I am sharing consists of three scallops.  At $21, this feels wrong..  There is nothing amiss with the flavor.  The sauces are tasty enough, but it’s hard to recover from the combined disappointment from the burger and the meager portion of scallops.

The bass eaters are also disappointed in their portion size.  The flavor is not the issue, although it is over-salted, but the three bite dish results in dissatisfaction.

The two orders of chicken arrive and portion size is not an issue. They find the flavor, however, underwhelming.

We do like our crispy fries, which arrive piping hot.  Brussel sprouts are delivered cold. The entire experience is such a letdown that we opt out of dessert.
When I arrive home I race to my computer, determined to find reviews to explain what others find so compelling about Palena Cafe.I am surprised to read that the chicken routinely takes at least 35 minutes to prepare an order, but multiple people on Yelp declare it is worth the wait as “the best roasted chicken in DC.”  I am equally surprised to read that the brussel sprouts are supposed to be served cold. Did our server assume that we would already know these facts? He certainly didn’t bother to tell us this or anything about the food, which most definitely would have made a difference.

I am tempted to give Palena Cafe another try in the future, simply based on the high ratings and rave reviews I see almost everywhere I turn.  This time I have to deviate from popular opinion.

Great expectationscan be a tricky thing.  It can make you think that something is better than it actually is.  At the same time, flaws can result in greater disappointment than you might have if you are not really expecting the best.  There’s really nothing like having a wonderful meal in a place you’ve heard nothing about.

Palena  3529 Connecticut Avenue NW Washington, D.C.
My rating (on a 1-5 scale):   3.0
Zagat Rating: 28

Washington Post review
Washingtonian review
Palena on Urbanspoon


  1. Second visit to Palena Cafe in January 2012 was much better. I had the potato gnocchi which garners rave reviews in many forums. I loved the smokiness of the goat cheese and the tart balsamic vinegar in the dish, but in the end it is a little too rich for me to finish. We enjoy the refreshing lime-scented seviche of wild striped bass as an appetizer. Our favorite part of the meal is the basket of bread. There’s a surcharge of $3 but it’s worth it. Get two!


  1. […] is a little cold. Perhaps it is designed to match the weather outside on this particular night? See my previous review where I’ve added some comments on the current […]

  2. […] Great Expectations at Palena CafeJan 23, 2011 … Palena Cafe has been on my restaurant to do list for almost as long as I’ve had a list, which is to say years. I’ve always passed it over, partly … […]

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