I wanted to go to Palena for a long time. When we went inside, it didn't quite look the way I expected. The name invokes a subdued but colorful Spanish-inspired look in my head, but it was really quite a mix--mostly neutrals, with some color on the booth upholstery, and very classy (and comfy looking) bar stools with big Marie-Antoinette-like cushions.
So there's the dining room, where you can only partake in a fixed price menu (and which takes reservations, I believe), then the cafe. The cafe doesn't take reservations, you can order anything from the fixed price menu a la carte, AND choose from an extremely reasonable cafe menu. Our server was clear about how much different courses will cost from the fixed price options, and was just extremely helpful, kind, and efficient. J heard that on weekdays people line up at 4pm to be seated when the cafe opens at 5:30, so on this Saturday before Easter we arrived at around 6pm. After a 35 minute wait (which we spent walking (not too deep)) around the zoo, we were seated in a roomy booth.
On to the food.
Fry plate: Hand-cut fries, really long, thin, hot and crispy; a few onion rings, dauphine potatoes, and the biggest surprise--quarter-dollar rounds of fried lemon. J was brave. When I warned him his next bite was lemon, he shrugged his shoulders and continued, while I paused to consider the possible sour bite to come. They were surprisingly good, and didn't cause any scrunchy faces.
Gnocchi: Yukon Gold Potato Gnocchi with a Tyscan-style sauce--I had relished every word of Jason from DCFoodies' recommendations for Palena. And the gnocchi was really good--definitely the best gnocchi I'd ever had, because the texture was admittedly, probably was what gnocchi should always be. But the rest of my meal really out-shined those few bites.
J had the stuffed lamb off the cafe menu, he said he couldn't really tell about the "stuffed" part but it was really good. I can't recall what it came with. Wow, I'm so self-absorbed in my own food!
Roasted organic half chicken: What in the crispy outside, juicy super-soft inside is gong on! Tell your server right away that you want the chicken, as it takes 45 minutes to prepare/serve. And it's worth every minute of the wait. There was tons of meat, this was no El Pollo Rico or Super Pollo. I guess the 45 minutes is when they dilute the magic sparkle dust and turn it into my chicken.
Dessert brought the Warm German Apple Cake, which was as it sounds. It wasn't too sweet, and had a delightful large dollop of ginger ice cream alongside. The ice cream was refreshing, not too ginger-y, but enough to warrant the name.
I'll definitely be back at Palena. We had a delicious, beautiful gourmet dinner for less than $100.
3529 Connecticut Avenue NW
Metro: Red Line to Cleveland Park, take West exit.