You can bank on two things when you order the roast chicken at Palena Café. The first: Your server will repeat, automaton-like, “You do know the chicken takes 45 minutes to prepare?” The second: Your plate of bronzed bird, from leg to breast, will ooze juices all the way to the bone. Its skin will arrive crisp and aromatic, and the organic meat itself will trip some genetic memory, stored there from your grandparents’ generation, that reminds you this is the way chicken is supposed to taste, rosy and succulent and saturated with a rich natural fat.
Every time I venture into Palena Café, I half-expect the roast chicken, like most loves that enter one’s life, to fail me, but it never does. Which is why I’m slightly taken aback by what Eric Ziebold, the CityZen chef whose skills I admire, has to say about Frank Ruta’s roast chicken: “It’s not my cup of tea.” Ziebold isn’t a fan of star anise, one of the more prominent flavors in Ruta’s long-marinated bird.
“The roast chicken is fantastic,” Ziebold adds quickly. “It’s just a personal taste.”
Mark Furstenberg, the master baker behind G Street Food, considers himself a fan of Palena Café’s chicken, but he’s not as beguiled by its consistency as I am. He figures most good chefs could prepare a similarly supreme bird given 45 minutes to do it. Ruta’s “given himself the advantage of cooking [the chicken] to order,” Furstenberg says.
All of this mild disparagement leads me to one inevitable conclusion: Even apparent shoo-ins for the inaugural class of the D.C. Dish Hall of Fame have their critics. No dish, no matter how well conceived and executed, will tickle everyone’s taste buds, which makes creating a hall of fame an exercise fraught with pitfalls. There are few, if any, objective measures by which to determine whether a dish merits inclusion. In sports, statistics determine whether an athlete becomes immortalized in some hall. In the world of restaurants, it would seem to be merely a matter of opinion.
Even the length of time a dish must appear on a menu is open to discussion. One chef I spoke to said six months would be long enough to merit consideration for induction, a suggestion at which I balked. We agreed that at least a year and six months would suffice, which might sound ridiculous if this were the sports world, but it’s not. Time is compressed within the realm of restaurants, where menus change with the seasons, with the whims of chefs and customers, and with the availability of ingredients. Some great dishes, like Morou Ouattara’s gazpacho, may appear only once a year when the right season hits.
For the past couple of weeks, I have been soliciting your nominees for the hall of fame. You nominated more than 90 dishes. They range from the ridiculous (“Dozen HOT Krispy Kremes”) to the sublime (the smoked branzino carpaccio, served in a cigar box, at Teatro Goldoni). Some of you argued that only the most iconic of D.C. dishes belong in the hall, like the half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl or the salty oat cookie at Teaism or, God forbid, the jumbo slice at Jumbo Slice Pizza.
Just to round out the public picks, I contacted a number of chefs for nominees, which forced them to ponder their own limitations. Chefs, after all, spend too much time in the kitchen to eat widely around the area. Or, in Cathal Armstrong’s case, he spends too much time in the kitchen and on planes. When he and his wife, Meshelle, return from the airport, they often head straight to Duangrat’s in Falls Church for the deep-fried whole flounder with chili-basil sauce. “It tends to get us over the hump,” says the Restaurant Eve chef via phone. Armstrong would submit that dish for nomination, as well as a few tapas from the downtown Jaleo: gambas al ajillo, patatas bravas, and croquetas de pollo.
Chef/owner Jamie Leeds (Hank’s Oyster Bar, CommonWealth) wants to see Sushi Taro’s katsu don set, a fried pork cutlet with a poached egg and caramelized onions, added to the list. Jackie Greenbaum, co-owner of Jackie’s and Quarry House, nominates the veal sweetbreads from Cashion’s Eat Place in Adams Morgan, which chef/owner John Manolatos carried over from Ann Cashion’s old menu. “I’m comforted by the fact that is still there,” Greenbaum says.
Ziebold had a small laundry list of nominees: the side dish of mac and cheese at Vidalia, the white pizza at the Italian Store in Arlington, the crispy spare ribs at Szechuan Gallery in Chinatown, the palak chaat at Rasika in Penn Quarter, and the charcuterie at Palena. Furstenberg had a list, too: the fried Ipswich clams at Kinkead’s, the small ribeye at Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington, and the Alsatian plum tart and charcuterie at L’Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls.
Furstenberg even selected one that I would consider essential to any list of hall nominees: the lobster burger at Central. As I’ve written previously about the burger, it’s a sandwich that requires the precision of a baker and the imagination of a great chef to overhaul a lobster roll with such calculated whimsy. Furstenberg goes even further: He believes that the great chef in question, Michel Richard, invented the lobster burger—and that all the other sandwiches are just imitations of the original, cheap or otherwise.
Aside from that burger, my own nominees include the Margherita at 2Amys, which I consider the finest expression of the pizza-making art in this area, a testament to the power of a few quality ingredients and a well-developed dough. Another pick: The Parker House rolls at CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental are presented in a small wooden box, as if they’re the crown jewels on display; the rolls—their supple crusty surface, sprinkled with salt, practically dissolves into liquid butter on your tongue—are so popular that CityZen itself considers them a signature dish.
My last nominee, of course, is the roast chicken at Palena Café, a dish that both R.J. Cooper and Jeffrey Buben at Vidalia also recommend for nomination. When I tell Ruta that several of us consider his chicken hall-of-fame-worthy, the chef assumes a defensive posture. He starts invoking the names of Jean-Louis Palladin and Gerard Pangaud—and the great lobster and oyster dishes these chefs once made.
“I don’t know if the roast chicken falls into that category,” Ruta demurs.
I suspect City Paper readers will decide otherwise.
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Between professional chefs and the public, more than a 100 dishes were nominated for the inaugural class of the Washington City Paper’s D.C. Dish Hall of Fame. I’ve narrowed the list down to what I consider the 30 dishes that could represent the D.C. area well, if elected. The dishes are listed at http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/food/dc-dish-hall-of-fame/, where you can vote for your top three. The five dishes that get the most votes will be the inaugural inductees. You have until Dec. 11 to vote.