Eating high and low in D.C.: Palena and C.F. Folks

I did some interesting eating while I was in Washington, D.C., a couple of weeks ago.

The first night I hit one of D.C.'s best, Palena from Frank Ruta, who cooked at the White House for 11 years for the Carter and Reagan families. Palena actually encompasses a market, casual cafe and high-end dining room all under one name. We ate in the more expensive dining room.

I can't remember the last time I saw consommé on a menu, but it was here, a rich golden broth bobbing with tiny agnolotti, coin-sized slices of foie gras (tasting even better now that it's forbidden in California) and swatches of greens. I was also introduced to shoat that night, a pig just slightly older than suckling evidently -- lovely morsels, tender and subtly porky. Ruta’s skillful, inventive cooking is slightly undermined, though, by a dated dining room and service that felt like nobody was home.

Lunch at C.F. Folks in Dupont Circle was something different, too -- a lunch counter with a skilled chef turning out the usual sandwiches, but also a long list of old-school daily specials such as bratwurst with Swiss sauerkraut, a silky veal stew with mushrooms and crème fraîche served on rösti potatoes and a perfect steak frites (flat iron steak with Bordelaise sauce and terrific house-cut fries), all from a miniscule kitchen. Most dishes run $13 to $15. To find this level of cooking at a simple lunch counter was a wonderful surprise.

Before spotting the chalkboard menu, the sagging shelf of cookbooks says it all. Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema urged me to sit at the counter to get the full experience, including the banter between the regulars and the gruff but somehow charming owner Art Carlson, who's been running this place for more than 30 years.


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