It’s good to be in DC

Remember how I complained that I never get to go anywhere interesting for math conferences? Well, right now I’m in Washington, DC, and will be attending a conference in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University tomorrow through Monday. This certainly beats Lincoln, NE, or Bloomington, IN. My mom works in DC and keeps an apartment here, so rather than getting a hotel in Baltimore, I’ll be taking the train up and back each day. Not only do I not have to stay in Baltimore at night, but I get the added luxury of going out to dinner with my mom back in DC. In fact, my dad is flying in from San Diego tonight, since he has a meeting in Boston on Monday, and my parents will celebrate their anniversary at Citronelle. I don’t get to tag along for that one, but I’ve already been spoiled with two insanely good meals. Sorry, no photos from either, I’m too shy to take my camera to such nice restaurants.

Ice crystals on the plane window

I flew nonstop to Baltimore on Southwest on Wednesday, and took the MARC train down to DC. When I got to my mom’s apartment, we debated about where to go. It was snowing, so we didn’t really feel like going to any of the short-walking-distance places. My mom had been wanting to try Komi, and we called to see if they would have space for us. They were booked, so we decided to go to Palena, a little restaurant in Cleveland Park. Both the pastry chef, Ann Amernick, and the chef, Frank Ruta used to work at the White House.

Palena offers two menus: an inexpensive cafe menu and a full dinner menu. Anticipating the rest of the weekend, we went with the cafe menu. I would have loved to try the housemade hot dog, but unfortunately they were out. My mom and I decided to get several things to share. We started with a simple green salad that was remarkably delicious. It had the usual microgreens, but also some shaved fennel, beets, carrots, and toasted hazelnuts. I’m pretty sure that there was hazelnut oil in the dressing, and that this is what made it more than your ordinary green salad. After that we shared an order of the french fries, which also comes with onion rings, fried puffs of mashed potato, and fried lemon slices. Yes, fried lemons. It sounds a bit odd, but they were amazing—crispy and hot and fried and chewy and tart. The french fries left something to be desired. They were dissapointingly soggy and limp. The onion rings were amazing, as were the little mashed potato puffs. The pile of fried stuff was served alongside what Palena calls zippy mayonaise—a garlicy aioli topped with what appeared to be Chinese chili sauce. This was the perfect thing to dip the onion rings into, and topping aioli with chili sauce is a great idea that will probably find its way into my kitchen soon.

Next we shared an order of pate en croute: delicious housemade pate wrapped in pastry. After that we split the cheeseburger, which had more of the garlicy aioli and was served with housemade pickles. Good, but not groundbreaking. We couldn’t decide on dessert, so we ended up ordering two: a chocolate something that has already faded from memory and an amazing goat cheese cheesecake. The cheesecake was topped with dried figs and peaches which had been rehydrated in port, and was served alongside grapefruit sorbet. The cheesecake itself had the most amazingly light texture. It was not overly sweet, and the flavor of the goat cheese came through beautifully, and was perfectly complemented by the port fruit. The sorbet was delicious on its own, though I’m not sure why it was paired with the cheesecake.

Overall, the cafe menu was quite enjoyable, if not hugely innovative. I’m sure that the dinner menu would have been more adventurous. Oh, I almost forgot to mention that we started the night off with cocktails. I had Palena’s Manhattan, which had the most amazing Italian cherry floating in it, and my mom had their Pickled gin martini. I’m not a gin fan, so I didn’t try hers, but it was garnished with housemade pickles!

Palena Restaurant and Palena Cafe
3529 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington, DC 20008

Gorgeous Church at Thomas CircleYesterday, I walked down Connecticut through Dupont Circle, then down Massachusetts towards the Mall. I went to the Portrait Museum and then to the Museum of African Art. I was happy to learn that the Museum of American Art is in the same building as the Portrait Museum, so I was able to check out both. I’m not so into art before 1850, so I walked quickly through those parts of the museums. I really enjoyed some of the portraits in the “Americans Now” part of the Portrait Museum, and the Museum of American Art had a decent contemporary collection. I find a lot of superabstract modern art to be empty and formal, but there were a few pieces with feeling in the museum’s collection. My favorite was Nam June Paik’s neon map of the US, filled out with TV’s flashing pictures associated with each of the states and playing sound bites from the Wizard of Oz, among other things. Both exhibitions at the Museum of African Art were interesting. One was modern and one was a historical collection that sat in a Disney basement for years.

Nam June Paik's work at Smithsonian Museum of American Art

I took the Metro back to my mom’s apartment, and called her to see what our dinner plans were. She was still working and didn’t want to think about it, so she left it up to me. It was already nearly 7pm, but I called Komi anyway, just on the off chance that they could take us tonight. Amazingly, they had space for us at 8:15! When we walked in to the warm but spartanly decorated restaurant, they were playing Belle & Sebastian. That was certainly a first for me—indie pop at a restaurant like this. I guess it speaks to the age of the staff and the chef, Johnny Monis, who is only 27. I also recognized Cat Power and Iron & Wine over the course of the night. Komi is Greek-inspired and serves a five course prix fixe ($74) menu every night now. Apparently, they used to serve an a la carte menu, but have since phased that out. I think it makes a lot of sense for a restaurant like this to serve a prix fixe menu, since it allows them to really shape and create the entire experience for you. Their “five” courses were really twelve, since there were eight mezzethakia courses before we even got our “first” course. These eight appetizer courses were brought for us to share, and they were of course small, but all were insanely delicious and most were very innovative. These and the pasta course were the highlight of the meal, and I secretly wished that I wouldn’t have to eat an entree, but that these amazing little bites would just keep coming out endlessly.

1. Roasted dates stuffed with marscapone and yogurt, finished with fleur de sel
2. House cured green olives
3. Radish slices topped with butter and salmon roe
4. Sunchoke panna cotta topped with caviar, alongside sashimi yellowtail with chives
5. Salt cod mousse fritters
6. Shaved avocado atop seared smoky octopus atop housemade mortadella, with truffle vinaigrette and cipolini onion with balsamic persimmon
7. Housemade brisket gyro with tsatsiki and red onion
8. Foie gras custard with chopped hazelnuts and baby arugula

For me, the standouts were the dates, the olives, the sunchoke panna cotta, and the foie gras custard. But now I find myself reading over the list and drooling over the thought of all of them, save the radish slices (I’m not a huge salmon roe fan). Each dish was an incredible symphony of flavors, and I’m having trouble finding fitting words of praise.

After we ate our last of the mezzethakia (sad face!), they brought out some housemade crackers to tide us over while we waited for our pasta course. Neither of us wanting to be left out, my mom and I shared this course as well, swapping plates halfway through. Both pastas were outstanding. The noodles were clearly housemade and the balance of flavors was perfect again.

Pappardelle with milk roasted baby goat ragu
Kabocha baby pastas with apple and house cured guanciale

Next was the main course, which for me was actually a bit of a dissappointment, after all of the wonderful mezzethakia and the pasta. My mom noted, however, that if I had just been at any old restaurant and ordered this venison, I would have found it delicious. Really, it was delicious, but it was just some meat. Perfctly cooked, of course, but none of the joyous surprise of foie gras custard or dates stuffed with marscapone. The venison moussaka served alongside was out of this world, and I would have preferred to just eat a double portion of that, rather than the sliced meat. My mom had the sardines, and she liked them. I tried them, and they were ok, but I’m not a big sardines fan to start off with.

Meat & Fish:
Charcoal grilled venison with venison moussaka and cabbage slaw
Greek sardines with carrots, pine nuts, capers, and mint

House made oat crackers, aged gouda, sweet gorgonzla, candied quince

Greek doughnuts with chocolate marscapone mousse
Crispy cornmeal crespelle with creamy something, avocado, and sweet crumbly cookie that I don’t remember the name of

The cheese course was good, but you know, it’s just a cheese course. We knew we wanted the Greek doughnuts as one of our desserts, but had some trouble deciding the other, so we asked from help from the waitress. She recommended the crespelle, and it was great. By this point, I was in a food coma, and I have trouble remembering the details of this one. The doughnuts were fantastic on their own and even better dipped in the marscapone mousse. All in all, it was an amazing experience—a meal whose match I will probably not enjoy again for a while. Well, maybe tonight, since we’re going to Obelisk, but after that, a while. Really!

Komi Restaurant
1509 17th St (between P and Q)
Washington, DC 20036



  1. Posted March 10, 2007 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Hi Maia! Sounds like a fun trip. I have some good friends who just moved back there, so I will definitely have to forward the link to this post to them. I love the idea of cocktails with housemade pickles and cherries – when will we get that here in SD???

  2. Posted March 12, 2007 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    You’re killing me….I used to live near DC and I miss the food. I’ve never been to Komi or Palena bit probably would enjoy food from both. Enjoy the many types of food that DC has to offer! Jaleo is good for Spanish tapas but most of my knowledge is of Northern VA food. If you go there let me know and I can give you many recommendations.

  3. Posted March 14, 2007 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Alice- Yeah, it’s too bad we don’t have anything like that around here. But, it makes travelling all the better!

    Kady- Aww, unfortunately I only noticed your comment after I was back in SD. My mom lives in the area, though, and I’ll let her know about your recommendations :) Thanks!

  4. Posted March 19, 2007 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    I love the photo from the plane. Very cool!

  5. Posted July 9, 2009 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Next time you’re in DC and looking for a cheaper option, you should try Z Burgers onion rings, they are delicious! It’s like the batter has just the perfect amount of sweetness to it.

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