Palena’s Simple Burger is a Flavor Beast

We'd be lying if we said that restaurants are the first thing we think of when we hear the word Michelin. No, it's definitely Bibendum, the Michelin Man. We love that guy. But our quest isn't limited to just the greasy spoons, diners, dives and dedicated burger joints. No, there are plenty of upscale, classy restaurants that we have already conquered, or intend to, during our adventures here in the D.C.-area. So when we heard the chef at our latest Burger Days destination has some experience with Michelin, we knew they probably weren't talking about tires. Chef Frank Ruta is the man behind Cleveland Park's Palena and he packs quite a resume. Here's just a sample of his culinary credentials: former White House chef, former chef at a two-star Michelin restaurant in Italy, 2007 James Beard Award winner, 2001 Food & Wine Best Chef, 2007 Washingtonian Chef of the Year. And while the above is enough to get any foodie hot and bothered, what got us all tingly was the inclusion of his cheeseburger on Food & Wine's Best Burgers in the U.S. list. We'll be honest-- we needed a dictionary to translate some of the entries on the menu, but fortunately, their burger is pretty straightforward. The Palena Cheeseburger is a simple beast: it's a 7 oz., Kobe Angus patty (we got word from Chef Ruta that it's actually an Angus beef patty consisting of mainly chuck, but they do incorporate trim from well-aged steak cuts as they process them. The fat ratio is 60/40 and every now and then, they get that a little fattier, like when rib eye is involved) with Sottocenere al Tartufo cheese (ok, we had to look that one up) and a house mayonnaise on a homemade brioche bun. That's it. No lettuce. No tomato. No bacon. Simple. Used to some of the more substantial burger concoctions we've run into recently, the description left us a bit underwhelmed. And, after it was brought to our table, the words "This is it?" were uttered by more than one of the crew. The toasted, sesame-seeded bun took up most of the plate and the burger's single slice of cheese, slightly melted until just barely translucent, lay on top of the wood-fired patty. A healthy slathering of the mayo was found on both the bottom and top of the bun. And rather than a mountain of fries or onion rings chillin' next to the burger, we had instead a small handful of house-made sweet potato chips and some carrot, cauliflower and beet mix-up. We were beginning to have our doubts on how this burger would perform. They didn't last long. One bite in and all fears of a boring burger were allayed. This was the exact opposite of boring. How a burger with just beef and two other components could pack such a blast of flavor is truly remarkable. It starts with the foundation of it all: the meat. Cooked to a rosy medium rare, the outside of the patty had some crusty and flavorful char marks from the grill, while the inside of the loosely-packed meat --oozing all sorts of juicy goodness-- was exceptionally tender and flavorful without being mushy. After a string of disappointments getting burgers not cooked to our specifications, it was nice to get hooked up like we did here. The burger appeared much larger than the 7 oz. we were told it was, but we think the main reason for this was the size of the bun-- it's a big sucker. It has a really nice crunch to it, but we thought it was a bit too much bread at first and were worried it would overwhelm the rest of the burger. However, once the juices of the beef start to flow, they quickly infiltrate the light, airy brioche and bring it down to size. Plus, it holds up exceptionally well from start to finish. The Sottocenere al tartufo, a truffled cheese with a gray-ish brown rind, adds a milder flavor to the sandwich. Unlike most cheeseburgers, it's not the main attraction here. And while it does get a bit overshadowed, its inclusion is important because the mellowness of the cheese brings a subtle, but much needed counterbalance to the rest of the ingredients. The mayonnaise, the last, and certainly not least component, is no mild, complimenting condiment-- this stuff packs a punch. It's also, undoubtedly, the reason this thing lands on so many top burger lists.

Chef Ruta likes to call it a "garlic scented mayonnaise" made with eggs, egg whites, grapeseed oil, a touch of olive oil, a touch of garlic and a touch of mustard. The acid is lemon juice and champagne vinegar.

The powerful, salty, garlicky spread (some would call it aioli --it's not--, we just call it awwwesommme) lights up the taste buds and battles the beef for the flavor crown of the sandwich. With a healthy slathering on both sides of the bun, you could eat just the bread and you'd leave with a smile on your face. But when added to the rest, the fusion of flavors --the saltiness of the mayo combined with the crunch from the crusty, slightly toasted bun, all surrounding the juicy, truffled cheese-infused patty-- really set the burger off. Straight up though, if you don't like mayo, you should ask them to keep it to a minimum, or better yet, get it on the side, because it borders on flavor-overload (but what a flavor it is). Whatever you do though, don't nix it all together- it needs to be present, even in the smallest amount, to fully appreciate the Palena burger experience. And while we won't look too down upon you for easing up on the sauce, please don't add anything to this burger. We saw a guy at the table next to us slather ketchup all over his and, frankly, we got offended. This burger doesn't need anything else. In fact, we got their new, brunch burger which adds a fried duck egg and mushroom marmalade to the mix but found it paled in comparison to the regular version. There really is no improving on it.

Can't believe we're saying it, but don't get the burger with the fried egg. The regular cheeseburger is tops.

For one of D.C.'s best fancy-ass burgers (yes, despite its simplicity, this still qualifies as fancy), Palena's is a great deal at $12. No fries come with it, but the burger alone brings so much to the plate, you won't miss 'em. But if you do decide to order up the spuds, you'll be pleased. The shoestring potatoes are nice and crispy and served with the same mayo as the burger, but adds some peppers. Our server also hooked us up with some once-on-now-off-the-menu onion rings and fried lemons. While the lemons are a bit of an acquired taste, the onion rings are great-- incredibly light and tasty.

It's Luther time.

Usually we forego dessert during our burger runs, but after seeing a plate full of donuts served up to another table, we had to get in on that action. We weren't disappointed. The massive, lemon-glazed rings are just $2 a pop, they're Krispy Kreme worthy, and the sweetness is the perfect end-of-meal compliment to the salty burger. We can't help but fantasize about constructing a Luther with one of these suckers and the burger patty. That should be deserving of a Michelin star. Or at the very least, we're sure Bibendum would approve. We love that guy. Palena | 3529 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC | 202-537-9250 |  

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