- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2007

It’s at least four inches high. It’s perfectly flaky and deliciously smooth. The puff pastry, consisting of thousands of thinner-than-thin layers, and the creamy, bittersweet ganache take turns building a sublime dessert tower that is pastry chef Ann Amernick’s double chocolate napoleon.

We hesitate slightly before digging in on a recent evening at Palena, the modern Italian restaurant in Cleveland Park that Ms. Amernick owns with Frank Ruta, both formerly White House chefs. It’s almost wrong to destroy this creation. It’s just as much a work of art as it is a dessert.

How fitting then that Ms. Amernick’s newest dessert cookbook (which took seven years) is titled “The Art of the Dessert” (Wiley).

The 384-page book contains classic and slightly intimidating recipes and gorgeous pictures of such beauties as apricot orange torte (its elegance, hints of Grand Marnier and delicate baby-pink edible roses would delight any bride); the chocolate raspberry torte (its moist crumb, raspberry-jam buttercream and chocolate-truffle cream topping would delight any chocolate lover).

It’s one thing, though, to enjoy devouring these creations. It’s a different ball game to bake them. A little daunting, no?

“I don’t agree. There are plenty of simple recipes in the book,” says Ms. Amernick. “The cranberry bars and brownies, for example, couldn’t be simpler.”

But how about the puff pastry, which Ms. Amernick jokingly says she herself perfected only a few minutes ago?

“Maybe not. But why not? It takes practice, but it’s so satisfying when you figure it out. When you see that fraction of an inch of pastry rise many, many times its height.”

We can attest that the flavor and texture — at least when Ms. Amernick is behind the baker’s bench — are truly melt-in-your-mouth amazing.

The attention to detail and to time-consuming, classic, traditional, all-butter-and-live-yeast preparation techniques in the book can come across as exclusive and catering only to those already in the know. That is the opposite of what Ms. Amernick is trying to achieve. She is serious about pastries, yes, but she wants to be inclusive. She wants more people to bake from scratch, not fewer, she says.

“I feel like we are losing these traditions,” she says. “We’re either going to the high-end store to buy our baked goods or we’re using mixes. We’re no longer taking the time to bake from scratch.”

The seriousness and unwillingness to cave to popular trends that Ms. Amernick brings to the table, also permeate what Mr. Ruta, the executive chef, does at Palena.

The lime- and cumin-marinated seviche of wild Alaskan salmon with Sicilian orange, horseradish and peppery greens, may seem wordy on the menu, but once the beautifully arranged plate is in front of you, it no longer matters what it’s called. You just want more. The flavor combination of the lime, cumin, orange, horseradish and greens is complicated, but works well.

As does the asparagus salad, which is served with Palena’s own brand of delicious, thinly sliced ham, ricotta cheese and a truffle vinaigrette. The delicate asparagus stalks are perfectly prepared and combine nicely with the ham. The ricotta adds a creamy texture.

As a second course, we ordered ravioli, which is served with morel mushrooms, chives and Maine crabmeat. This turned out to be a favorite — buttery and mild, but for the chives.

The canederli — sheep’s milk ricotta dumplings with an artichoke and fava bean stew and shaved Burgundy truffles — was a pleasant surprise. The dumplings’ look and texture remind of cheesecake, but the flavor is slightly salty. The artichoke is a nice complement as are the shaved truffles. Not so sure the fava beans belong, though. A little chewy and flavorwise uninteresting.

The menu is small — there are four main-course choices. The restaurant offers three tasting menus: two courses and dessert, three courses and dessert and four and dessert. It’s pricey, but well-worth it, particularly as a special-occasion destination.

Palena, though, is really two restaurants in one. The dimly-lit, white-tablecloth, fixed-price back dining room and the less expensive a-la-carte Palena Cafe in the front. Palena Cafe’s offerings include hamburgers and roast chicken.

But back to the tasting menu: We chose the lamb with glazed spring vegetables. The pan-roasted loin and braised shoulder were perfect. Medium-done, nicely seasoned and very tender. The slightly sweet, crisp vegetables complemented the melt-in-your-mouth meat.

Another nice choice was the poached black sea bass with shrimp dumplings and spring vegetables.

As for desserts, aside from the double chocolate napoleon, we also tried the delicious lemon-lime caramel tartlet with a buttery spritz cookie, and the delectable Palena’s cheesecake, made from goat cheese and cream cheese with Amareno cherries in port wine.

The presentation at Palena is always top-notch, whether the plate sports a cheesecake or a lamb shoulder. The service is prompt and proper. The ambience is quiet and elegant. From the loud speakers flow only Italian fare from Vivaldi to Puccini.

A meal at Palena is fine in the best sense of the word: quiet, innovative and high-quality.

RESTAURANT: Palena, 3529 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/537-9250

HOURS: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

PRICES: Fixed price menus, $57, $66, and $75 in Palena; Palena Cafe in the front of the restaurant offers a less expensive a la carte menu.

CREDIT CARDS: Major cards

PARKING: Limited street parking.

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Cleveland Park (Red Line)

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