When one kitchen door closes, another opens. So it was for James Beard Award-winning chef Frank Ruta, who last April unexpectedly shuttered Palena, his revered restaurant in Cleveland Park. For the next year, gastro enthusiasts buzzed eagerly about where the one-time White House chef might appear next. After hosting several rapturously received prix fixe dinners at Mark Furstenberg’s Bread Furst, the wandering toque settled down as the executive chef at The Grill Room inside boutique Georgetown hotel the Capella.
It may seem like a dramatic shift for Ruta, but the 70-seat space was a perfect fit. “I was hoping to be somewhere that wasn’t Downtown, but still gets a lot of traffic,” he says. “And the dining room is beautiful and just the right size. Of course, you go through the pros and cons in your head, but after talking with everybody who owns and manages the hotel, it just made sense.”
Ruta didn’t arrive alone. He brought along his pastry chef, Aggie Chin, who handled the blue-ribbon baked goods at Palena. “Her style of dessert is in tune with the way I look to cook on the savory side,” he says. “It’s simple but elegant, tasty, and creative.”
Their partnership is built on an even footing that is rare to find. “I feel like a lot of times, pastry gets overlooked,” says Chin. “However, Frank has a good understanding of what it takes and what people need to execute it well, so he has a lot of respect for it. He always makes sure that we get the freshest eggs and dairy in the pastry kitchen, because he knows every little bit makes a difference.”
The duo wants to build on their previous successes rather than replicate them in their newest venue, where they also handle room service and catering for the private dining spaces. “We don’t want to copy Palena,” insists Ruta.
“The dining room at the Capella is beautiful and just the right size. It just made sense.” —Frank Ruta
There will be less of an Italian influence at play. Instead, the classically-trained chef will go back to his roots as he changes the offerings weekly to spotlight the seasons. For Palena obsessives, there are a few familiar faces on the menu, each slightly tweaked. A revamp of Ruta’s endlessly worshipped burger is here—now topped with truffled cheese and a slather of house-made mayo enriched with garlic and mustard—as are versions of his Yukon Gold potato gnocchi and roasted chicken. Fans curious about the new direction of Ruta’s menu can look forward to elegant compositions, such as the trio of suckling pig—roasted loin, stuffed breast, and braised shoulder—complemented with roasted apples and braised beets.
Chin’s desserts are equal parts whimsy and decadence. The early standout is The Georgetowner, an elegant riff on movie snacks. To evoke a candy bar, she lays a dense chocolate torte foundation, then builds on layers of cocoa nib marshmallows, milk chocolate Bavarian cream, and caramelized milk chocolate custard before topping it with chocolate tiles, gold leaf, and caramel sauce. Cracker Jack-style caramelized Rice Krispies and buttered-popcorn ice cream complete the cinematic homage. As if that weren’t enough, all meals end with a flurry of her dainty petit fours—caramels, macarons, pâtes de fruits, and chocolate bonbons.
As the pair settles into their new home, Ruta sees their work as an ongoing process. “At Palena, we made everything in house—everything,” he says. “We made the vinegar, bread, and charcuterie. We’re still trying to figure out how much we can do ourselves here.” Operational concerns aside, the powerhouse duo is focused on simply putting out great food—one magnificent plate at a time. 1050 31st St. NW, 202-617-2424