I finally ate at Palena this weekend, about 6 months after hearing about it.
When we arrived at about 8:30, the hostess said it would be a 25 to 30-minute wait. (The café doesn't accept reservations.) We sat at the bar (where you can also order any food from the menu) and ordered gin gimlets. Green and almost frothy, with lime--of course--and mint; they were well worth it, and my favorite color! No sooner had we ordered our drinks than a table was ready. The 25-minute estimate was more like 10. Off to a good start!
The back room at Palena offers a three, four or five course tasting menu while the "café" (seating in the front room near the bar and small booths along the hall to the dining room) offers its own small menu and the opportunity to order any of the dishes from the dining room menu. We ordered "Fritto Misto" (which I refused to pronounce "free-toe" on account of the double 't' and because I was not ordering a corn chip product) and gnocchi. The assortment of lightly fried fish (of course, they were called "cod croquettes" on the menu) and fried summer squash was served with a delicious herb-y tartar sauce and a tomato stuffed with black-eyed peas, tomato and some chili perhaps. The tomato was perfect (and beautiful) and the fish sticks, as I affectionately called them, were great too! The gnocchi was served in a creamy pesto with potato and tomato, adding to the green motif at the table. The rich gnocchi reminded me of the ones my grandmother used to make by hand, covering the entire surface of the kitchen table with their tiny plumpness.
For dessert there was the chocolate hazelnut cake served with a little whipped cream and chocolate sorbet and the cheesecake. To be honest, I was so into the chocolate cake I didn't pay much attention to the cheesecake, but the bite I had was the perfect combination of light texture and creamy rich flavor. The presentation of both desserts was superb. I think desserts look silly with lots of fruity or chocolately syrup dripped all over the place or a dusting of powdered sugar. I don't want my food to look like it came out of a squeezy bottle. The round cheesecake came floating atop a strawberry compote and the whipped cream and sorbet with the cake looked like two little eggs--one white and one brown sitting next to the flat slice of (6?) layer cake. Unique but not pretentious.
The service was efficient and polite enough. I think things started going downhill when the waiter noticed that we'd whipped out the iPhone to illustrate a point in discussion. I imagined him thinking, "Darn kids, can't have a nice dinner without playing with their phones." For the record, there wasn't food on the table then!
Verdict is, Palena is definitely worth the splurge. Though the next time I go back, it might just be for the gimlet.