Friday, April 1, 2016

Palette 22 Food Review

Pork Belly Bao Buns with Fries

I should have known the moment I sat down for lunch to Olivia Newton-John's "Physical" at Palette 22 yesterday... that I was in for a culinary workout. The new Shirlington hotspot advertises, "Food. Art. Fun," but if my first lunch was any indication, you might want to add "best restaurant in the Village" to its appellation. Palette 22 is (in a word) terrific.

That's high praise, given the ample competition nearby. Two dozen top-flight eateries dot the area; but each and every one should strive to raise its game, in order to keep up with the "new kid in town." Service was superb, beginning with a warm welcome (I walked in the wrong door... no problem) a leisurely stroll to a quiet table in the back (ask, and you shall receive) and super server Jacob. The latter introduced himself with a smile and a stamp: Each server at Palette 22 has a stamp with their name on it, which they place on your coaster (clever!) It certainly beats the stuffing out of scribbling your name on a napkin or paper tablecloth.

Avocado Hummus with flatbread

Jacob continued to shine, showing off his encyclopedic knowledge of Palette 22's varied menu; but a good food critic (or at least a hungry one) does his homework beforehand. I knew exactly what I wanted, and even the promise of Grilled Street Corn with a citrus kewpie mayo & chile pequin peppers wasn't going to change my mind. I placed an order for 2 starters (any 2 plates, $12) Avocado Hummus with smoked pepper oil and some of the best-tasting flatbread on the planet, and an order of Vietnamese-Style Sugarcane Shrimp atop a cup of butter lettuce with lemongrass slaw and a few fiery fresno chiles. Portions are generous, and meant for sharing (hence the dozen+ tapas plates at each table.) Me? I review alone, so "poor" me... I had to eat it all by myself (grin.)

Vietnamese-Style Sugarcane Shrimp

The hummus is colorful, creative and yum-my. A dusting of paprika provides just enough kick to make it interesting, and the addition of avocado to an already creamy hummus base is pure genius (I'm stealing the recipe this weekend, wish me luck.) The flatbread was delightfully chewy, and grilled perfectly. There's even a few pieces of crunchier bread at the bottom of the plate... in case you prefer your bread well-done. Nice touch.

Caprese Brick Oven Flat

The shrimp dish looked gorgeous (both the plate and the dish itself... more on that, in a bit.) It came with four mid-sized shrimp, placed on edible sugarcanes. Edible for some, I suppose. I like the taste of sugary sap as much as the next guy, but I'd much rather chomp down on the flavorful lemongrass slaw instead. Each shrimp was grilled perfectly, and delivered a nice hint of lemon in every bite.

Apple Empanadas

From there, it was on to more twos. Entrees are labeled "By 2's" and include two sliders, tacos or empanadas with your choice of the aforementioned street corn, French fries or a green salad. Choosing one was my most difficult task of the day. It came down to Baja Fish Tacos ($10) and my eventual choice... Pork Belly Bao Buns ($12.) The former sounded great (mahi mahi + cabbage-jalapeƱo-cilantro slaw) but it's hard to imagine anything topping that Pork Belly/steamed bun combo. Each roll was (literally) pillowy soft, unique and lovely to look at. The Pork Belly had a bit of extra fat on each piece, but was bursting with flavor (Char Siu, AKA Chinese barbecue sauce = nice add-on) and a crunchy pickle for texture. P.S. The fries were nice & hot, well-seasoned and delightfully dirty. Swap everyday Heinz for a housemade ketchup, and this qualifies as my best plate of 2016 (so far.)

Speaking of plates, Palette 22 deserves kudos galore for using a wide variety of different colors, shapes and textures in the decor and dinnerware. White plates are great, but the art angle appears to be an early home run. As for showcasing local artists... that's fine and dandy, but I'm all about the food (as well as ambiance and service, of course.) The spacing inside is fantastic, although I imagine it gets pretty loud when the inviting bar (in the center of the room) is full. There's also a row of outdoor tables on both sides of the street (great corner location) that I'd love to occupy for a couple of hours on an agreeable Friday or Saturday night. Tables are very roomy & wide with containers of flatware, and beautiful views of the Village. Even the music is great... The Drums, Kathryn Ostenberg, and the occasional familiar track from the 80's/90's, all played at an unobtrusive but easy-to-hear volume.

Sounds great, doesn't it? But I'm not finished. I also had to order one of their six Brick Oven Flat pizzas (Caprese, $6.) It's perfect as an entree for one, or for three selfless pals to share. The bread was thin & toasty with a lovely medley of flavors (grilled cherry tomatoes, fresh parley and gooey mozzarella cheese.) I came this close to ordering Bacon + Eggs (with pork belly & smoked cheddar) but I had to go back to work after lunch. Had I ordered the Bacon + Eggs, I was going back to bed. Besides, I still had dessert in the on-deck circle.

That's right friends... I'm a glutton. As I write this, I still have no idea how I made room; but I splurged, and ordered the Apple Empanadas (only $5 for two huge empanadas, stuffed with apple compote and golden raisins.) Beware: They're hot, hot, hot; but let them sit for at least five minutes, then chomp down and indulge in the creamiest apple filling ever stuffed inside an empanada (or pie/strudel for that matter.) You can dip them in dulce de leche sauce if you want, but I found no need. I was more than happy with the generous sprinkle of powdered sugar and killer filling. Did I mention you get two for five bucks? Go ahead and pinch yourself: I know I did.

The Dinner menu gets downright decadent with choices like Moroccan Spiced Lamb Spareribs, Peruvian-Style Grilled Octopus and Singapore Chili Crab Potstickers, opening the door (wide open) for multiple repeat visits. Who knows? With food this good, I may even take notice of all the other art on display. I can't wait to find out.