Last Updated: November 2023
Once upon a time, there was a revered chef at a beloved restaurant in Cleveland Park of all places. The front of the restaurant was casual with a burger that prompted odes from the bards. The back of the restaurant was formal with islands of white tablecloths holding diners who could hardly believe such sublime food could be found next to the gas station. They would leave, whispering to each other and, after leaving, to those they could find that they had a transcendent food experience triggered by what looked like a simple consommé, but upon tasting unleashed magic that could only be the work of a sorcerer.
That restaurant, Palena, closed in 2014. The sorcerer of the kitchen was Frank Ruta. After an ill-fated sojourn at the star-crossed Mirabelle, he has found another home that appears to be sticking. Working with D.C. restaurateur Ashok Bajaj and housed in the walls of the old, and also legendary, Restaurant Nora, Annabelle showcases what might be called classic New American, with French roots, Italian touches, and seasonal ingredients.
The specific ingredients might shift, but the preparations will seem familiar. To start, crudo or maybe a smoke trout dish. Paté like the equally classic consommé of yesteryear gets plaudits. Soup on a late-summer menu was kabocha and maitake and includes pickled mushrooms to give you a sense of the seasonality. It is classic preparation with fine dining gilding. We had a salad of baby romaine hearts with sticks of beans and a salty Caesar dressing that was punchy and fresh. The mains also seem both familiar and creative. Yellow fin tuna comes with fennel in a red piquillo coulis sauce that adds a peppery note. That structure of traditional main ingredient with added touches shows up in chicken breast with farro ragout, or the pork chop with smoked eggplant puree’. It is careful and precise cooking that pulls along the diner instead of pushing. The desserts, always a hallmark at Ruta restaurants, are also worth leaving room for.
The service matches the setting, friendly and formal at the same time. The wine list is impressive, deeper than many of Bajaj’s other spots. By the glass starts above $15, and bottle prices for whites around $75 and reds generally above $100. It is French and American in focus, with large supplements from Spain, Italy, Germany, and Austria.
The old building has been spruced up and is certainly elegant, even if there are few white tablecloths. There are multiple different dining areas, including a modest bar as you enter and a garden room in the back. It is obviously worthy of a special night but can also be a treat-yourself night out without getting dressed up.
Other Guidance: The entrance is at street level, but there are interior stairs to the dining rooms and bathrooms. GF can do ok, but vegetarian options are limited.
Gift Cards – redeemable at all of Ashok’s Places (Annabelle, Bindaas, Bombay Club, Modena, La Bise, Rasika, and Sababa).