Street Food With a Side of Graffiti

★★★★☆

One of Arlington’s newest restaurants, Palette 22, brings a fashionable atmosphere to this trendy Virginia neighborhood. I went for dinner on a Saturday night shortly after the restaurant had opened and found the large space packed full both around the bar and at tables. The clientele was very diverse, including families, older couples and many young professionals in a space that seems designed to satisfy everyone except those conscious of noise.

Palette 22 labels itself a space of “food, art and fun,” rather than simply a restaurant. The cuisine is inspired by street food from around the world, and the restaurant is inside a 1940s art deco building with a modernized interior designed to look like an artist’s studio. Modern graffiti paintings hang on the walls, created by an artist-in-residence.

The menu items are tapas style, with almost everything priced under $10. Featuring cuisine from around the world, almost anyone can find something appealing, including several vegetarian and gluten-free options. As a large group, we began by ordering several starters for the table to share. I also ordered a glass of sangria ($4.22 during happy hour), which had a sweet, red flavor but was not very fruity, which slightly diminished its appeal.

The “bites” we ordered first included avocado hummus ($7), accompanied by flatbread; queso de cabra ($8), a goat cheese and salsa spread; roasted cauliflower ($6); and fried watermelon and halloumi ($9). The first I tried was the avocado hummus, which I found somewhat disappointing as it contained neither the fresh flavors of avocadoes or hummus.
However, the other dishes all exceeded expectations — in particular the fried watermelon and halloumi. Halloumi is a semi-hard Cypriot cheese and its dairy flavor combined wonderfully with the sweet watermelon slices and the dish’s harissa spice, pomegranate, molasses and mint seasonings.

The roasted cauliflower was another highlight. Having been seasoned with North African ras el hanout spices, mint and golden raisins, the combination of sweet and spice added an interesting twist to the otherwise characteristically bland cauliflower.

The next dishes we ordered came in several waves, as we would share one and then decide if we had room for more, allowing the friendly wait staff to continuously cycle to our table and take more orders. These plates were jerk chicken flatbread ($7), wild mushroom flatbread ($7), Argentine empanadas ($7), Singapore chili crab pot stickers ($8), Peking duck and moo shu pancakes ($7), Peruvian-style grilled octopus ($11) and Cuban sliders ($11).

The octopus was a highlight as it came ceviche-style with olive oil, garlic, lemon, paprika, thyme and gold potatoes, all of which came together in a perfect harmony of flavors.

The jerk chicken flatbread was another favorite as it put an interesting spin on traditional Jamaican-style spicy jerked chicken by adding mango-pineapple salsa and putting it on flatbread.

The Cuban sliders put a spin on the traditional Cuban sandwich, containing pulled pork, sweet ham, pickles and Swiss cheese, but were served in mini hamburger buns instead of on bread.

However, the best dish of the night was the Argentine empanada. While I normally steer away from lamb, the soft pastries full of roasted lamb, beef, pork, plantains, raisins, capers and hard-boiled egg were wonderfully smooth in texture, containing much more than just a ground- meat taste.

Finally, we ended with chocolate churros ($5), which came with strawberries and spicy chocolate. I enjoyed the sweet, fried dough sticks and fresh strawberries, but not the spicy flavor that overpowered the taste of the chocolate sauce.

As is evident in the unique ingredient combinations of each dish, Palette 22’s food features very interesting combinations of flavors from around the world. With everything from Asian to Caribbean to Middle Eastern to South American cuisine, the chefs clearly put a lot of effort into combining these flavors to highlight the tastes of the individual ingredients. The combination came at the price of authenticity, since truly representing each of these regions in the same restaurant would be nearly impossible.

Thus, despite the street-food and international inspirations, Palette 22 would probably best be classified as a modern American tapas restaurant.

The lively environment complete with a buzzing bar and menu options that are perfect for sharing should appeal to almost every kind of taste, and reasonable prices make the restaurant a very good bet for group dining.

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