Close your eyes. Imagine yourself at your favorite Indian restaurant. What’s the first thing you think about? Chances are you’ve flashed back to the aromas and the flavors – that unique bouquet of spices that gives Indian dishes their distinctive character.
It’s far less likely that your first thought was of the atmosphere or the cocktail menu – unless your favorite Indian restaurant happens to be Rasika in Penn Quarter. This modern take on subcontinental cuisine delivers on the traditional flavors (curries, chaats, tandoori stews), but Chef Vikram Sunderam takes diners in some very unique directions, as well. He has to – the upscale decor and the creativity of the bar creations could easily overwhelm a more restrained menu.
As part of our effort to see as many of the top Oscar-nominated movies as possible, we decided to check out Slumdog Millionaire at the E Street Cinema last week. And because it had been far too long since we enjoyed Chef Sunderam’s wonderful palak chaat, we quickly decided that there was nothing wrong with making it a themed evening by starting with dinner and drinks at Rasika, just a few blocks away.
All the hits (and a rare miss) after the jump.
In case there was still any doubt that I’m one of the luckiest men in the world, I walked into Rasika and was greeted with the sight of Elizabeth waiting for me at the bar with a cocktail ready to go. A great scenario under any conditions, the bar menu at Rasika makes it even better. Classic cocktails like the Manhattan and the Sazerac get a Mumbai-inspired makeover with the addition of Indian spices (think star anise, cardamom, cinnamon, and mace). Creativity has been a hallmark of the bar here since the restaurant first opened, and along the way Rasika has been home to some truly gifted mixologists including Gina Chersevani (who is now back in Penn Quarter at PS7’s).
We were still enjoying our first round when the host came over to inform us that our table was ready, so we picked up our cocktails and headed into the main dining room. Descriptions of the space frequently include words like “stylish,” “chic” or “trendy” – shorthand for dark wood, luxe chairs and banquettes, and design elements like a beaded curtain that separates the dining room from the bar.
For those who desire a more intimate foodie experience, Rasika also offers a counter where a handful of diners can watch chefs at work on the tawa grill in front of them.
We sat down and wasted no time placing our appetizer order. There may be plenty of winners among the items on the left-hand side of the menu, but we couldn’t tell you. For us, appetizers at Rasika begin and end with palak chaat. Like just about everyone else, we are in love with the dish, which is a bowl of flash-fried spinach topped with yogurt, chutney and tamarind. It’s a terrific blend of textures and flavors, with crispy greens that practically dissolve in your mouth and a taste that brings in the sweetness of dates to offset the saltiness of the fried spinach.
From there, we decided to expand our horizons and branch out beyond the black cod and lamb entrees we know we enjoy. Elizabeth ordered the narangi duck, an Indian take on a duck a l’orange that really delivered. The flavor was less cloyingly sweet than the traditional French presentation, but the citrus flavor came through loud and clear alongside a savory Indian spice. Served with an orange zest-inflected rice, the duck breast was seared and presented in thin slices with beautifully pink centers.
Although the portions at Rasika are large enough to render side dishes unnecessary, we just had to get a side of the dal makhani. This traditional lentil dish is one of Elizabeth’s favorite quick and easy lunches, so we were eager to sample this version. The verdict? A bit soupier than the version we’re used to, but the flavors were clear and the texture of the lentils was spot-on. Definitely an argument for trying their jarred makhani sauce, now available for take-home purchase.
The $8 basket of assorted naan, paratha and kulcha is a bit of a splurge for bread, but it’s hard to pass up because of the selection. The various flatbreads include a garlic-and-herb variety as well as one spiced with mint and another that bears onions, sage and goat cheese. I tend to favor the latter; for Elizabeth, the garlic is the big winner.
The only miss of the evening was my entree, macchi patiala. Described as hamachi (young yellowtail amberjack) in a curry of yogurt, black cardamom and cloves, the dish offered two large chunks of the fish that were well-c00ked and flaked easily when I pressed into them. Unfortunately, the flavor of the hamachi was decidedly fishy, and its tangy taste overpowered the subtle flavors of the sauce that accompanied it. Considering how well diverse flavors meld in so many of the other dishes we’ve had, this was a rare and disappointing misstep.
Prices at Rasika reflect its high-end approach to Indian cuisine. Chaats, kebabs and appetizers from the griddle run $7-$12; entrees start at $16 and top out at $28 (lobster). Vegetarian options – a draw here as at many Indian restaurants – are a very reasonable $12 for entree-sized portions. This is more a candidate for a “Best Restaurants” list than a “Cheap Eats” guide, but you leave feeling like you got your money’s worth.
Because of its location next door to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Penn Quarter, it can be tough to get into Rasika on weekends as a walk-in, and the lounge area can get pretty crowded. Do yourself a favor and make a reservation on OpenTable to save yourself a lengthy wait, or plan on cocktails and smaller plates near the bar.
Whether we’re looking for a quick and unique drink option or a full-on Indian meal, we’re definitely fans of the creative flavors that can be found at Rasika.
633 D Street, NW
Washington, DC 20004