I know I said a couple of days ago that I have a lot of meal reports yet to complete from my two weeks in Los Angeles; but here is a quick detour to DC. I took a 36 hour trip there, right after returning to Minnesota from Los Angeles, to do some grant approval work for a government agency. I got there early on a Tuesday evening, spent all of the next day at the agency I was working for and left for the airport from there. This meant I only had dinner available on the Tuesday. I was between two places: Little Serow and Rasika. I picked Rasika for three reasons, only one of which had to do with their own merits: standing in line outside Little Serow in mid-summer DC heat/humidity did not appeal and nor did the thought of being in a day-long panel meeting after eating a searing hot Thai meal; also, given my constant cribbing about the quality of Indian food in the US, it seemed foolish to pass up an opportunity to eat at what a number of people say is one of the best Indian restaurants in the country, if not the best. (See here for some of that constant cribbing.)
To say that Rasika is a lauded restaurant is not a controversial statement. The head chef, Vikram Sundaram was named “Best Chef” for the Mid-Atlantic region by the James Beard Foundation in 2014 (after three previous nominations)—and anyone who follows the Beard awards knows it’s quite unusual for chefs working in “ethnic” cuisines to be nominated, let alone win—and that in a large market like DC. And later in the year the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema named it his favourite restaurant in the city. More importantly for me, it came recommended by a couple of Indian friends of mine who are into food. I know it’s terrible of me to say but most of us Indians don’t take very seriously the views of Americans when it come to Indian food. (Also, not all Indians can be trusted on Indian food, just as not all Americans can be trusted on American food.)
I don’t mean to give the impression though that Rasika is a new restaurant. It has been around for about ten years (I remember mocking its vertigo-inducing original website on a food forum when it first opened). Its rise to national prominence (in foodie circles), however, is more recent. Ten years ago the big name was Devi in Manhattan (right after Hemant Mathur and Suvir Saran had taken over). And in December 2005/January 2006 we’d eaten an excellent meal there right on the heels of another excellent Indian meal in DC, at Indique. I’m not sure what Indique’s reputation is like now but it makes sense, given demographics, that DC should have good Indian food. Indeed, there are a number of other restaurants in the area that I’d like to try if I ever manage to spend more than 36 hours there.
I should add though that both those meals in 2005/6 were not standard experiences: the Indique dinner was in the company of fellow members of an Indian food/culture forum I used to co-run (it still exists but is dormant) and a DC based Indian food and cookbook writer had helped set up the meal; and the Devi dinner was a special meal laid on for us by Suvir Saran, that featured items both on and off the menu. Still, those meals were the best high-end Indian meals I’d had in my 22 years in this country so far and I was curious to see how the Rasika of 2015 would compare with my memories and notes of those meals almost a decade ago.
Well, it fell short. Which is not to say it was a bad meal. It was certainly the best high-end Indian meal I’ve had in the US since our dinner at Devi, and the highs of the meal probably compared. However, there was more that was ho-hum at this meal and some things that were not very good. Before I get to those details, however, I want to say how happy it made me to enter an Indian restaurant at 8.15 on a Tuesday evening and see it completely packed, with a mix of Indian and non-Indian diners, most of them rather chic*. Living in Minnesota, where curry houses are all there are, I’m not used to seeing Indian restaurants as popular and fashionable choices for nights out for people with more money and better fashion sense than me. (Not that I could see the restaurant very well: it is very, very dark.) Despite a reservation we had to wait for almost 30 minutes (I was dining with a friend, an Indian historian who was a colleague at my previous job). Oh yes, this was at the original Penn Quarter location (there’s another branch not too far away).
This is what we ate (evaluations are below the slideshow):
(The menu on their website is not up to date, by the way: this is the menu we saw.)
- Palak Chaat: Crispy baby spinach / sweet yogurt tamarind / date chutney. (This was presented to us as we sat down to make up for the delay.)
- Spicy Reshmi Kabab: Minced chicken / mint / coriander / green chili.
- Scallop Rasam: Lentil / tamarind / black pepper.
- Black Cod: Fresh dill / honey / star anise / red wine vinegar.
- Duck Vindaloo: Peri -Peri masala / pearl onions / coconut rice.
- Lamb Biryani: Aromatic basmati rice / raita. (The menu lists only chicken biryani but they agreed to give us one with lamb.)
- Dal Makhani: Lentils / tomatoes / garlic / fenugreek.
- Gulab Jamun
Yes, there were only two of us: what’s your point?
So, which were the highs, which the lows and which the ho-hum? Read on:
- Palak Chaat: Flash fried spinach leaves tossed with a couple of chutneys. This is perhaps their signature dish and while I am, as previously noted, usually dubious of the notion of eating chaat as a starter at fancy restaurants, I could not resist. Well, this was very good and probably the best thing we ate. It wouldn’t really scratch a real chaat itch for me—way too refined—and it’s not a patch on the palak patta chaat at Cafe Lota, for instance, but far better than I was expecting it to be. A very good start.
- Spicy Reshmi Kabab: This was also quite good but really not what I was hoping for when I ordered reshmi kabab: I was expecting/hoping for something a little less regulation seekh kabab’ish. That aside, a pretty good kabab, if not particularly spicy.
- Scallop Rasam: The scallops were cooked well, the rasam was okay, but why the scallops were in the rasam, I don’t know. This is not a particularly original dish, by the way. I remember Suvir Saran describing making scallop rasam for a catering event back in 2003 on eGullet.
- Black Cod: This is another of their signature dishes. Some on Chowhound’s DC forum warned against it, but one of my Indian foodie friends recommended it highly and I went with her pick. Well, it was perfectly cooked fish and very tasty but you might scratch your head wondering what’s Indian about it. It was served on seviyan/vermicelli, which is “interesting” in a Minnesotan sense.
- Duck Vindaloo: They get points for a) using duck, the only acceptable substitute for pork in a vindaloo in my opinion and b) for knowing that the signature aspect of a vindaloo should be sourness not chilli heat (which is not to say that this was mild). They lose points, however, for making a vindaloo whose flavours were not properly integrated: I seemed to taste the vinegar and the chillies and the other spices almost separately. The duck was cooked perfectly though.
- The vindaloo was served with red rice, laced with coconut. This was excellent and my second favourite thing at the meal.
- Lamb Biryani: This was presented with some fanfare by our very personable waiter. As I noted above, they agreed very readily to make it with lamb for us and he was very excited about the dough that sealed the pot and the steam that would emerge when he would cut into it. This was a less exciting feature for us (and we couldn’t figure out why on earth they’d sealed the pot with naan dough rather than regular aata) but we played up well for his sake. The biryani itself was not very good. The meat was tender but the rice was inconsistently cooked. The cucumber raita it came with was better.
- Dal Makhani: I was a little disappointed that they didn’t have any other dals on the menu but this was actually very good and quite reminiscent of the famous dal at Bukhara at the Maurya Sheraton, back in the day (I’m sure Bukhara’s dal hasn’t changed but I haven’t eaten there in a decade). This was a side order, by the way.
- Gulab Jamun: Served with cardamom ice-cream. On the whole, I preferred the ice-cream. The gulab jamuns were better than most I’ve had in Indian restaurants in the US but the consistency was still a bit too dense and the syrups was too heavy on the rosewater for my taste.
All of this came to $140 with tax and tip. Keep in mind that we did not drink and that the palak chaat was comped. So pretty pricey. If everything had been at least good it would have been a better value. As it was, even with the federal government picking up a part of the tab, it seemed fairly expensive for what we ate (though probably right on par with places of similar reputation in DC). This was our shared view, by the way, even though my friend was less critical, on the whole, than I was of some of the dishes.
I would still recommend it though if you’re in DC and not averse to spending this kind of money on a meal out. It’s pretty refined as Indian food in the US goes but not dumbed down in any way; and while I don’t know where that black cod fits, despite all the updated presentation this is all still fairly solidly traditional Indian food in terms of flavours. If you go (or have been) and get other things please write in below to say what they’re like. And also write in, of course, if you disagree (or better still, agree) with my estimations of the above.
Oh, the service: while the beautiful young hostesses treated us, on arrival and while we were waiting, like the scum we are (with a mix of alarm, disdain and indifference, more or less in that order) our waiter was very friendly and very present without being obtrusive. I did want to say to him though that if an Indian diner asks how the gobhi-mutter is done he probably should say something other than “It’s made with cauliflower and peas in a curry sauce”. But that was a small matter and a very petty note to end on. I apologize.
*Indian waiters may feel differently given how few of them seemed to be working that night.