Rasika, Again (Washington, D.C.)


My first—and only previous—meal at Rasika was in August 2015. At the time it was widely hailed as the best Indian restaurant in the US and I was curious to see what it was like. My dinner on that occasion was a bit of a mixed bag. Some dishes were indeed very good, some were just okay and some were not so good. I wasn’t sure if that meal was an outlier and so I remained curious enough to want to eat there again. On this trip to DC, almost exactly four years after the previous, I got to do so again. We were on the lookout for restaurants within walking distance of the Smithsonian museums and Rasika’s Penn Quarter location fits that bill (it is located quite close to Hill Country). They were participating in DC’s Restaurant Week that week and their offering seemed like a pretty good deal: three courses per head for $22. And so we decided to give it a go. How did it turn out? Read on.

Well, the first thing we discovered on arrival is that we had erred in not making a reservation. I am not sure if this was because of the restaurant week deal but the place was jammed. Arriving shortly after noon we were told the wait might be as long as 30 minutes and so it proved to be. And it stayed as busy well past 1.30. We were promptly furnished menus with the Restaurant Week selections and made our selections quickly. There were extensive options in each category (appetizer, entree, dessert) and we were able to make selections easily for all four of us without any overlap. What did we get?

Appetizers

  • Tawa sea bass; pressed rice/mustard seeds/curry leaves/lemon pickle.
  • Hariyali chicken tikka; basil/green chilli/mint chutney.
  • Chilli garlic goli kabab; minced lamb/red chilli/green onions.
  • Palak chaat; crisp baby spinach/yogurt/tamarind date.

Entrees

  • Goan fish curry; coconut/Kashmiri chilii/tamarind.
  • Tandoori salmon; Kashmiri chilli/cinnamon/black pepper.
  • Chicken makhani; broiled chicken/tomato/fenugreek.
  • Murg mirch korma; chicken/caramelized onion/Sichuan pepper.

Dessert

  • Rose plum sorbet.
  • Gulab jamun cheesecake.
  • Mango cardamom panna cotta.
  • Coconut jaggery rice pudding.

The entrees came with a bowl of rice and a basket of assorted naans etc. For the price we were expecting tasting menu-sized portions but portions in fact turned out to be rather large. On the one hand this meant we could share everything comfortably; on the other, it meant we had a lot of food for two adults and two small children. How was the food itself? Find out after looking at the slideshow below.

Things started out very well in the first course with three hits out of the four. Their signature palak chaat—which I’d enjoyed in 2015—is still very good. The chicken tikka pieces seemed a little too large but they were marinated and grilled well. The tawa sea bass—a very large portion—was nicely done with the pressed rice crust but it was the accompanying lemon pickle and spiced potato mash that I liked the most. That leaves the lamb goli kabab—it wasn’t bad but it was basically like eating unremarkable meatballs coated with a slightly spicy tomato sauce. This was mostly mine and I am still kicking myself for not getting the calamari balchao. Still, we were very happy at this point.

Things got more mediocre with the entrees. This is both because there was too much of a sameness between the three curries—and a sameness neither signaled on the menu nor pointed out by our server—and because all the dishes were prepared in a rather uninspired manner. Both the alleged Goan fish curry and the murgh mirch korma were dominated by tomato. There was not much sign of coconut or Goan flavours in the former and no sign whatsoever of the billed Sichuan pepper in the latter; indeed, there was nothing korma’ish about the korma or anything really to recommend it over average home-made chicken curry. The tandoori salmon was fine but three large chunks of fish with green chutney is an odd main course (and it was hard to tell why this was a main course and the hariyali tikka an appetizer). Unexpectedly then, the butter chicken that the older brat got, despite our trying to gently guide him in a more adventurous direction, turned out to be the best dish in this course.

Desserts were an improvement on the main courses but not uniformly so. In the plus column were the mango cardamom panna cotta and the coconut jaggery rice pudding. In the blah column was the rose plum sorbet—it would have been very good as just plum sorbet but the rose added on—presumably to make it more “Indian”—made it too cloying. And speaking of cloying, the gulab jamun cheesecake looked and tasted like a bad idea—though I suspect whoever came up with it thinks it is a very good idea.

If you’ve been counting you’ll note that we liked 6/12 dishes a lot. It is true that there was only dish that we thought was bad (the cheesecake) but there was too much that seemed by the numbers. That doesn’t seem like a great hit rate for a restaurant vying to be the best in its genre in the US. Now, of course, this was at lunch and it was during restaurant week but it was about the same hit rate as I’d experienced in 2015 at dinner. Perhaps I’ve gotten unlucky twice but it seems to me that Rasika is quite a way behind its peers in London—our weekday prix fixe lunches at the Cinnamon Club, in particular, were so much better in both conception and execution.

Service was friendly and present—they are well staffed—but the courses were very unevenly timed. The first course came out right away but then it took a long time for the mains to arrive and even longer after that for the desserts to show up. Perhaps the kitchen was taken by surprise by the Restaurant Week rush. That rush—if it is indeed unusual for weekday lunch—might have been because the Restaurant Week menu was, despite my reservations above, a very good deal. $22/head for a hefty meal at a top restaurant is by any measure a very good price. And even if we didn’t think the meal lived up to Rasika’s lofty reputation it was a very good meal for $22/head. And who knows, perhaps if we’d made a few different choices we’d have been more impressed.

Okay, next up from our east coast trip: another Indian meal, this time from New York. But in between I’ll have a Twin Cities report (it’s been a long time since I’ve had one of those).

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