Rasika (Washington, DC)

Well, my travels to the DC area are always a good excuse for getting together with several of my friends in the area. So when I had a free evening on my visit earlier this month, I called up some friends, and Steve, Allie, Leslie, and I all met up at Rasika in DC’s Penn Quarter.

Rasika has been on my hit list for a few years, since it’s a perennial top finisher in most of the local restaurant review guides, getting particularly good marks from Eater DC and the Washington Post. It has a reputation of having the area’s best Indian food, with an emphasis on modern and vibrant interpretations of classic Indian dishes. It’s also been on a lot of other people’s hit lists, since I was completely unable to actually get reservations for our group of four… but they also like to keep a good number of tables available for the walk-in crowd. They very happily gave us a nice table for four in their odd little front room (at some point they expanded into the space next door, and there are two tables sitting in what used to be the entry vestibule for that suite) with the promise that we had to be done and out the door by 7.

While we waited for Steve, who was running a few minutes behind the rest of us, we started off with some appetizers, opting for the palak chaat (crispy fried spinach, sweet yogurt, onions, cumin, chili powder, and chutney) and chutneywala (sea bass wrapped in a leaf with a nice cilantro/mint paste, served with jeera aloo (cumin potatoes)) as appetizers for the table.

Well, the palak chaat is one of the dishes that Rasika is famous for, and as we discovered, there’s a good reason for this. I don’t generally run into a lot of fried spinach dishes, but this reminded me of some of the crisped herb dishes I seem to get a lot at nicer Italian places: little delicate crisped leaves of spinach interlaced with little pockets of sweetness (from the yogurt and tamarind), crunch (from fresh onion), and spiciness (from the chutney). We pretty much instantly devoured the dish, and if I find myself back at Rasika any time soon, I’ll be ordering more of this.

The chutneywala was similarly sublime. Arriving at the table as a fairly non-picturesque wrapped leaf, once opened, this dish revealed a perfectly cooked slab of sea bass enrobed in a thick mint and cilantro paste that completely infused the fish with nice mint and cilantro notes. Served up with a little mound of perfectly done cumin potatoes that played nicely against the sweeter mint notes of the fish. Another dish that I will find a hard time not reordering.

So we got through the appetizers with two solid successes showing that Rasika is definitely onto something here, so we moved on to some main courses. Again deciding to split our dishes family style, I ordered up the kozhi vartha kozambhu (chicken with anise and coconut), while the rest of the table ordered up chicken tikka masala, lamb roganjosh, and bhindi amchour (fried okra), and a variety of naans.

How did the main courses stack up? The chicken tikka masala and lamb roganjosh were both well-executed versions of classic dishes. Nothing really surprising here, just really nicely done dishes with tender meat and plenty of spice (especially with being nicely spicy without being particularly hot, I love it when Indian cooks make a dish that’s spicy and bold without cranking up just the peppers).

The the kozhi vartha kozambhu was a nice surprise, however. Served up in a nice curry sauce with strong anise and coconut flavors (which are two flavors I don’t normally encounter together), this was a sweeter curry dish that seemed to me to bring several flavors I usually associate with Southeast Asian food to an Indian dish, with pleasant results.

Similarly, the bhindi amchour was quite good as well. We ordered this primarily since I know it’s rather hard to do okra without it getting slimy, and I also wanted to see how it stacked up against the Madhur Jaffrey curried fried okra Carol and I often make at home. Well, it was rather good. Nice little shreds of okra in a slightly sweet curry sauce, with a nice crisp to it, and not even a hint of slime. Nicely done.

Overall, Rasika lived up to the hype, particularly with two excellent appetizers. The main courses were solidly executed as well, resulting in a pleasantly spicy meal, served by a friendly and accommodating staff.

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