Photo of Rasikas Palak Chaat by Darrow Montgomerys Palak Chaat by Darrow Montgomery
Photo of Rasikas Palak Chaat by Darrow Montgomerys Palak Chaat by Darrow Montgomery

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Venerable Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema has a thing for Rasika and its sister restaurant, Rasika West End. He recommended one or both of the restaurants at least once in 47 percent of his “Ask Tom” online chats in 2018. The restaurants received 24 total mentions spread across 43 chats from Jan. 3 through today. These figures don’t include instances where readers asked questions or provided a rant or rave about one of restaurateur Ashok Bajaj‘s Rasika restaurants.

It’s hard to argue with Sietsema’s enthusiasm for the pair of modern Indian restaurants. After being nominated three years in a row, Chef Vikram Sunderam was named Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region by the James Beard Foundation in 2014. Dishes like the palak chaat and black cod flavored with dill, honey, star anise, and red wine vinegar have always been hits and there are few ways to go wrong ordering off the extensive and creative menu. (Always get the truffle naan.)

Back in 2009, Sietsema’s now Post colleague Tim Carman penned a story for City Paper announcing “Rasika Will Be The First Ethnic Restaurant to Earn 4 Stars from Tom Sietsema.” At the time Bajaj told Carman, “My hat is off to Tom for recognizing that ethnic restaurants can be four stars, too.” When Sietsema’s 2018 “Fall Dining Guide” dropped, Rasika retained its four-star rating.

“Indian is my favorite cuisine, and I think Rasika and Rasika West End in particular do the country proud,” Sietsema tells City Paper in an email. “Are they flawless? No. But they are consistently delicious, and I appreciate the fact the chefs change things up on a regular basis. The flavors remind me very much of those I’ve experienced abroad.”

Imagine Sietsema’s disappointment and befuddlement then, when Rasika failed to earn a Michelin star in 2016, the first year the D.C. edition of the guidebook was published. His article “What Michelin Gets Wrong About D.C.’s Dining Scene—Starting with Rasika” calls the omission “especially lamentable.” Rasika has yet to earn a star in subsequent annual editions of the guide.

Sietsema goes to bat for restaurants he loves, as most critics do, but how much cheerleading is appropriate when D.C.’s dining scene has so many restaurants deserving critical acclaim? Some chatters and commenters called the critic out a few times this year for over-promoting Rasika and Rasika West End. 

The frequency with which Sietsema recommends Rasika was a topic of conversation on the blog DC Urban Moms and Dads, which bled into his chat on Feb. 7, for example. Someone in the comments even accused Sietsema of being on Rasika’s payroll. This, of course, is not true. 

“I didn’t know I was still recommending the restaurants so much!” Sietsema says after City Paper pointed out that he recommended the restaurants in 47 percent of his 43 chats this year. “When a few readers complained earlier this year, I aimed to limit myself. I want to be fair to other restaurants, after all. That said, the Rasikas offer a lot of what chatters ask for, week in and week out: lots of vegetarian choices, private dining spaces, tasting menus, good service, etc.” 

In April, a chatter submitted a question about poor service during two meals at Rasika West End. They wrote, “Water not filled, 20 minutes to get bottle of wine, ignored by waiter. Beyond leaving a scathing review online, should I reach out to the restaurant via phone or email directly? It is such a shame that such wonderful food can be ruined by the service.” 

Sietsema responded. “If you’re such a fan of water, you might let the server know when you sit down.” 

Indian cuisine was one of the top food trends of 2018 in the District. From the end of 2017 through today, D.C. welcomed Masala Story, Karma Modern Indian, RASA, Pappe, Bindaas’ Foggy Bottom location, Spice 6’s Chinatown location, and Bombay Street Food. Two more, Glassey and Pubjab Grill, will open in the new year. 

“Of the newer Indian spots, I’ve enjoyed my meals at Karma and Pappe quite a bit,” Sietsema says. “I think they’re adding something different to the mix. As far as I’m concerned, there can never be too many Indian restaurants.”