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When you sample the separate components of a dish at RASA, opening Dec. 6 in Navy Yard, you’re hit with the intense flavors of Indian herbs and spices. The peanut sesame sauce is savory, the tamarind ginger chutney is fiery, and the dehydrated bitter melon slices used to add crunch are this year’s kale chips. Together they form a bowl as boisterous as the soundtrack to any Bollywood movie.
The restaurant’s format will be familiar to those who frequent CAVA or any of the build-a-bowl fast-casual restaurants taking over the region. Diners can choose from a base of salad greens, super grains, basmati rice, or South Indian rice noodles before moving on to select a protein such as chicken tikka or starchy green jackfruit sourced directly from India. Next diners can point to sauces, vegetables, chutneys, dressings, and other toppings. If the do-it-yourself model is too intimidating, RASA offers a few suggestions like the “Tikka Chance on Me” or the “Aloo Need Is Love.”
Try the “Home Cooking” bowl featuring turmeric ginger shrimp, tamarind chili sauce, South Indian rice noodles, green beans, mango salsa, tamarind coconut powder, lentil crisps, tamarind ginger chutney, and mango coconut yogurt ($11). It features the most items from Kerala, the region in southern India from where co-founder Rahul Vinod’s family hails—Kerala. The owners are using fine dining techniques, but at a $10 price point. See the full menu below.
Vinod, 27, and Sahil Rahman, 26, have been working towards opening a restaurant that makes their native Indian cuisine more accessible to the masses since they were in high school. They grew up working at their fathers’ restaurants—Chef K.N. Vinod and Surfy Rahman own Indique and Bombay Bistro—but in the dining room, not the kitchen.
While K.N. Vinod developed the menu for RASA, located in the F1RST Residences, his son and nephew will need to execute it. “A year and a half we’ve been in the kitchens at Bombay Bistro and Indique,” Rahul says. “My dad said, ‘You guys need to get your hands dirty and learn everything from chopping to sautéing.’”
“You can’t run a restaurant by sitting on a computer,” K.N. says.
In preparation for opening RASA, Sahil and Rahul traveled to India last fall, visiting cities from the far north down to the south. “With opening an Indian restaurant, not only do we want to get to know the food scene but we realized whether we want to or not we’re going to become cultural ambassadors to India,” Sahil says. “It’s a role we’re really excited about.”
A highlight from the trip was spending time with Sanjeev Kapoor. “He’s the José Andrés, Emeril Lagasse, all of them combined, of India,” Sahil says. They even stared in one of Kapoor’s YouTube videos.
But most importantly they visited the Bangalore location of Akshaya Patra—the charitable organization RASA plans to support. For every meal purchased at RASA, Sahil and Rahul hope to supply one meal through Akshaya Patra. “It’s the largest feeding program in the world,” Sahil explains. “In India, children skip school to make money to buy food to feed themselves or their families. Akshaya Patra encourages kids to go to school by offering them a free meal.”
Sahil and Rahul both say the biggest takeaway from the trip was that they only scratched the surface of Indian cuisine. “I was amazed by the diversity,” Sahil says. “It’s been a cool year diving deeper into my Indian-ness. Growing up, being Indian wasn’t cool. People would pick on you. It’s been really cool from a cultural standpoint seeing that people are more open-minded, not just with food but with music and movies.”
Evidence that RASA is a family affair is reflected in its rainbow-colored decor. Nine square paintings hang in a row starting at the entrance, each one representing one of the nine essential emotions known as “rasas.” Sahil’s aunt Nandita Madan painted them, and other artwork scattered throughout the space. HapstakDemetriou+ carried out the design which also features swinging basket chairs and a wave of shelving displaying culinary artifacts, trip memorabilia, and cookbooks.
Drinks at RASA include chai tea, 3 Stars Peppercorn Saison beer, mango lassis, and a masala gin and tonic on draft. They also offer a small selection of desserts like kulfi (Indian ice cream) pops and masala chai cookies.
RASA will open briefly on Tuesday from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. offering free meals with a suggested donation to DC Central Kitchen. Wednesday marks the grand opening. RASA will be open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
RASA, 1247 First St. SE; (202) 313-7272; rasagrill.com