Ashok Bajaj, the New Delhi–born restaurateur who’s quietly amassing a small empire in D.C., is making the case that Rasika, his sleek, neo-Indian operation in Penn Quarter, has no role models or predecessors. “No, no, no, no, no. I conceptualized the complete restaurant on my own,” says Bajaj, who also owns that Raj-era outpost, Bombay Club, along with non-subcontinental restaurants such as Ardeo, Bardeo, 701, and the Oval Room. “You don’t model it on somebody else’s restaurant.”
But the more I look at it, the more I see history repeating itself at Rasika. The themed cocktails here, including a clove martini with two star-anise pods floating on the surface like dead crickets, put an Indian twist on the designer mixed drinks found at just about every upscale restaurant. The small-plate offerings echo similar approaches at not only fellow Indian fine-dining spots Indique and Indebleu but also those high-concept operations that José Andrés keeps rolling out. Even some of the signature dishes on the menu—the palak chaat, black cod, and a duck-breast entree—have enjoyed previous exposure, in one form or another, at chef Vikram Sunderam’s old stomping ground, the well-respected Bombay Brasserie in London.
Bajaj wants Rasika to be “young and hip and happening,” the exact opposite of his clubby, British colonial Bombay Club, but the restaurant comes across as a less-dangerous, less-daring version of neighbor Indebleu. Both places repackage and re-imagine Indian cuisine for a generation that probably thinks the Raj is a rapper. Indebleu baits the youth market by selling a dining adventure: a fusion of French and Indian ingredients served in a multistory environment that moves from the harem-in-a-space-capsule ambience of the lounge to the clean, modernist lines of the main dining room.
Likewise, Rasika looks to attract diners who consider tattoos to be as much a body accessory as jewelry—the restaurant just doesn’t want any of its servers to actually show inked skin, as some do at Indebleu. The wait staff at Rasika all wear black, retro-fashionable Nehru jackets (save for punk-haired sommelier Sebastian Zutant, formerly of Komi, who sports a more traditional black suit.) They move through a dimly lit dining room that pulsates with understated lounge music, as if you’re in a downtown dance club for people who actually want to talk.
If Indebleu works harder to push the conceptual boundaries of an Indian restaurant, it’s by necessity. Its food alone is not enough of an attraction. Rasika’s fascination with being unique and hip, by contrast, feels like an unnecessary distraction from what it does very well: turn out well-conceived, well-balanced, and attractively presented Indian dishes. Plate for plate, Sunderam’s cooking is superior to Vikram Garg’s at Indebleu, where fusion innovations appear to be more valued than a vibrant blending of Indian spices. Rasika’s menu is divided into sections—tawa (griddle), sigri (barbecue), tandoor, chaat (appetizers), vegetarian, entrees, and rice/breads—and you’ll find treats under each heading.
You’ll also find some forward thinking. Sunderam’s menu is not all butter chicken, lamb rogan josh, and paneer shaslik, though these Indian staples are available. He pushes the cuisine ahead in more measured ways than Garg at Indebleu, always seemingly respectful of the long history of subcontinental cooking; Sunderam prefers to take an unusual ingredient—unusual, at least, by Indiancooking standards—and dress it up in spice blends that highlight and complement the principal flavor.
His Marylanderby way ofNew Delhi masala crab cakes ($12) give you the sweet meat you expect and more: They come scented with fennel powder and fire-bombed with a wicked chili balsamic sauce. His expertly cooked black cod fillet ($24) falls apart with the slightest application of a fork; better yet, its creamy white flesh is nicely goosed with shots of dill, red wine vinegar, and star anise. His dum ka duck ($19) is sliced duck breast whose rich meaty flavors give the overly pungent chili-cashew sauce its lone reason to live on your plate.
When Sunderam’s dishes fail to live up to their promise, it’s usually the fault of the kitchen or the wait staff, not the recipe. The ginger scallops ($9) arrive overseared, but even with the excessive char, the succulent bivalves stand up to the fiery burnt-garlic pepper sauce. Everything about the tandoori trout ($16) is rewarding—its deeply charred skin conceals buttery flesh that mellows out the piquant mint chutney—except its presentation. Even though a waiter debones the trout right in the dining room, the fish remains packed with prickly white toothpicks. It makes the dish extremely difficult to eat.
Sunderam’s most creative and satisfying dish, however, is the ethereal palak chaat ($8)—crispy baby spinach, as translucent as bee’s wings, splotched with fried specks of chickpea flour and dressed in sweet yogurt and tamarind chutney. It’s one of Rasika’s signature dishes, a gift from Sunderam’s time at the Bombay Brasserie. With food this good, who cares where it’s been first?
Rasika, 633 D St. NW, (202) 637-1222
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