Rasika, Penn Quarter

I’ve been to Rasika many times in my life, perhaps a dozen or so. Although the restaurant has gone from being “just another good restaurant” to “one of the toughest reservations in Washington, DC,” stylistically, it doesn’t seem like it has changed much at all, except for a small amplification in flavor intensity many years ago, when it was still close to its birth year of 2005. The one exception is that I had a fine meal at Rasika on my previous visit, which is mentioned on the restaurant’s web page itself.

I wonder how many people remember that the talented Sebastian Zutant left Komi to become sommelier at Rasika when it first opened: Although award-winning Chef Vikram Sunderam has remained with Knightsbridge Restaurant Group throughout its lifetime, Rasika’s drinks program – which can easily account for half of the diner’s final bill – has changed over the years, and on my most recent visit, the services of Zutant have never been missed more, as Rasika batted 0-for-3 in the beverage department.

Getting a prime-time table at Rasika now requires making a reservation several weeks in advance – unless you’re fortunate enough to find a cancellation – but even at an off-time, you’re not guaranteed to find a table, as I found out when I walked in recently. Hoping to sit in the dining room, my choices were either to wait a couple of hours, or snag the only remaining seat at the bar, so the bar it was.

Wanting to unwind and begin my meal with a cocktail, I raised an eyebrow when I saw the Champagne Cocktail ($12) which is exactly what I was in the mood for. Unfortunately, the Champagne Cocktail at Rasika is made, not with Champagne, but with Prosecco, which is akin to advertising Kobe beef and selling Angus in its place. Still, I knew what I was getting into, as the menu clearly said the Prosecco was served with Ginger Syrup and Candied Ginger, and I knew the sweet ginger would mask any deficiencies in the Prosecco – I asked my *wonderful* bartender (and I’ll be referring to him again) if the drink was on the sweet or dry side, and he told me it was sweet, so I asked for a reduced dose of ginger syrup, and the cocktail he made me was in perfect balance – I’d suggest that, unless you’re in the mood for a sugary drink, you ask your server to go light on the ginger syrup. The only thing wrong with this cocktail was the name of it, which can be permanently fixed by the restaurant in a matter of seconds; until that happens, just be aware that you can buy entire bottles of Prosecco – at the retail level – for $12.

I wanted a snack to have with my cocktail, so I also ordered a piece of Mint Paratha ($3), and it was of average quality, with good texture and cooking; the only ding was that was a bit bland, but this isn’t supposed to be the center of attention.

For my appetizer, I ordered a curious item: Dover Sole Chutneywala ($15) – curious, because it was the only Dover Sole they had on the menu, and it was extremely thin. Wrapped in a banana leaf, it was dressed in a mild curry (or, more accurately, chutney) of coconut, mint, and cilantro, and accompanied by a little Kachumber on the side. I don’t quite understand how Rasika is able to serve such a small portion of Dover Sole, because this is expensive fish and there must be some minimum amount that a restaurant has to order – but Knightsbridge Restaurant Group may order larger portions of Dover Sole for its eight restaurants (economies of scale and all that). This was somewhat skimpy, and the Kachumber was of average quality, but the dish as a whole was novel.

I had finished my cocktail and wanted some wine before the appetizer, and having read the description of the dish, I went straight for a glass of Elena Walsh Gewürztraminer ($14), also something of a surprise because it was the only glass of Gewürztraminer on the list, and it was from Italy (Alto Adige to be exact) – it definitely piqued my curiosity. Unfortunately, the second I took my first whiff, I must have unintentionally scrunched up my face, and my bartender must have seen me, because he said, “Your appetizer will be right out, sir.” But that’s not why I scrunched up my face (and I didn’t know he was looking!); I knew from the very first smell that this wine had undergone malolactic fermentation – this is a secondary fermentation which turns malic acid (think: tart, green apples) into lactic acid (think: yogurt) – lactic acid is *not* something you want in your Gewürztraminer, and I was more than a little disappointed that out of all the Gewürztraminers in the world, this is the one Rasika selected to serve by the glass – it had a distinct bouquet of milky acids, and I was terribly disappointed. It wasn’t a “bad” wine, but the nature of the acidity was amoral – here, of all places, with their heralded “Modern Indian” cuisine, I wanted a white wine with a bit of grip to it, and I got a glass of flab – possibly a distributor close-out.

It had been awhile since I’d been to Rasika, and I over-ordered on purpose, thinking I’d enjoy it for lunch tomorrow as well. I’ve been criticized before for ordering “too traditional” at Rasika, so I wanted to be sure not to do that this trip. For my main course, I got Ananas Gosht ($20) – Ananas means pineapple, and Gosht means lamb, and this came with lamb, cashew nuts, pineapple, mace, and cardamom. Thinking this would be a red wine course, I ordered a glass of 2013 Jean Yves Perraud “Domaine de Foretal” Julienas ($12), Julienas being one of the more floral villages in Beaujolais, and the wine being 100% Gamay. There was only one thing wrong with this wine, and it was a deal-breaker: My bartender pulled a bottle off the shelf, and poured my glass, and it was about 75 degrees in the restaurant – the wine was about 20 degrees too hot. (And people are angry because Rasika didn’t get a Michelin star?) Refer back to the fourth paragraph where I mentioned my wonderful bartender. He asked me how the wine was, and I said it was good, but would he mind putting the glass in the freezer for about ten minutes? He didn’t bat an eye – he immediately said, “There’s absolutely no need for that – I’ll just open another bottle,” and he opened the (temperature-controlled) bottle storage underneath the back of the bar, pulled out a brand new bottle, opened it, poured it, and … it made all the difference in the world. He went above the call of duty opening that bottle – I would have been perfectly content just having mine cooled down for ten minutes (by now, I’m so used to asking for this, that it no longer bothers me that people don’t know how to serve red wine). I thanked him heartily, and made sure to leave him a good tip at the end of the night – his name was Dwight, by the way, and I wouldn’t mention his name if he wasn’t excellent.

As for the Ananas Gosht, I wish I could compliment it as much as Dwight – aside from having a single, paper-thin pineapple slice on top of the dish, the pellets of lamb were tough and tasteless. Precisely one week after I went to Rasika, I went to Raaga, an Indian restaurant you’ve never heard of before, because it’s an unknown dive in Falls Church. There, I ordered a Chicken Kolhapuri ($14.95). I urge fans of Rasika to go to both restaurants, get one dish of each to go, and compare them side-by-side – the results will either delight or depress you, depending on what your motivations are, and it won’t be a close call. Darn it I wanted to like this lamb dish, but it wasn’t in the stars, so to speak.

Well, of *course* I got three side dishes: a distressingly charred Eggplant Chili Garlic ($8) – the only inedible dish of the night because it wasn’t only burned, but it was scorching hot, and eggplant with skin-on retains heat for a long time; Zucchini Tamatar Kofta ($8), which was probably my favorite dish of the night, the zucchini dumplings made with mustard seeds and onion seeds, and an outsized portion of Cucumber Raita ($4), best-suited for a party of two, but I knew exactly what I was getting when I ordered it – it was slightly above-average Raita, but nothing memorable. The next day, for lunch, the Raita tamed the Eggplant – I was genuinely hungry again for lunch, and rather than choking down the eggplant when I was full, I was able to enjoy it the next day when I was hungry.

In summary, a typical visit at Rasika for me – why people are outraged that Rasika didn’t get a Michelin star is beyond my comprehension – it isn’t even close to being a one-star restaurant. It’s a good Modern Indian venue that’s one of the best choices in Penn Quarter. I even have it ranked ahead of Masala Art and Woodlands in the Multiple Locations Dining Guide, although I’m not entirely convinced it should be ranked higher than Woodlands. I guess if you want some wine with your Indian cuisine, it’s one of the best Indian restaurants in the area, but this visit made me miss Passage To India and Indique, both of which I’ve neglected now for far too long.

Ashok Bajaj is a brilliant restaurateur, and I hope he finally gets the recognition he deserves at the national level – taken as a whole, his set of restaurants is nothing short of spectacular. Nothing would be more fitting than if he won the James Beard Award this year for Outstanding Restaurateur in the United States.

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