Plaudits: Washingtonian 2010 #8, Washingtonian 2009 #18, Washingtonian 2008 #41, Washington City Paper's Young and Hungry Top 50 Restaurants, Washington Post 2009 Top 50 Restaurants, 2009 RAMMY Upscale Casual Restaurant of the Year
Neighborhood: Penn Quarter
Legitimately, I was having a terrible night. I had been looking forward to this night for weeks. But my dinner companion for the night cancelled on me with only a few hours before our reservation, which was for a Tuesday night at 10pm during Restaurant Week (probably the absolute least favorite reservation for a restaurant ever), leaving me scrambling to find someone to fill it (the manager had just called that morning to confirm). And to top it all off, I was physically ill, and was having problems keeping food down. By all accounts all these things should have ensured that I would have a miserable experience.
Except the food was amazing.
Rasika is not your father's Indian restaurant. Part of Ashok Bajaj's empire, Rasika is upscale and modern in its decor, with a sizable bar section front and center as you walk in. To the back of the restaurant is a six-seat section, which I can only assume is a chef's table, and some tables for larger parties. To the left and right of the entrance are the main seating areas which vary from square four-tops in the middle of the of the space to much cozier tables in the various nooks of the restaurant. The space's decor is classy, with a beige and tan color scheme that makes it seem inviting, and some other nice touches, including some hanging crystal strands separating the bar area and the seating area, and mosaic work.
Even at 9:45, when Official Friend of DCWD Kelly and I arrived, the bar table seating was full of diners, and the place was lively and energetic (and this was a Tuesday!). The noise level abated as the night went on, but I can imagine that there would be more than a decent buzz earlier in the evening when dinner date reservations are more likely. Even so, the wait staff was polite, especially our waitress who made great suggestions, and was friendly despite the late reservation. Perhaps the only downside was our table's location which was perfectly positioned to receive the brunt of the cold draft every time the front door was opened.
My original choice of Rasika for Tuesday's reservation was part because of the tremendous buzz about the quality of Vikram Sunderam's food, and part because of the restaurant's quality vegetarian options. These two factors came to a head with almost everyone's suggestion for the appetizer: the palak chaat, crispy spinach with yogurt, tamarind, and a date chutney. Each bite of the appetizer was a revelation, the flakiness of the spinach mixing with the yogurt to give you both gritty and smooth textures, and spicy and sweet flavors. Even writing about a week later recalls back the taste memories very vividly. Kelly went with the lamb meatballs in a garam masala, which were tender, and reminded me favorably of an Indian version of the polpette I had at Bibiana the night before.
For our entrees, Kelly selected the mahi-mahi in a malai curry, which came with rice and naan. The fish actually came across almost like chicken (so much so that Kelly had to correct me), and the curry gave really wonderful notes of coconut, which was very pleasing. They also gave a considerable amount of the curry relative to the protein, which I always enjoy as long as they give you enough rice or naan to soak it up, which Rasika did. Win.
I went with the waitress's suggestion of the restaurant's signature dish, black cod with honey, dill, and star anise. To say that this was the most amazing piece of fish I have ever had would be an understatement. The cod was perfect, with a texture as if it was poached, absolutely melting in your mouth. The honey and dill gave it a dull but pleasant sweetness, but the absolute brilliance was the star anise (though star anise, as the most important part of Vietnamese pho broth, is a flavor that I grew up loving). And the portion was generous; if not for my considerable and intolerable stomachache, I would have finished both of the sizable filets. I cannot recommend this entree enough. It was phenomenal.
For my dessert choice, I went with the black cherry and pepper sorbet, and Kelly got the gulab jamun with cardamom ice cream. The sorbet was delicious and interesting , with the fruitiness of the cherry and the sharpness of the pepper interacting with one another. The outcome was reminiscent of the taste of jam on pepper crackers, but in a much smoother and lighter vehicle. Once again, my companion picked the superior dessert. Gulab jamun is a fried cream dessert which Kelly said she spent an entire Indian Sweet 16 eating once. The one bite I snuck in was beautifully light. Paired with the ice cream, it was an absolute pitch perfect ending to the meal (it helps that I absolutely love cardamom; my old roommate used to add cardamom into the cookies he baked).
Even though I could barely stomach half the meal, even though I was having one of the worst nights in a long while, this was absolutely an instant Top 5 meal. All of the courses ranged between exceptional and best-in-my-life flashes of genius. In fact, I found I couldn't write as much about this meal despite how much I loved it, because honestly how many ways are there to say that something was perfect. The service was pleasant and the dining area was full of places that would be perfect for a date. The noise level was a little energetic, but nothing that the pleasant atmosphere didn't offset. Like I said, instant Top 5.
Food Rating: ***** (out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Smart casual
Bar Rating: Classy Crowd to Suits Scene
Vibe: Energetic to noisy
Cost: $$$$ (out of 5) ($75-$100 for two) (though you can certainly have a meal here for $50)
Pairing: Almost right next door to Rasika is the Woolly Mammoth Theater, which usually has a very interesting season; in fact the best show I've seen in DC (Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind) was at Woolly Mammoth.