January 2007: 100 Very Best Restaurants

No. 58: Rasika

Once dominated by French restaurants, Washington now has lots of Ethnic Chic. Restaurants are transforming exotic cuisines into slick packages. This Penn Quarter buzz magnet, the brainchild of Ashok Bajaj, who also owns Bombay Club, Ardeo, and the Oval Room, is the latest place to advance an argument for the unity of opposites—in this case East and West, style and substance, French wines and Indian cooking.

Chef Vikram Sunderam hails from London’s renowned Bombay Brasserie, and he’s well schooled in these kinds of mash-ups. He dispenses with the family-style plating, pungent spicing, and traditional arrangements favored by most Indian restaurants. Lamb rogan josh is reconfigured as a Modern American–style dish, the shank (no cubes) front and center, the gravy confined to the background. At every turn, hearty gives way to light. Baby spinach leaves are fried until feathery, then dabbed with sweet, tangy tamarind chutney and yogurt. Tiny masala crab cakes are poised atop zigzags of chili-balsamic sauce, and open-faced lamb miniburgers, called galoutis, sit atop puffed crackers. Lamb kebabs resemble hot dogs but are more pungent; swiping them in pale-green mint sauce, as if coating a dog in mustard, you bridge the classic snack foods of East and West. Poori, another Indian street food, arrives in three iterations on a frosted plate, like cocktail-party crudités.

Not every dish aims to reinterpret tradition—a chicken green masala is a scorcher, and a number of sides would be at home on a conventional Indian menu. But many are dialed down so as not to distract you from the jumping, cocktail-stoked scene.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.