My history with Indian food dates back to the early 2000s, when my sister and I would bring Happy Meals to the West Philadelphia Indian restaurants our family frequented. If it didn’t resemble a chicken nugget, we didn’t eat it. These Indian restaurants were located in University City and were filled with Penn and Drexel students cashing in their student discounts on the lunch buffets. These restaurants were uncomfortably dimly lit, which in retrospect, was probably to save the diners’ eyes from the sparkly pink walls, among other tacky decorations.
Thankfully, this embarrassing era passed for both me and these restaurants. I started loving Indian food, and New Delhi, my family’s favorite restaurant, got a long overdue renovation.
DC’s Rasika is not my typical Indian restaurant. Its guests are well-dressed, middle-aged professionals, rather than college kids in sweats. And unlike in Philly where you can have a feast for under $10, one cocktail at Rasika will cost you more than this.
Rasika’s West End location opened 2 1/2 years ago, after its original Penn Quarter establishment consistently got more customers than it could handle, according to my helpful waitress.
After several nominations for the coveted James Beard Foundation award, Rasika chef Vikram Sunderam was finally named the best chef of the Mid-Atlantic this year. I had to try it out to see if their $17 Chicken Tikka Masala was actually better than the frozen meal I had found at Trader Joe’s for $2.99.
I started out with the restaurant’s eponymous cocktail. The Rasika ($12) consists of passion fruit purée, ginger liqueur and sparkling wine. It tasted like a fruity, slightly spicy mimosa. Was the tiny champagne flute worth the price? No, but it was a nice treat (thanks dad!).
The Tawa Baingan ($9), however, was absolutely incredible. To put it in layman terms, the dish was basically an eggplant and hash brown sandwich topped with peanut sauce. I was an aubergineaphobe until I had an eggplant dish at Han Dynasty in Philly that changed my mind. The Tawa Baingan reaffirmed the amazing power of the eggplant to me in a whole new way. First you taste the sweet peanut sauce drizzled on top of the dish, and then the savory, greasy (in the best way possible) flavor of the eggplant and potato layers speak to you. The award-winning chef turned the purple vegetable into a hearty, gooey steak. Well done. You’re my hero Mr. Sunderam.
Following the eggplant, the Mango Shrimp ($12) appetizer underwhelmed me. I didn’t taste any mango flavor in the dish, and the shrimp wasn’t warm enough for me. I’ve had shrimp skewers from Trader Joe’s that were more impressive (no, Trader Joe’s isn’t paying me to put in a good word for them, but I wouldn’t mind working out a deal like this…). The dish’s saving grace was the minty green sauce it was served with. The shrimp came with a chopped cucumber and carrot salad. The carrots were too basic to be served at such a fancy place.
Next came the Chicken Pudina Korma ($17), which was made with cashews, mint and garam masala. The sauce was mildly sweet and soupy in consistency. The most prominent flavor was mint, but even that was pretty subdued. The chicken wasn’t soft enough.
We got a side order of Garlic Naan ($3), which had a great texture (bubbly, soft and crunchy all at once), but it was too garlicky. Rasika’s entrees don’t come with naan, but they are served with basmati rice.
The dish I had been most curious about was the Chicken Tikka Masala ($17), the national dish of England, and my go-to Indian entree. Since I had the Trader Joe’s frozen version of this dish for lunch that day (whoops), I will use it as a point of comparison. This is probably a foodie crime, but I’m no snob. Rasika’s version had a creamier, more buttery sauce than TJ’s. The flavor was also smokier. The meat itself had the consistency I was looking for: neither dry nor too chewy. However, was this dish 5.68 times better ($17/$2.99) than TJ’s version to justify the price? Unfortunately, no, but when you go to a restaurant you pay for the service and the atmosphere.
Rasika’s service was very professional. Our waitress was attentive and knowledgeable about the menu and the restaurant in general. The decor was classy and sophisticated. The bar was my favorite part of the restaurant’s look. The bar’s cavernous, geometric ceiling looked like a new-age church dome (isn’t the Eucharist wine and naan?) .
The area around the bar was decorated with wine bottles and a chic display of Indian spices. Rasika’s decor is the exact opposite of everything I hated about my favorite Philly spots pre-renovation.
If you’re looking to get the most bang for your buck, Trader Joe’s is just around the corner and offers a great selection of Indian meals in their frozen food aisle. However, if you’re looking for somewhere to celebrate or treat yourself, Rasika is a good spot to do it at. Don’t forget to order the Tawa Baingan!