We got home late from The Inn At Little Washington – thankfully I slept in the car. Rising with the sun (and the troops across the street at Arlington Cemetery) I went for a run, woke my group, and off we went – first to see the morning scene at George Washington and Georgetown, then to see some monuments and for lunch. Getting off the metro around 7:30 we made our way West for coffee and baked goods at Baked and Wired – what better way to start a day? Arriving at the small shop in a light drizzle we chuckled at the poetry on the sign, the cute pink bicycle, and the cliché group of hipsters both inside and out.
Entering the small store we immediately checked out the baked goods – a formidable selection of small batch goods – the signs about quality were certainly accurate as everything appeared super fresh, many options still warm from the oven and more being produced as we browsed. Making our way to the coffee side we were greeted by a friendly young lady wearing neon pink eyeliner and a tutu – she informed us that the single drip roasts weren’t available until 11:00 so we opted for the house blend – happily a just-brewed carafe of Intelligentsia Agoga with rich nutty tones and a bit of fruit.
Coffees in hand we selected amongst the 30+ options and made our way to a small seating area in back. Wanting to keep it light we went with two choices each and shared – for my sister the selections were a Vanilla Latte Cupcake with bold and creamy vanilla cake topped with espresso buttercream – smooth, pleasant, and without a bit of grit. Better than the cupcake was a Maple Ginger Sandwich Cookie, small but only $1.50 the soft cake and impossibly sweet filling was more Whoopie Pie than Cookie and it was great.
For my choices, first the traditional cupcake, a Red Velvet with substantial chocolate flavor, hints of vanilla and cinnamon, and an ethereal cream cheese frosting – on the short list for one of the best Red Velvets I’ve had – a stunning example that balanced the moisture and texture of the cake with airy yet substantial frosting. My second choice was the Caramel Apple Bar, largely because the server was just plating it, it was still warm, and it smelled heavenly. Described as apple pie meets caramel apple in bar form I can only add that there was some aspect of cobbler, as well , with brown sugar oatmeal crusting laying a backbone to the melting apples and buttery caramel.
Making our way out of the small shop it appeared we had just beat the rush; a line of 15+ extended down the tiny street as the rain began to pickup. Worthy of the praise I can certainly say Baked and Wired offers the best cupcakes we sampled in DC – the best customer service and “scene” as well.
After a few monuments and museums while trudging through the rain we met up with the family for a meal in which none of us were really sure what to expect…coming from small-town Ohio we hadn’t really had much experience with Indian food and our few tastes (save for my sister) were predominantly curry and salt laden options that left a bad impression. Having heard fantastic things about Rasika from trusted sources I decided it would be worth the experience – the menu options presented online certainly looked promising and diverse.
Arriving near the beginning of lunch service (actually, we were the first people in the restaurant) our umbrellas were checked and we were led to a nice table in the dining room. Greeted promptly by our server, an extremely pleasant and efficient young fellow named James, menus were presented, waters were filled, and drink orders were placed – water for myself and a delightful passionfruit iced tea for the ladies. Browsing the room it had a bit of a “hotel lobby chic” feel to it, but certainly no moreso than a place like CityZen or Le Bernardin.
Orders placed after a short while we sat back and talked for approximately 10 minutes before our first dish arrived - during this time the restaurant had gone from empty to bustling and nearly full and it would remain that way throughout our 90 minute visit. Presented by James the Bread Basket with Naan, Naan with Onion and Sage, and Mint Paratha was paired with a Chutney Sampler of Eggplant/Ginger, Tomato/Golden Raisin, Mango Chutneys. While I can’t say the dish was a good bargain ($14 for the combo) I will note that the Naans were delicate and puffy while all three Chutneys were delicious. Given the option between this and Zaytinya’s freebie Pita with Olive Oil, however, I’ll simply say it wasn’t worth the price (and goodness knows I’m not one to quibble prices when dining.)
Kicking off our proper courses we selected three appetizers – two because they were recommended by our server (and pretty much everyone who has eaten at Rasika) and the other because it sounded interesting. Starting with perhaps their most famous dish, Palak Chaat with Crispy Spinach, Sweet Yogurt, Tamarind, Date Chutney – yeah, it lives up to the hype. Impossibly crispy yet dissolving like the communion host at a catholic church the Spinach alone is worth the plate – when paired with its creamy, smoky, sweet constituents and blended the dish is simply a whole vastly greater than the sum of its parts.
The second highly recommended dish, Sev Batata Puri with Crispy Biscuit, Potatoes, Raw Mango, Gram Flour Vermicelli, Chutney also came from the savory/chaat section and it too was wonderful. More textural than the aforementioned Palak, the dish balanced a biscuit not-dissimilar to paratha with slices of sweet mango, mint and eggplant chutney, warm baked potatoes, and small noodles of chickpea flour. Another well balanced dish it was at this point that I started to realize my previous experience with Indian food was like using Taco Bell to gauge your interest in Mexican Cuisine.
Our third appetizer was Lamb Galouti – Pan Fried Minced lamb, cashew, saffron, tawa paratha over lemon sprouts. Featuring two small patties of seared lamb mixed with spices (think lamb sausage) served over crispy paratha and lemon sprouts the dish was topped with saffron cashew butter and a mild green curry with significant smokiness and a small amount of bitter/sweet balance – the entire bite tasting somewhat akin to a greek gyro with more heat and spice.
Pleasantly surprised thus far our plates were cleared and we browsed the room – to call Rasika a business hot-spot would be an understatement with most men suited and women in business clothes. After approximately fifteen minutes discussing the day’s plan our main courses arrived. For my aunt, Karwari Crab Cake with Mustard seeds, Curry leaves, coconut chutney. I had suggested to her that she shouldn’t order crab cakes at an Indian restaurant but she insisted and while I think we all agree it was the most average cake of the trip, it was still quite good and certainly a unique interpretation. More filling than I would have preferred, I’m rather certain the flour used was chickpea and the cake was well cooked. Using a creamy and sweet coconut chutney worked well with the crab and the mustard/curry combination added some needed smoke and savoriness.
My sister’s dish turned out to be the least nuanced and perhaps least “Indian” tasting of the group - Shrimp Malai Curry with Onions, Bay Leaf, Coconut Milk, Yoghurt was served as a steaming bowl of snappy fresh shrimp swimming in a sea of aromatic coconut, buttery onion, and Bay Leaf. Not sensing much of a traditional “curry” spice to the dish or the expected cool tang of the yogurt the shrimp was served with a mound of white rice which lent some starch and texture to the dish.
Chicken Biryani with Aromatic Chicken, Basmati Rice, Saffron, Raita was my mother’s selection and the bargain of the meal – at a mere $15 I’m rather certain she received 3/4 of a chicken served under a puffed pastry shell that was removed and placed on the plate to which James scooped out the chicken, creamy rice, and aromatic sauce teaming with pepper, garlic, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon (and I’m sure >3 other spices my naïve tongue failed to identify) forming an inverted pot-pie of sorts. Served alongside the dish was a creamy and cool cucumber sauce pleasantly adorned with the tang of yogurt and the flavors of mint and onion. Both on its own and with the Raita this dish was superb and given my mom’s meager appetite it was shared all around – a fantastic dish, better than any “chicken and rice” dish I’ve had.
My main course – I had to stay true to form and go with the duck. Narangi Duck with Duck Breast, Cashew Nut, Mace, and Orange Pulao honestly could have been better – the duck could have been more crispy and the rice a little softer. What worked in this dish, however, was the beautiful manner in which the softened cashews blended with the spice of the mace, the sweetness of the orange peel, and the creamy ghee based sauce with hints of garlic, ginger, cardamom, and orange. It was good, but not as good as that chicken.
Mains finished I opted for a coffee – clean and nutty served in a French Press while my sister chose a Masala Chai – almost smoky in flavor but full bodied, creamy, and minimally sweet. Along with our beverages we clearly needed to sample some Indian Desserts - two of which clearly taking influence from Europe and two unlike anything I’d ever ordered in the past. Beginning first with the familiar, my sister ordered Pumpkin Spice Crème Brulee – essentially a miniature pumpkin pie without the crust. With only the crystallized top pointing to the concept of Crème Brulee given the thickness of the contents I will note it was good, but more pie than crème brulee.
The second familiar option was my mothers, and it was a knockout. Showing the clear British influence on some aspects of Indian food the Date and Toffee Pudding could have been straight from a textbook – delicate and melting in the mouth, sucrose sweetness balanced with the buttery molasses tones of the toffee, steaming hot and smooth as silk. For the second day in a row it took effort to steal a bite of dessert from mom.
My dessert selection was Walnut Kulfi with Figs – according to our server the most traditional option on the sweets menu. A gritty and texturally complex ice cream the overall mouth feel of the ice cream strongly resembled Japanese Mochi with substantial notes of nuttiness and cardamom and sugar rising to the palate. Paired nicely with warmed figs and topped with crunchy walnut pieces it wasn’t my favorite of the desserts, but an experience I’m glad I tasted.
Carrot Halwa with cinnamon sabayon was the selection of my aunt and, served piping hot, it was my favorite of the desserts (a substantial compliment given the Toffee Pudding.) Having read about this dish in the past I’d planned to order it myself but was surprised when my aunt did so – then again given her love of Carrot cake I shouldn’t have been. Stirring memories of Carrot Cake in taste and Bread Pudding in texture the dish featured buttery tones balanced nicely with the taste of cinnamon and cardamom, a fibrous texture from the milk-boiled carrots, and ample hints of sweetness from raisins and sugar. With occasional pistachio inside and those on top adding more texture and a bit of the nut’s salty character I will certainly attempt to replicate this dish in the future.
When our meal at Rasika was all said and done the experience had done something few meals have done in recent memory – it changed my opinion on a whole genre of food…and it did the same for my mother and aunt. The unfortunate circumstance in living in the White-bread Midwest, at times, is a lack of experience with other cultures – or experiences that largely do not represent the best of what that culture has to offer. While some say Rasika is not entirely traditional all I can say is that what they are doing looks good, tastes good, and is served in nice setting by excellent servers – it also makes me want to try other Indian food in the future, whether at Rasika or elsewhere…except for that place in my home town.