Washington, D.C., has no shortage of crave-worthy Indian food, but there is a reason Rasika is considered the best of the best. This institution entices everyone from Bill Gates to Rachel Ray to me with their inspired takes on familiar, comforting flavors.
Ashok Bajaj, the founder of Rasika, is considered by many to be the king of dining in the District. Born and raised in New Delhi, India, Bajaj entered the restaurant scene in 1988 — a time when even the simple French brasserie was thought to be an adventurous culinary experience by many D.C. diners. Despite this, Bajaj took on the District’s food scene, expanding diners’ limited palates with his first venture, The Bombay Club.
On the tail of The Bombay Club’s success, Bajaj expanded his culinary empire, founding Rasika with the help of chef Vikram Sunderam. Together, the duo explored modern approaches to the foods passed down to Bajaj by his family, opening multiple locations in the process. The Penn Quarter dining room — the older of the two Rasika locations — opened its doors in 2005, followed by Rasika West End in 2012.
While Bajaj has since expanded his culinary portfolio to include many more restaurants that serve all kinds of cuisines, Rasika remains his most beloved establishment. Bajaj has established quite the legacy for himself as the man who brought curry to the capital and paved the way for many others to follow.
I made my reservation at Rasika Penn Quarter 30 days in advance. Even 18 years after the restaurant opened its doors, scoring a table during the Penn Quarter location’s prime dining hour is still a challenge. After a few emails (and quite a bit of begging), I reserved a table for six and texted my group, satisfied.
Our meal began with purple potato dosas ($12) and sweet potato samosas ($10). The dosa appeared to be relatively traditional — a thin pancake with a vibrant purple filling — but upon our first bites, the table went silent. The rich potato mash, infused with mustard seeds and curry leaves, left each person salivating for a second bite.
The samosa was nothing like the other samosas I’ve enjoyed in my life. Unlike the countless thick, doughy and overpowering pastries I’ve had in the past, Rasika’s version was crunchy and light — more croissant than samosa — allowing the seasoned sweet potato insides to shine. Without a single crumb left, our plates were cleared, and we continued to the entrees.
The first part of our main course to arrive was palak chaat ($14), a dish of cumin-infused spinach with a sweet yogurt sauce and date chutney. The spinach wasn’t your typical spinach, but rather a delicious bowl of crunch that punched you with more flavor with each bite. Our next veggie adventure was bhindi amchoor ($16), a mango-infused sliced okra that barely made its way around the table before it was devoured.
Having consumed our vegetables for the evening, we moved to the richer portion of our meal: a classic chicken tikka masala ($20), Rasika’s renowned black cod ($36) and a seemingly endless supply of garlic naan ($5).
I have been eating chicken tikka masala since before I could walk, but this chicken tikka masala was unlike any other. Perfectly tender chicken breasts swam in a rich pool of cumin-laden cream that was giving off an aroma that sang to our noses and a flavor that tapped our hearts. The sauce itself could be enjoyed as a bisque, with notes of sweetness and spice peppered throughout the mixture.
The cod was closer to a work of art than food: a perfect piece of fish, bright with yellow hues, positioned perfectly atop a bed of fluffy vermicelli rice. It crafted a complex relationship between sweetness and spice that made my senses question what I was tasting. Honey? Vinegar? Perfection. Like each of his dishes, Chef Sunderam’s famous cod refused to be put into a definitive box.
The naan deserves its own assessment. Simple yet complex, this traditional flatbread feels like the ultimate test of an Indian restaurant’s quality. To no one’s surprise, Rasika’s naan was perfect. With a crispy, Tawa-grilled outside and a soft, cloud-like inside, no carb has ever served as a better vehicle between tikka masala and my mouth.
Rasika is a high-end dining experience worth saving for, but there are more budget-friendly ways to enjoy Chef Sunderam’s showpieces. The chef and his team produced a cookbook, “Rasika: Flavors of India” — used copies of which go for as low as $7.99 — allowing fans to recreate Rasika’s beloved dishes from home.
While I encourage everyone to try their hand at Rasika’s recipes, I must emphasize that my in-person dining experience was unforgettable. As an experienced Indian food lover, the types of dishes were not unfamiliar. Instead, it was Rasika’s innovative approach to timed techniques that made me pause and savor what it was I tasted. I believe there is no better way to celebrate a birthday, an anniversary or any other special occasion than over a bowl of Rasika perfection.
Audrey Biles is a first-year in the College of Arts & Sciences. The Hungry Hoya will appear online and in print every other week.
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