Sunday, May 18, 2014

Rasika West End Food Review

Palak Chaat

The Mid-Atlantic region (as far as the prestigious James Beard Awards are concerned) includes Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, DC. That's a mighty big area, home to some of this country's top chefs and restaurants; so it goes without saying, that the title of Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic is a very BIG deal. This year's winner is Vikram Sunderam of Rasika, the ├╝ber popular, modern Indian restaurant with locations in Penn Quarter and West End. As luck would have it, I haven't been to either; so what better time to join one of my foodie friends for lunch at Rasika West End than on the heels of a James Beard award? I could hardly wait.

Unfortunately, with great power (or reputation) comes great responsibility; and Rasika (at least on this visit) failed to live up to its billing. There were moments of brilliance; but ultimately, inconsistent cooking and surprisingly shoddy service turned "what should have been" into "What happened?" After a warm greeting at the hostess station, I was escorted to a small table for two, wedged between two others. I'd made an invitation on OpenTable, but it goes without saying... ask for a table in the front, if possible (a lot less noise, and claustrophobia.) As luck would have it, the two guys sitting to my left had no understanding of the term "indoor voices," nor did the large family seated behind me... with not one but two irritable children (one of whom became hysterical twice.) Evidently, "location, location, location" applies to more than just real estate.

Tawa Baingan

I arrived before my friend Susan, and had time to "drink in" some of the atmosphere... along with a glass of water (no bread.) I make Naan bread at home: It's neither difficult to prepare or expensive. If you ask me, Rasika should provide complimentary bread to each table (and charge for more, if necessary.) $3 and $4 for each bread is off-putting when you're spending at least $30 per head (not including alcohol.)

As for Rasika's interior, it's modern and relatively comfortable. However, noise levels are off the charts, meaning I would only return during off-peak hours (lunch service ends at 2:30, dinner begins at 5:30 PM, 5 on Friday & Saturdays.) Conversations carry over to other tables, and there's an overall lack of intimacy. Patio dining is available, but it was almost 90° outside, so...

Cabbage Wadi

Once Susan arrived, we had our first taste of bad service. For starters, our server was very impatient: He responded to a slight pause with, "I'll come back when you've decided." He also failed to take our drink orders (hope you like water.) When he did come back, he was surly and rushed; and reluctant to describe dishes (even when presenting them later.) He seemed to know what he was doing, which only made matters worse in my eyes. Just because you're familiar with Indian cuisine, doesn't mean everyone else is. He also didn't take kindly to our "request" to order appetizers only: Despite ordering five different dishes, he sarcastically hinted that we might still want entrees (not in a charming manner, but almost as if we should.) Needless to say, F for service.

That's a shame too, as our first dish Palak Chaat (crispy baby spinach, dressed in yogurt with tamarinds and dates) was out-of-this-world delicious. This spinach is so good, you could double the amount of greens consumed in America with this one dish alone. Our next app, Tawa Baingan (eggplant, spiced potato, olive oil and peanut sauce) was almost poor in comparison. I'm a big fan of eggplant, but found almost zero flavor in my bites. Susan noted sweetness; but I found none, which prompted a taste of the surrounding peanut sauce. There it was... Tons of it. Too much of it. From one extreme (nothing) to the other... No thank you.

Kheema Pao

Cabbage Wadi (cabbage, ginger, cilantro and peanut chili chutney) was delivered without explanation, leaving two knowledgeable diners at a genuine loss. To be frank, I'm still not sure what we ate; except for the fact that it was almost ice cold, sprinkled with coconut flakes (?) and covered in an overpowering sauce/chutney that looked like ketchup, and was too spicy for anything else on the dish.

From there, it was on to a lamb dish - Kheema Pao (spiced, minced lamb and tomato chutney) served with french fries. Rice seems a better fit than pedestrian fries (both in looks and taste) and the fact that more than half the fries were cold & soggy, only cemented that opinion. Meanwhile, the lamb transcended its carrier (which closer resembled a potato pancake) and provided the second best bite of the night. Curious presentation, but I'd have the lamb again (and just close my eyes.)

We finished up with Spicy Reshmi Kebab (minced chicken, mint, coriander and green chilies, $8) served with pickled garnish. It wasn't much to look at (no photo, sorry) but tasted pretty good. Probably not their best chicken dish, but both kebabs were moist and flavorful. It needed bread, but I think we pretty much covered that already. Hint, hint. Add it to the plate, and charge another dollar or two. Problem solved.

Poor service and three out of five dishes with obvious deficiencies? I'm not a statistician, but that can't be good. Our total bill came to $64 (including tax and tip) which is fine, under normal circumstances: The question is, was this a normal lunch service? I certainly hope not. Susan eventually found someone to take her order for an iced tea, only to have our original server stop by a few minutes later to "confirm it." It took 10 minutes to get that iced tea, on top of the 30+ minutes we had already been in the restaurant. Me? Nobody ever asked if I wanted something to drink. Even Burger King asks if you'd like a soda. Burger King. Let's hope this experience was the exception, and not the rule.