Hey, Rasika: Butter chicken is for lunch buffets, not for tasting menus

I’m a crazy Indian food fan, so it wasn’t hard picking a restaurant for a special dual-birthday dinner.

Rasika was one of the top 7 picks in Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema’s 2008 Dining Guide, and it was the second-highest-ranked Indian restaurant (41st overall) on Washingtonian’s 2008 Top 100. And while I’d eat Udupi Palace‘s lunch buffet for every meal if I could, I’d never been to a “modern” Indian restaurant.

Sitting at home with a full tummy (and with a bagful of leftovers in the fridge), I’m glad we went. But I’m also disappointed. For all the hype about Rasika’s innovative flair, the ostensible centerpieces of our meal consisted of the usual curry suspects available at any Indian restaurant.

First, the good stuff: Melanie and I decided to splurge and share two tasting menus — one meat, one vegetarian. The first two courses of each were excellent.

The first course for both of us was palak chaat — spinach so thin and crispy it felt like eating flash-fried snowflakes. Mixed with yogurt and multiple sweet chutneys, this was one of the best Indian dishes I’ve ever had.

Second courses were skate pollichathu and tawa baingan. The skate had a wonderfully sweet/tangy mustard-seed-based sauce (though it did overpower the fish a tad, and wasn’t really complemented by the beet poriyal on the side). The baingan looked like a caprese stacker with eggplant instead of tomato and spiced potato in place of the mozzarella, all topped with a sweet peanut sauce. It tasted like a samosa crossed with a crispy-eggplant-and-peanut Thai dish. Very yummy.

Third course was the most disappointing. They brought out five different curries (two meat, three veg), which seemed like an absurd variety given that we were already full. But four of these were typical Indian fare.

The best was khumb jugalbandhi — oyster mushrooms in coconut milk with green peppercorns. The mushroom and coconut milk’s flavors meshed perfectly, nicely balancing some of the richer sauces.

The other four: chicken makhani (aka butter chicken, probably the most common dish in U.S. Indian restaurants); lamb roganjosh (also on every single non-veg Indian restaurant’s menu); dal makhani; and gobhi mattar (cauliflower and peas). The quality of these four was uneven; the chicken and dal were tasty, but the lamb had a clovey overdose of garam masala. And I make a cauliflower dish (from the awesome Mangoes and Curry Leaves) that’s better than Rasika’s gobhi mattar.

But even if they had all been top-notch, they would have been spectacular renditions of unspectacular dishes.

Given that Rasika offers many other interesting-sounding dishes (shrimp gassi, black cod, lamb rizala, kozhi kozambhu, lobster hawa mahal, paneer tawa masala, bhindi amchoor, kela tamatar kut, butternut squash barta), the problem was an odd selection for the tasting menu — and a seemingly clumsy overlap between the meat and veg tasting menus.

I don’t know how tasting menus typically work, but it seems like they should showcase the chef’s choice or greatest hits — not simply reproduce Typical U.S. Indian Restaurant No. 62’s greatest hits. I had even mentioned to the waiter at the beginning that I love Indian food and cook it a lot at home, so it seems like they could have changed things up to give us something more unusual.

Then there was the repetition. We specifically chose to share one meat and one veg tasting menu to maximize variety — the waiter recommended that choice in those terms.

But then we got palak chaat for both first courses. It was great, but I would have preferred trying two things. Then having chicken and dal makhani for Course 3 was buttery overkill. And we got two of the same dessert for Course 4: apple jalebi with orange cardamom ice cream. The cardamom ice cream was fantastic, probably my fourth favorite dish of the night, but the jalebi is basically a deep-fried apple ring — way too carnival-midway-ish for my by-then wilting tastebuds. One jalebi and a second, lighter dessert would have been much better.

The tasting menus also don’t seem like particularly good values in retrospect (though again, I’m not sure that’s their purpose). The meat tasting menu was $55, while the individual dishes and naan would have cost $63 purchased individually — but the chicken and lamb weren’t full entree-sized portions, so it’s really a wash. And the veg dishes (appetizer-sized portions) and naan would have cost $49 instead of $45. A la carte might have been a better choice, and the $30 pre-theater menu seems like a better value with better variety.

It was still a good experience overall; the unique dishes really were great. And it’s not like we had a Citronelle-sized bill.

But $110 plus tip is still a big deal for us. I’d expect an innovative, highly regarded restaurant to put a little more thought into that kind of menu at that kind of price.

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2 responses to “Hey, Rasika: Butter chicken is for lunch buffets, not for tasting menus

  1. Glad I stumbled upon your write up of Rasika! I am currently flipflopping on where to go for a birthday dinner in a few weeks, and your experience is exactly what I’d be afraid of there…repetition, and too-familiar fare. Maybe we’ll stop by for a drink and the crazy spinach. Thanks!

  2. Glad to be of help!

    If Rasika was intriguing you anyway, I think it’s definitely worth a visit. Just make sure not to order the too-familiar stuff 🙂 Or if you’re thinking about a tasting menu, ask them what’s on it first to make sure it’s not familiar stuff.