- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2006

“Elegant” and “sophisticated” describe Rasika, the new Indian restaurant on D Street Northwest in the trendy Penn Quarter.

The walls of deep golden fabric, curtains of feathery gauze, glowing sconces and chandeliers create an atmosphere both warm and cool, much like the delicious dishes prepared by chef Vikram Sunderam, a Bombay native.

A curtain of glass beads separates the bar from the dining room. Comfortable chairs with linenlike fabric, well-spaced tables and a mix of excellent traditional and innovative Indian dishes set the table for pleasure.

Rasika is from the Sanskrit meaning “flavors,” and Mr. Sunderam is skilled at balancing the complex Indian spice varieties. His dishes are hot without fire, spicy without destroying the flavor of the meat or vegetable, and always elegantly presented.

Rasika is the newest in Ashok Bajaj’s group of restaurants, which include the Bombay Club, the Oval Room, Ardeo, Bardeo and 701.

The menu is a mix of appetizers, entrees and complementary vegetables. Many dishes are grilled or baked in the tandoori oven — the restaurant has two, one for vegetarian, the other for non-vegetarian dishes.

It’s somewhat difficult to find your way through the menu, as the method of cooking is not described and the descriptions often are not clear. A diner accustomed to Westernized versions of Indian dishes may be surprised. “Chutney,” for example, is more akin to a dipping sauce than the chunky, fruity chutneys we usually call by that name. The waiters are eager to explain ambiguity, and any surprises will be happy ones.

Portions are small, but large enough to be shared. Most dishes have a touch of fire to them; some, such as the grilled shrimp starter, are quite mild. Several combine a touch of sweetness with the heat of spices, such as the sweet-potato tuk; others, such as the green chicken curry, combine controlled heat with the delicacy of cinnamon.

Two sensational dishes are a crispy spinach salad, dressed with a tamarind sauce and topped with a tiny dice of tomatoes and red onion, and black cod, for which two small pieces of cod are glazed with a creamy sauce and a pretty decoration of star anise. A little of the flavor of the anise carries over into the sauce, as do dill and fennel. The fish is remarkably sweet, velvety and moist. You won’t want to share a bite.

Mango shrimp, listed under “Sigri-barbeque” consists of four medium- size shrimp, marinated and grilled, served in a green coriander and mint sauce. The shrimp are tender, slightly spicy and fragrant. Perfect.

Sweet-potato tuk, a dish listed under “Tawa-Griddle,” is described as “savory potato/sweet yogurt/tamarind date chutney.” It is a small mound of cubes of sweet potato in a delicious tamarind sauce topped with a drizzle of yogurt and served at room temperature.

A small serving of ginger scallops is another excellent starter. Two barely seared sea scallops sit atop a delicate bright orange sauce of ginger and red peppers. It’s beautiful and presents a subtle interplay of spices.

Tandoori chicken is a simple dish of half a small chicken covered in a rich red tandoori paste. The chicken is moist and tender. The menu promises a “seasonal salad” to accompany the chicken, but the salad turned out to be merely a sprinkling of greens without dressing — not what a diner would expect as a salad. Similarly, the seasonal salad served with the black cod was but a long, paper-thin curl of cucumber.

Lamb biryani is served in a small round copper pot with the lamb and rice hidden beneath a bread topping. The dish is served with raita, here a mix of yogurt and cucumber.

Vegetables are a mainstay of Indian meals, and Rasika does well by them. A mix of cauliflower and English peas in an excellent light curry sauce, redolent with cumin seeds, is a perfect accompaniment to a tandoori dish. It can be ordered in a large or small portion, and the small portion is sufficient for two. Okra, spinach, potatoes or a mix of vegetables are other options.

Nan, the chewy Indian flat bread, is excellent. The restaurant’s breadbasket ($7) includes two plain nan, two with herbs and two whole-wheat breads. Single orders of one bread are $3.

Desserts include a tropical fruit salad, sorbets and ice creams, chocolate souffle and several Indian desserts, including gulab jamum, a cheeselike ball made of condensed milk, fried and served in rose-water syrup. Bread pudding is a warmed custard topped with slices of buttery French bread.

Rasika offers a three-course pre-theater menu from 5:30 to 6:45 p.m. for $28. It includes appetizers such as chicken tikka and the ginger scallops; main courses including tandoori salmon, lamb and chicken dishes; and a choice of desserts.

A four-course tasting menu also is available for $36 (vegetarian) or $50 (non-vegetarian). Both of them can be paired with wine for an additional $20. The pre-theater menu is particularly appealing with the Woolly Mammoth Theatre next door and the Shakespeare Theatre just around the corner on Seventh Street Northwest.

The smartly chosen wine list includes a good choice of red and white wines by the glass, although servings, as with the food, are smaller than expected. Rasika has made a fine beginning: lots of hits and no misses or errors.

RESTAURANT: Rasika, 633 D St. NW; 202/637-1222

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Starters, $7 to $12; main courses, $16 to $22; some dishes are $1 or $2 less at lunch; desserts, $7 to $8

PARKING: $6 valet parking for dinner; metered street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Gallery Place or Archives W

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