There’s something special about how food can transport you to another country without you ever leaving your neighbourhood. And if you’re in the mood to travel to India for an hour or two, Rasika — meaning “flavours” in Sanskrit—has set the standard for Indian fare in Washington, D.C.
One of the best features of this restaurant, minus the food, is there are two of them. Rasika first opened its doors in 2005 at 633 D Street NW and the establishment was so popular, a second opened — Rasika West End—at 1190 New Hampshire Avenue NW in 2012. Patience and consistency are necessary in good cooking, and Rasika and Rasika West End has both, which is seen in the excellence of the food and the enduring prestige the restaurants retain year after year in the District’s cutthroat culinary scene.
Restaurateur Ashok Bajaj knew what he was doing when he tapped Vikram Sunderam as his executive chef to his Indian fine dining enterprise back in 2005. Sunderam, born and raised in Mumbai, got his start within the restaurant industry when he joined the Taj Mahal Hotel group. There, he rose in the culinary ranks within the organisation before he attained the distinguished position of executive chef for London’s Bombay Brasserie for 14 years before his move to Washington, D.C. to help Bajaj open Rasika.
The decades of experience directing culinary operations within respected establishments shows in each bite at Rasika West End. Of note is the unassuming signature dish of black cod—a fish more likely to appear deep fried with fries on a street corner in London than on a fine dining menu, much less as the signature. But order it you must, because while its appearance may be subtle, there is a complexity of flavour infused within such a deceivingly simple dish.
Another must-have is the palak chaat of lightly crisped baby spinach, drizzled with yogurt, tamarind, and chopped dates. And of course, there are the traditional staples, with unique twists and modern presentations. The sweet potato samosa is a pleasant surprise, served with a side of cranberry chutney—which will remind many Americans of an Indian take on a Thanksgiving dinner. And the chicken tikka masala will always be a crowd pleaser. Really, anything you order will be fully enjoyed and it is highly recommended to go with the tasting menu, so you can experience a breadth of what Rasika West End has to offer.
Part of the reason the Rasikas are so popular is perhaps partly logical for when booking a lunch or dinner the restaurant is ideal, with private rooms for those power lunches and delicate conversations, and the menu proves flexible, without losing flavour, for individuals with dietary restrictions, with delicious vegetarian, dairy-free, and gluten-free options aplenty.
Yet, it is not the spacious and thoughtful accommodations and varied menu that keeps Rasika on the 100 Very Best Restaurants list published annually by Washingtonian magazine, or the chosen restaurant of choice for former President Barack Obama’s 56th birthday dinner. The restaurant is so good, in fact, that Tom Sietsema, The Washington Post’s renowned food critic, recommended either Rasika or Rasika West End in 47 percent of his “Ask Tom” online chats in 2018. And just recently rock legend, Mick Jagger, dined at Rasika West End after his Fourth of July performance, a wise choice if you want to ensure you eat some of the best Indian in the District.
The food is obviously the centrepiece of Rasika’s success, but the thoughtfulness of the design, modern with purposeful Indian themes and motifs, lends a cultural gravitas to the overall dining experience. Rasika West End was designed by Martin Vahtra, an award-winning architect most noted for his hospitality projects. The central architectural focus is the anigre (light, yellowish-brown) wood ceiling, a modern representation of the national tree of India, the Banyan tree. The aesthetic is modern and intentionally draws from India’s cultural heritage to ensure guests are immersed in an environment that is elegant yet keeps the focus—as it should—on the food.
Whether you’re in D.C. for a day, a week, or a month Rasika West End is worth a stop for lunch or dinner. While reservations are recommended, a party of two could easily find a space at the bar. Either way you’ll dine like a maharaja in the heart of America’s capital city.
Rasika West End
1190 New Hampshire Avenue NW