Throughout the year, Restaurant Editor Bill Addison will travel the country to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
It's time for an enterprising chef or restaurateur to rise up and popularize the more pungent regional flavors of India. In the way that Pok Pok's Andy Ricker and others—like Kris Yenbamroong at his Night + Market restaurants in Los Angeles—are moving our notions of Thai food beyond pastel curries and spring rolls, we need some front-and-center restaurants that revel in Indian cooking's feral edges. We taste such an insignificant sliver of the subcontinent's vast cuisines in this country. Most menus cleave to the dairy-rich dishes refined by the Persian-influenced Mughal Empire, which ruled India from its northern roost for four centuries. It takes hunting, usually through an Indian neighborhood in a major city, to find the humble places that serve Kerala dried shrimp curry in coconut gravy, or fish cooked with heady mustard oil from Calcutta, or the Mumbai version of the street snack pani puri—fried shells filled with cubed potatoes and black chickpeas and doused with a green liquid hinting of sulfur from kala namak, or black salt.
While I wait for the revolution, I am glad for the few higher end restaurants that employ the tastes of India shrewdly, blending them with Western ingredients and techniques while keeping the motherland's essence intact. Lauded Washington D.C. restaurateur Ashok Bajaj runs three of them: The Bombay Club and two locations of Rasika. (He also operates five other restaurants that serve a gamut of cuisines, including Italian and Modern American.) The Bombay Club, situated a block from the White House, opened in 1988 and has long been a haven for the city's power players. It emulates the gentlemen's clubs of India's past. Rasika, which first launched in 2005, feels very much of its own era.
The room's handsome wood trim and the potted palms nestling beige columns evoke both a British Raj stage set and the decor favored around the time of the Iran-Contra affair. A $600,000 remodel in 2009 ushered in a private dining space and swirly mauve carpet, just to freshen the restrained elegance. Tuxedoed service is unobtrusive: There are deferential nods and swift but efficient visits to the table. No one prattles about giving a "tour" of the menu. Someone plays a white baby grand near the entrance while slow ceiling fans stir the air overhead.
In other words, The Bombay Club is an Indian iteration of the Continental restaurants of yore, and after 25 years in business it retains a dressy, diverse clientele. A few menu items detour into modern conceits: One of the breads is stuffed with goat cheese, and kale, the green that conquered the nation, appears flash-fried as a snack lashed with chutneys and yogurt. But most are plucked straight from the Indian lexicon—cherry-picked dishes that represent either the gentlest creations from around the country, or highlighting those whose spices are easiest to dial back.
So rather than the assertive nip of pani puri, there is sev puri, wheat puffs filled with bits of potato and mango, drizzled with tamarind and cilantro chutneys and yogurt and sprinkled with crisp, ultra-thin noodles made from chickpea flour. Pop, pop. They go down as easy as a handful of Chex Mix at a Christmas open house. Nilesh Singhvi—who previously oversaw the kitchens at the Taj Palace hotel in New Delhi—composes a delicate version of masala crab from the Southwestern coasts. It's barely scented with curry leaf and worlds tamer than the crab dishes that Marylanders prefer spiked by Old Bay seasoning. The lumpy morsels taste fresh and sweet, though. Shrimp lolling in coconut cream gravy dotted with mustard seeds is equally docile.
For something a tad feistier, try sali boti, a lamb specialty of Mumbai's Parsi (Persian-descended) community simmered with tomatoes, yogurt, ginger, garlic, red wine vinegar, and apricots, finished with potato sticks. The kitchen composes a striking thali on a silver platter, arrayed with lemon rice or another pilaf, a couple ruddy meat curries, dal, and a vegetable like the ubiquitous creamed spinach (saag).
And for liquid dessert, four of us retreated to the lounge, where one of the suited hosts rolled out a cart to prepare cobra coffees made famous at the Bombay Brasserie in London, where Bajaj once worked. He peeled off a trailing curl of orange rind (the "cobra") and lit it on fire with flaming booze before mixing it with coffee and pouring the drink into glasses with caramel-coated rims. Pure Continental showmanship.
On the way out the door, the host asked me if this was my first time. I told him yes, but that I'd been to sister restaurant Rasika several times.
"Ah, Rasika," he said. "The chef, Vikram Sunderam, just won the James Beard award. I'll tell you, though. It's very good, but our food is more authentic. Come back soon and try more of our menu."
Feeling a little competitive, are we? Rasika clearly gets more attention.
The Bombay Club's maître d' isn't quite accurate, either. Rasikas' menus do tackle more cross-cultural riffs than their older sibling: chaat salads made with avocado, samosas stuffed with sweet potato, griddled eggplant slicked with olive oil (a burgeoning product in India, but still), fritters formed with, yes, kale. But their offerings are also broader, and many of the dishes, particularly entrees, similarly derive from among the swath of Indian cuisines. The main difference is that the food as Rasika is bolder, the flavors punchier and less rounded.
That holds true for the atmosphere as well. The scheme at the second Rasika in West End, which opened in 2012, is downright conceptual: Rectangular wood panels climb up a column into the shape of a modernist Bodhi tree, and a silvery hand reaches over a glass partition, sculpted into the shape of a Buddhist mudra. The Penn Quarter original looks sedate by comparison, though its ruby, gold, and burnt orange tones still feel like you're wrapped in an especially opulent sari.
I've visited both outposts in the last couple years and found them superb and on par with one another; the precision of the cooking at Penn Quarter slightly outpaces its younger brother. I lunched at the original recently, though I urge first timers to go for dinner, when the meal feels more like an occasion. (The menus are identical.) We started with uttapam, a pancake made from fermented rice and lentil batter, studded with seasonally appropriate white asparagus. The mustard seeds and curry leaves seasoned overtly, and the dollop of coconut chutney on top took the dish home to South India. Crab revved with plenty of ginger and garlic came stacked with peppered phyllo dough that visually imitated poori, the breads that balloon while frying. A swift char on shrimp glossed with mango created a smoky sweetness. Mixed grill—salmon roasted in the tandoor oven, chicken scented with green cardamom, a smooth-textured lamb kebab sprightly with garam marsala—proved a satisfying mélange of proteins. The only miss was a strange variation of poriyal, a coconut-flecked vegetable saute from the Southern state of Tamil Nadu, this one starring broccoli. The ingredients needed to better merge. It tasted like a bowl of prepped ingredients waiting to be cooked. Thankfully, Rasika's date and toffee pudding always banishes any minor disappointments.
Bajaj is D.C.'s savviest restaurateur. Perhaps he's noticed the lines trailing out the door of Little Serow, the restaurant by Johnny Monis that serves family-style dinners of intense northern Thai cuisine. The palates of the city, and the nation, seem primed for a similar new venture that unleashes the funkier side of Indian cuisine. Bajaj has broken ground before; maybe he can do it again.