3/27/2012 05:14:00 PM

Sneak Peek at Rasika II

Ashok Bajaj welcomed “friends and family” (happily including us) to a soft-opening Monday night dinner at Rasika II, a West End incarnation of his highly rated Penn Quarter modern Indian which officially opens March 29. While both restaurants feature stunning design and complex cuisine, each has a distinctive personality.

The Space: This new venue is sophisticated, open and airy, with floor-to-ceiling windows curving around the restaurant and design elements derived from Indian culture. A sleek bar/lounge that opens to the street features a bottle display on “arms”reaching out above the bar - a reference to the eight-armed Hindu god Durga. Distinctive canopied booths in the dining room (perfect for a romantic dinner) mimic the structure of traditional wedding carriages. But perhaps the most stunning effect is the sculptured wood dining-room ceiling mimicking a Banyan tree, with colorful, yet flattering lighting. Exotic wood, Corian tiles and plush jewel-toned fabrics set a luxurious tone throughout the restaurant. Three private dining areas include a handsome library, and there's a chef’s table outside the basement kitchen.

The Food: The moderately priced menu is divided into nosh, griddle, barbecue, chaat, entree and vegetarian sections, which should be familiar to frequenters of the Penn Quarter locale. Yes, the much-praised palak chaat (a crispy spinach, yogurt, tamarind and date salad) is offered here too, along with other favorites. But judging by the dishes sent to our tasting table, there are plenty of new, exciting choices. A kid-goat biryani arrived at the table in a casserole, looking a bit like a pot pie. The waiter ceremoniously cut off the baked naan covering, revealing tender morsels of meat beneath delicious flavored rice. (“Goat should be the new beef,” an enthusiastic diner quipped.) A brick-red chicken kolhapuri set tongues tingling too. Forks were also reaching repeatedly for the bhindi poriyal, an okra vegetable curry.

The Drinks: The mixed drinks feature Indian ingredients and flavorings, notably seen in the Naina, a mix of Amrut Fusion whiskey (from India), Averna, yellow Chartreuse and bitters. Beverage director Alexander Carlin offered unexpected wine matches for the boldly flavored cuisine, looking to Portugal (Broadbent Vinho Verde), Santa Barbara, California (Palmina, Dolcetto) and France (Couly Dutheil, “Les Graveries” Chinon Cab Franc).

The Crowd: Bajaj’s new neighbors, the chic, upscale residents of the apartment complex upstairs, were having complimentary drinks at the bar as we arrived, giving the place an inviting buzz that's likely to be the norm given its handy location. An attractive cosmopolitan clientele in the dining room included couples cozying in the canopied booths, fashionably dressed duos and a family celebrating around a table filled with aromatic dishes.

The Cost: Moderate; a $35 pre-theater prix fixe is a steal, especially considering its proximity to the Kennedy Center.

The Details: 1177 22nd St. NW (entrance on corner of M St. and New Hampshire Ave. NW); 202-466-2500.


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