We had very ambitious plans for our second night in DC and decided to have dinner at not one, but two, restaurants. This sounds like the highly insane plan of two sick gluttons and reflects all that is wrong with excess consumption in America, but our logic was that we don’t come to DC very often, so we should try to maximize the limited time we have there by enjoying multiple dinners. We decided the best use of our time would be having dinner at Zaytinya, an extremely popular Mediterranean restaurant run by famed chef José Andrés, followed by a second supper at Rasika, another hot restaurant serving innovative Indian cuisine.
Zaytinya: The huge, slick interior of the restaurant made me feel like I was in a Vegas hotel lobby. Service was a little uneven, and the order in which they brought out the mezze or small plates was a little odd. For instance, they brought the tzatziki, a Greek yogurt dip made with cucumbers and spring peas, without bringing out the accompanying pita basket, even when the waitress explicitly told us that the two should go hand-in-hand. And the highly anticipated wait for the bread was followed by…the crispy brussels afelia. Despite the annoying rhythm in service, the first two plates were delicious. The pita bread was warm, soft and billowy, with a slight yeasty taste, making it perfect to consume on its own or with some of the light, delicious tzatziki spread. The fried brussels sprouts as you can imagine were insanely good, as crispy, charred sprout leaves covered in creamy garlic yogurt are wont to be.
That culinary high came to a swift end when our other dishes, the lamb bahar and the octopus santorini, arrived with considerable delay. The spice-rubbed lamb kebabs in tahini sauce were cooked and seasoned perfectly, but the grilled octopus was frankly mediocre. It was rubbery and lacked that hearty, meaty flavor that well-prepared octopus should have. The pea puree didn’t enhance the protein at all and felt like a careless accompaniment. Maybe if Zaytinya had just killed it with the last two dishes than it could have made up for the inconsistent service, but its fate was sealed with that lasting impression of the disappointing octopus. There was no time to sulk, however, as we had a schedule to keep, and we made our way towards Rasika.
Rasika: The Penn Quarter restaurant was actually located pretty close to Zaytinya, which was quite convenient for our food crawl. Rasika was smaller and more intimate than Zaytinya. The interior was outfitted in rich shades of dark reds and oranges to enhance the exotic atmosphere. The service was much more attentive than at Zaytinya. Waiters were prompt with delivering meals and appropriately checked in with us throughout the duration of our dinner.
Based on the Yelp recommendations, we ordered the fried spinach or palak chaat, along with the chicken green masala and the butternut squash bharta. The palak chaat was absolutely incredible, and there were actually a lot of similarities between this dish and the crispy brussels sprouts at Zaytinya. Ultimately we declared Rasika’s palak chaat the winner in the fried green vegetable battle, awarding the former more points for its intriguing and complex blend of flavors. There were hints of sweetness from the chutney in the palak chaat, which then gave way to a savory undercurrent provided by the tamarind and yogurt, and then some sharpness from the red onions would cut in.
At this point, there was a lot of pressure for the other dishes to measure up to the palak chaat, but unfortunately they did not. The sauce in the chicken green masala was extremely watery, and the mint and coriander almost tasted muddied in the mixture. Normally my favorite part of an Indian meal is drizzling the rice in the amazing sauces and gravies, but after one bite of chicken I was done. The butternut squash was much better, and I liked how the cumin and tomatoes brought some meaty depth to the squash puree. At the end of the day, however, I would not order these dishes on a return visit.
I was frustrated by how both of the dinners were characterized by an inconsistent mix of highs and lows. I really wanted to like them, and the glimmers of genius in certain dishes made me hopeful, but the letdowns tipped the scales in the other direction. To be fair, we are not DC natives, and perhaps with the help of an informed local we could have hit a home run with every dish we ordered. On the other hand, there are new restaurants that I have blindly tried where everything we ordered was pretty remarkable. Overall I preferred Zaytinya to Rasika–the food was generally better, even if the service wasn’t. I’ve had better high-end Indian dinners at places like Tamarind and Junoon in New York, whereas Zaytinya is on par with other small-plate or Greek restaurants like Pylos or Tertulia. Now it’s off to my next culinary journey, which is a juice cleanse to take a break from all these fried vegetables and roasted meats!
701 9th St NW
Washington DC 20001
633 D St NW
Washington DC 20004