Last week was an insane whirlwind for a number of reasons – work, personal, a holiday- but we managed to find some respite. A Wednesday night dinner at Rasika, and a Friday night at Top Chef alum Mike Isabella’s brand spanking new Graffiato.
Rasika has been a long time favorite of ours – though, perhaps ironically, we’ve never been there together. It’s an Indian restaurant that manages at the same time to stay incredibly true to the flavors and preparations of traditional Indian cuisine while at the same time elevating it to something altogether more sophisticated than either your neighborhood curry joint or the traditional white tablecloth Indian restaurant.
We started with Asparagus Uttapam, a less than successful rice and lentil flour pancake topped with asparagus. The cake itself was pleasant enough, but the asparagus simply didn’t work. Small, almost eraser like pieces of lightly blanched stems detracted from the overall dish, and didn’t pair well at all with the bracing tomato chutney offered as a condiment. I’ve had many many great dishes at Rasika, but this is one you can skip. However, there’s one dish on Rasika’s menu that you cannot skip.
For me, this is the object of an intense but unlikely love affair. Who knew I would love deep fried spinach dressed with yogurt and date chutney – but literally I can’t get enough. The self control I need ot to plow through an entire dish fo those shatteringly crisp sweet and sour emerald green leaves the moment it arrives on the table? Well, there are times when I haven’t had that self control. Luckily – those times have generally been when I’m eating alone at the bar – usually enjoying a Chili Fizz – a cilantro and jalapeno spiked gin fizz that matches perfectly with a lot of Rasika’s flavors.
Another ‘every time’ dish for both Kate and I is the Chicken Green Masala. Tender pieces of chick redolent with hot pepper, mint, floral notes of cilantro and coriander, the sauce leave the lips burning and the palette supremely satisfied. But onthis visit we also tried the Raan-E-Rasika – a lamb shank beautifully cooked in a sauce that while delicious – well, sort of resembled a saffron scented Campbell’s tomato soup. Shockingly, this isn’t actually a criticism. The lamb was tender and flavorful and the sauce, while a little odd was delicious. But it was difficult to get the similarity out of your mind.
Overall, Rasika provided a really quality meal. Was it as mind-blowingly good as it’s been in the past? No – but to be fair a couple of the dishes we chose were familiar favorites – and had they been new to us, we likely would have been more amazing had it been the first time we tasted them. Instead, it was just a satisfyingly good meal presented with great service in a beautiful space.
TopChef is definitely a cultural phenomenon – at least among a certain set. I admit to being a part of that set – though my TopChef watching habits require a Tivo to ‘edit’ out the unnecessary drama. Then again saying “i just watch it for the food” is sort of like “I read it for the articles.” It may be true, but you can’t dismiss the whole of the product.
So with that cultural backdrop, TopChef and TopChef All-Stars alum Mike Isabella’s new Chinatown homage to Italian American flavors opened a couple weeks ago with pretty huge fanfare – at least within the aforementioned ‘certain set’. When we arrived eight days into it’s run, Graffiato was bustling at 8:30 – the downstairs bar overlooking the wood fired oven (and overlooking the celebrity chef) was packed with a young crowd. The upstairs dining room full of an equally young, if not quite so energetic crowd.
The chef says his menu is inspired by Italian american flavors - and for a new DC restaurant, this one is fairly accessible. The small pates are reasonably priced- small but well-sized for sharing for two, and most of the options on the cocktail list settle in at a reasonable $10 – not the increasingly familiar $14.
We each started with a cocktail – a Gin and
Tonic Juice for me, and a concoction of bourbon, fruit nectar and ginger for Kate. We switched almost immediately. Not that there was anything wrong with the drinks – just that somehow we essentially chose the other’s favorite. Hey, I mean, when have I ever gone wrong with bourbon and ginger in the same glass?
When we set about choosing our dishes, we knew there was one we had to try – mostly because without tasting it we just couldn’t envision it. The pepperoni sauce. Yeah, if you watched the show you know what i’m talking about. But at Grafiatto it’s not served with the same braise pork dish from the show. It’s paired with chicken thighs. I like chicken thighs, so i’m not maligning that choice of protein just because it’s a chicken thigh. I’m maligning it because it didn’t really match the sauce. The sauce? It’s kind of awesome. Dancing right along a flavor line that’s at once fresh vine ripened tomato and funky peppery dried pork sausage. We talked later about things that it might have paired better with … the oddest? Well, i’m weirdly convinced that a nice piece single bite piece of seared halibut would actually go pretty well. The recipe’s in the WaPo, so maybe i’ll give that odd combination a try sometime next month.
We also tried Spiced beets with pork fried almonds and wood roasted mushrooms both of which, while tasty, didn’t really stand out. There were two dishes, however, that really did stand out.
The first, a plate of slow roasted pork ribs crusted with coriander and oregano and paired with an orange scented yogurt, threatens flavorwise to stray a little into the chefs previous gig at Jose Andres’s Zatinya rather than evoking the Sunday gravy and whatnot of New Jersey Italian American cusine – but fugetaboutit – it’s amazing. The coriander permeates the meat, that flavor dissolved in the fat that’s slowly rendered though until the pork is falling off the bone – but still retaining enough integrity to be honestly called ribs. It’s like a confit on the bone. The orange in the bracing yogurt perfectly matches the seasoning of the meat and overall, I can honestly say this is one of the best dishes I’ve had all year.
Finally, we tried a Sweet Corn Angolotti with pine nuts and chanterelles - that while lacking a little in the two garnishes, really delivered on the pasta and flavorful filling. A paper thin, tender pasta surrounding a delicate nearly liquid filling that tasted of perfectly ripe July sweet corn. It tasted like corn should taste – and i’m from Ohio. We know our corn.
Overall, Graffiato was a pretty great dining experience. Let me tell you, this would be a seriously great first date spot (so glad I’m not doing that right now), or a great spot to go with a medium sized group to try out a number of items. We’ll certainly be making another trip … after all, we’ve still got pizzas and the tasting menu to try.