Fond memories and food go hand in hand. (By far, my favorite cooking-based recollection is being forced to boil 1,200 servings of “fiesta corn” in cooking school because I had the temerity to challenge my instructor’s assertion that grilled cheese is not an entrée.) Memories are made in the kitchens of every culture. And after learning that rasoi means kitchen in Hindi, I was all the more eager to visit the University Area’s newest offering of reasonably priced Indian cuisine in a striking atmosphere.
Rasoi’s décor is attention-grabbing. Hot-orange walls meld with the vibrant colors of billowing curtains, setting the stage for a wealth of Indian art—shining silver mirrors, glittering tapestries and a gorgeous, bejeweled orb lamp in the middle of the dining room. Owner Lareesa Agarwal was my chipper hostess and attentive server. She extolled the virtues of the lunch buffet ($8), but she had me at saag paneer. I also ordered from the regular menu and decided on tandoori machhli (tandoor-cooked whole tilapia stuffed with spices, $15.95) and piazzi kulcha (naan bread stuffed with onions, $2.95). The week before I dropped in for takeout tandoori khubiyan (combination plate of spiced yogurt-marinated chicken, boneless lamb, prawns, skewered ground lamb and boneless chicken, $17.95), saag paneer (spinach with spices and homemade cheese, $7.95) and lasani naan (naan with garlic, $1.95).
Garlic is usually a good thing, but the lasani naan I had went overboard with the pungent stuff. I didn’t care for it. In contrast, the meat combination in my to-go container was divinely inspired and licked with a slightly tangy charcoal flavor. The saag paneer was well above average and loaded with ginger for a warm and lingering twist.
Agarwal spent some clams on the dinnerware here, as evidenced by the shining coppery chafing dishes on the buffet. The whole table was set up to sell subtle class (as much as a buffet can, anyway) with white linens, spotless silverware and ceramic plates, all ensconced in the back corner, right in front of the kitchen. The kitchen sports huge windows so that diners can see all the fun behind the scenes. The cooking areas looked remarkably clean, and I was tickled to be able to see the smiling cooks, one of which was wearing a neat, black turban.
The first self-serve course on the buffet was subzi bhajia, chopped cauliflower, potatoes and spinach fried in chickpea batter. Each little wad was light, crisp and starchy. Next was basmati rice with cumin seeds and green peas, then aloo (spiced potatoes) with fresh green beans. The savory dish of stewed vegetables sabz-e-bahar, in a spicy tomato and onion sauce, was a vegetarian’s wet dream, followed by chana dal, a thick, creamy lentil soup fragrant with fresh cilantro and ginger. Chicken makhani, or “butter chicken,” is similar to chicken tikka masala, but slightly mellower and richer. The pieces of dark meat I sucked down were so tender I could cut them with the back of a spoon.
No decent buffet would be complete without something sweet. Rasoi’s kheer (rice pudding with milk and sugar) tasted like glacier-cold fresh cream, liberally garnished with powdered pistachios.
The regular naan on the buffet table was great, but add a grip of sweet red onions, as they do on the piazzi kulcha, and the extra change is well worth it.
Though the tilapia was delicious and juicy, encased in a crispy edible skin enhanced by rubbed spices, it was conspicuously lacking the smoky flavor that tandoor ovens imbue in food. I asked Lareesa about it, and she told me they used both gas and charcoal tandoor ovens and that my fish had been cooked in the former. Not bad, I decided, but not the same.
Overall, the dishes that came out of Rasoi’s kitchen were superb. Even though I still believe grilled cheese is an entrée, it’s good to change up lunch or dinner with a tandoori chicken every so often
The Alibi Recommends:
• Tandoori khubiyan
• Saag paneer
• Chicken makhani
Rasoi: An Indian Kitchen, 110 Yale SE, 268-5327. Winter hours: Open every day, lunch 11 a.m-2:30 p.m.; dinner 5-9 p.m. Price range: inexpensive. Credit cards, catering, vegetarian-friendly.