Rania Restaurant Review: Adventurous Indian cuisine in a regal setting

Rania Restaurant Review: Adventurous Indian cuisine in a regal setting

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Chetan Shetty wastes no time in grabbing the attention of visitors in the new Rania.

Your take on the successor to Punjab Grill in downtown Washington is a gift from the chef: rice flour chips in the shape of a flower, slathered with avocado puree, seasoned with tamarind chutney drops and glistening with smoked trout roe. Like the dining room, breakfast is sumptuous and has a hint of heat and spice to follow on the modern Indian menu.

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The treat, achu murukku, is also personal. The delicately sweet crunch is based on something Shetty’s mother made for him when he was a child in Pune, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra — well, keep all the fancy accessories. The chef says his middle-class mother wouldn’t know an avocado.

Owner Karan Singh introduced Punjab Grill in 2019 with the goal of elevating the Indian dining experience, a feat accomplished in part with a mother-of-pearl-encrusted marble bar and booths with temple silhouettes in the main dining room. Less than a year later, the pandemic rained down his party. Singh closed the restaurant to rethink the concept and search “globally” for a new chef. The stars aligned when he learned that Shetty, executive chef at New York’s acclaimed Indian Accent, was eager to leave the Big Apple and cook his own style of food.

“He has a fantastic pedigree,” Singh says of Shetty, 34, who is also a veteran of the original, pioneering Indian accent in New Delhi, where I had the good fortune to dine. The name of the chef’s new abode suits both the heritage decor and its appealing food. Rania translates as “queen” in Hindi and Sanskrit.

As with so many upscale restaurants now, this one forgoes a la carte. Instead, diners choose three or four courses for $75 and $90, respectively, with a handful of course options. Experience has taught me to make large portions, given the portion sizes (picture large appetizers), the appeal of so many dishes, and the fact that the choices of vegetables and bread are included in the form.

Just as eye-catching as the starter is the tea, featuring shiso leaves dipped in chickpea batter, deep-fried and topped with a drizzle of yogurt and white pea puree. The crispy leaves form an artful little forest on their plate, which pops with garnishes of diced mango and pomegranate seeds and fulfills the mission of a real chaat. It is sweet, tangy and spicy at the same time.

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Some of the most tempting meatballs in town are the kofta at Rania, where Shetty makes a mousse of chicken thighs seasoned with green chillies, cardamom and coriander, forms rounds of the goodness and deep-fries them to keep their shape. The meatballs arrive with a cloak of truffle cream and, for balance, smoked pickled oysters that whisper of star anise. It’s hard to put down the first courses, a pot of gold that also includes spicy marinated prawns that crackle between the teeth in their rice flour crust.

I then move on to the veal cutlet, a second course option, and enjoy a starter of short ribs sautéed with onions, curry leaves and black pepper, breaded with Japanese breadcrumbs and fried. While most states in India ban the slaughter of cows, which Hindus consider sacred, the meat is consumed in some parts of the country, including Kerala in the south.

“Salads are not a big thing” in India, Shetty says. But this is America. The chef’s contribution to the cause is a bouquet of roasted beets and zucchini goat cheese raita and drizzled with curry vinaigrette – Indian accents applied to a popular American beetroot and goat cheese salad. Ambarsari cod looks like fish and chips without the chips. Wrapped in a chickpea batter that turns into a golden jacket after time in the deep fryer, the cod is sprinkled with spices including turmeric and dried fenugreek and served with lutenica. Ramps are found in a small part of northeastern India, says Shetty, who likes wild leeks’ bold garlic and onion notes.

The chef makes his own paneer using organic milk which he curdles with citric acid. The resulting cheese is as soft as ricotta and is served as an appetizer with sweet peas and grated pecorino.

Candles atop wide tables bathe the room in soft light, and golden chairs practically caress their occupants. The setting is a regal framework for cooking, including my top choices among entrees. Chicken Parsi finds a poached egg dusted with a red chili blend atop a nest of thread-thin potato strings and spoonfuls of ground chicken that resonates with heat. Pierce the egg and you’ll have a sunny sauce to enrich the dish. The other main dish I’m always happy to relive is brined grilled monkfish presented over sautéed baby spinach, thickened with garlic, in a creamy yellow coconut milk crust pulsating with ginger and green chilies. To accentuate the flavor of the sea monk, Shetty adds Thai fish sauce to the pool.

The one dish I can’t wait to repeat is the pork belly vindaloo. Its tangy green sauce is wasted on white morsels of something that smells only of grease. The breads also pale in comparison to the role models at Rasika in Penn Quarter, except for the flaky parota, similar to a paratha but thicker and richer. As for desserts, the most imaginative choice is a riff on shrikhand, a sweetened strained yogurt flavored with cardamom and pistachio. Rania’s version furthers the tradition with a clear sugar coating that you crack open like a brûlée to reveal additions of coconut, lime leaf syrup and sweet yellow cherries. Busy? Sure. Refreshment? This too.

Singh was doubly pleased when he hired Shetty, whose wife, April Bush, runs the wine program at Rania. The couple met while working at Indian Accent in New York. The liquids are a compelling reason to check out the new restaurant, which offers some winning cocktails, the most spectacular of which, To Mule or Not to Mule, arrives in a horn-shaped glass.

The most opulent space in the restaurant remains the private dining room to the left of the entrance, a jewel box whose walls sparkle with countless tiny hand-set mirrors. Punjab Grill asked $3,000 to rent the 10-seat room. Rania makes the fashion statement more affordable by charging $150 per person for the experience, a chef’s tasting menu made up of dishes not on the permanent list. (A minimum of two diners is required per communal table, which can also be reserved for special events.)

The name Punjab Grill signals North Indian food known for its richness. Rania allows Shetty to relax and incorporate ideas from all over India, indeed the world.

“Come with an open mind,” the chef tells people.

Heeding the request, the audience provides him with some of the most authentic Indian dishes in town.

427 11th St. NW. 202-804-6434. raniadc.com. Open for indoor dining from 5pm to 10pm Tuesday to Saturday. Prices: Three courses $75, four courses $90. Sound check: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; restrooms are ADA compliant. Pandemic Protocols: Staff members, all of whom are vaccinated, are not required to wear masks.

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