Rania Restaurant Review: Adventurous Indian cooking in a royal setting

Rania Restaurant Review: Adventurous Indian cooking in a royal setting

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Chetan Shetty wastes no time in getting diners’ attention at the new Rania.

Your introduction to downtown Washington’s successor Punjab Grill is a gift from the chef: a flower-shaped rice flour crisp, dabbed with mashed avocado, drizzled with tamarind chutney and glistening with smoked trout roe. As in the dining room, the snack is sumptuous and a hint of heat and spice follows in the modern Indian menu.

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The treatment, achu murukku, is also personal. The delicately sweet crisp 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 trimmings. The chef says his middle-class mother wouldn’t have recognized avocados.

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 marble bar and temple-shaped booths in the main dining room. Less than a year later, the pandemic rained down on 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, the executive chef of 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 the 34-year-old Shetty, who is also a veteran of the original Indian accent and a trailblazer in New Delhi, where I was lucky enough to dine. The name of the chef’s new Rooster suits both its heritage decor and its food. Rania translates to “queen” in Hindi and Sanskrit.

As with so many high-end restaurants now, this one is ditching a la carte. Instead, diners select three or four courses for $75 and $90, respectively, with a handful of choices per course. Experience has taught me to go big, given the portion sizes (picture large appetizers), the appeal of so many dishes, and the fact that a choice of vegetables and bread are included in the format.

Just as appealing as the opening snack is the chaat with shiso leaves dipped in chickpea batter, fried and planted on a dollop of yogurt and white pea puree. The crunchy leaves form an artful forest on their plate, which is topped with garnishes of diced mango and pomegranate seeds and fulfills the mission of a proper chaat. It is sweet, tangy and spicy all at the same time.

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Some of the most seductive meatballs in town are the kofta at Rania, where Shetty makes a mousse out of chicken legs seasoned with green chillies, cardamom and coriander, forms rounds of the goodness and deep-fries them so they hold their shape. The meatballs arrive with a cape of truffle cream and, for balance, smoked pickled oyster mushrooms whispering star anise. It’s hard to pass up the first courses, a pot of gold that also includes marinated prawns that crackle between the teeth in their rice flour crust.

Then I move on to the beef cutlet, a second course option, and feast on an entree of short ribs mashed with onions, curry leaves and black pepper, Japanese breadcrumbs and toast. While most states in India ban the slaughter of cows, which Hindus consider sacred, the meat is eaten 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 squash that emerge from goat cheese raita and drizzled with curry vinaigrette—Indian touches applied to a popular American beet and goat cheese salad. The Ambarsari code looks like fish and chips without the chips. Coated in a chickpea batter that turns into a golden jacket after a time in the fryer, the cod is dusted with spices including turmeric and dried fenugreek and served with ramp chutney. Ramps are found in a small part of northeastern India, says Shetty, who likes the wild leek’s tangy, garlic-onion notes.

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

The candles on the wide tables bathe the room in a soft light, and the golden chairs practically caress their occupants. The decor is a regal setting for cooking, including my top choices among entrees. Chicken Parsi finds a poached egg dusted with a red chile mixture atop a nest of thin potato strands and spoonfuls of minced chicken that resonate with heat. Pierce the egg and get a sunny sauce to enrich the dish. The other main course I’m always happy to relive is grilled monkfish, presented on sauteed baby spinach, bold with garlic, in a creamy yellow moat of coconut milk pulsed with ginger and green chillies. To accentuate the flavor of the fish, Shetty adds Thai fish sauce to the pool.

The one dish I’m not eager to repeat is the pork belly vindaloo. Its tangy green sauce is wasted on white bites of what smells like nothing but grease. Also, the bread pales in comparison to the designs at Rasika in Penn Quarter, except for the flaky parota, similar to paratha but thicker and richer. As for desserts, the most imaginative choice is a riff on shrikhand, sweetened strained yogurt flavored with cardamom and pistachio. Rania’s version elaborates on the tradition with a transparent sugar coating that you crack open like a brûlée to reveal additions of coconut, lime leaf syrup and sweet yellow cherries. Busy? Sure. Refreshing? And this.

Singh got double the pleasure when he hired Shetty, whose wife, April Busch, runs the wine program at Rania. The couple met while working at Indian Accent in New York. Liquids are a compelling reason to explore the new restaurant, which offers some winning cocktails, the most spectacular of which, the To Mule or Not to Mule, arrives in a horn-shaped glass.

The most sumptuous 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-placed mirrors. Punjab Grill asked $3,000 to rent the 10-seater room. Rania makes the fashion statement more affordable by charging $150 per person for the experience, a chef’s tasting menu of dishes not on the standing list. (A minimum of two diners is required at the communal table, which can also be reserved for special events.)

The name Punjab Grill signaled the north Indian food known for its richness. Rania lets Shetty loose and incorporate ideas from all over India, even the world.

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

Heeding the demand, his audience has some of the most original Indian food in the city.

427 11th St. N.W. 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 entry barriers; restrooms are ADA compliant. Pandemic protocols: Staff members, all vaccinated, are not required to wear masks.

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