Rasa: Traditional Meets Exotic Indian on Main Street
Photographed by Angel Tucker
149 Main St., East Greenwich, 398-2822, indianrestaurantsri.com. Open Tues.–Sun. for lunch and dinner. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Street parking. Cuisine Modern Indian. Capacity Sixty-five. Vibe Eastern ’80s disco springs up in grandma’s house. Prices Appetizers $4–$9.50; entrees $9–$20; dessert $7. Karen’s picks Avocado dhal muri (an endless supply), Cauliflower 65, anything coated in curry or cooked in a tandoor. Key *Fair **Good ***Very Good ****Excellent +Half-star
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Five minutes through the doors at Rasa and one sensitive diner, always attentive to wait staff indifference, declared the restaurant’s service “notably pleasant.” After the entrees arrived, the experience was elevated to “impeccable.” By the time dessert was delivered, it was deemed “impossible. No one can be that happy. Can they?” Apparently so.
Rasa marks Sanjiv Dhar’s third culinary endeavor in the state. His first, Kabob and Curry, is the college student of the family: casual, well-sauced and most likely to be visited after other people have already gone to sleep. Rasoi’s clientele is a good fifteen years older, as are their gastronomic proclivities. The fare is more coastal and adds the unexpected to an Indian menu, with ingredients like okra making an appearance. But Rasa is more of a hybrid, in part because it’s located on East Greenwich’s Main Street, an area largely inhabited by families and not really interested in innovation for the sake of it.
Consequently, Rasa has an accessible menu dusted with glimmers of Bollywood showmanship. Truth be told, even familiar Indian food is built on a nuanced web of spices and equipment that rarely exists in a residential kitchen. The fact that it comes from a region halfway around the world is only barely as intriguing as the fact that bread stuck to a clay wall tastes like nothing else. And better.
Dhar has dressed the place up in shiny wrapping: blue uplighting, orange upholstery and a glossy bar feel slightly less than contemporary but everything on the menu blends old world with enough modernity to catch the attention of those with almost no attention span at all. But, as with all of Dhar’s restaurants, the balance of traditional and exotic is exactly what pulls people in. Margaritas are topped with tamarind rather than lime juice, lamb chops are seared in a clay oven and breads are coated in a sticky sweet paste of dates and coconut. By now, Indian food isn’t novel to the continental palate but — as servers greet each diner with a sincere Namaste — Rasa retains an element of the unexpected and, sometimes, the extraordinary.
The restaurant’s version of jhal muri ($5.99) — served all over India as well as through British street carts — proves that renditions of Chex Mix aren’t an American phenomenon. Usually a mixture of puffed rice, peanuts and vermicelli noodles, Rasa elevates the snack food by binding everything together with avocado, onions and spiced tomatoes. What sounds innocuous — even banal — is capable of haunting taste buds for weeks to come.
While other appetizers are not necessarily as life changing, they are life affirming. The warmth of the tandoor breathes complexity into basic vegetables and subtle fish, though the fried Cauliflower 65 ($6.50) — already on the menu at Rasoi — is the flamenco dancer of the group: technically impressive but flat out fun.
Fair to say, of course, that ethnic foods often become a takeout staple; it’s true of Rasa. But there’s something marked about the plating that merits in-house dining. Bone white dishes sit like canvas under the turmeric-strewn sauces and architectural glasses lend graciousness to a meal that we all too often rush. Even curries ($15.75) have been modified to spark more curiosity than comfort. Coconut, mushrooms and tamarind vary the familiar braising liquids though subtle versions do just as much to seafood.
But, as with Rasoi, there are dramatic dishes that push the familiar into something finer. Tandoori lamb chops ($19.99), sliced duck breast with orange curry ($17.99) and green chili shrimp ($17.99) emit the same level of multifaceted flavor though they all skirt rusticity in favor of a more refined approach.
And yet, for all the added panache, the real reason Indian food is so eagerly embraced by the American palate is because we love to sop up gravy. Omit the meat altogether and everyone is happy to bathe themselves in a sauce-soaked basket of nan — tonight for dinner, tomorrow for breakfast. It never gets old; only more desirable. In fact, the few dishes that fall flat are those that wander too far into other ethnicities: spinach scrambled with parmesan ($13) pales in comparison to spiced spinach and paneer.
Not that the crowd is fixated on faults. With Indian music playing overhead, the disparate diners are drawn together: a single flannel shirt at the bar playing air drums; college sweatshirts around a broad, round table; a couple talking over the heads of two phone-entranced pre-teens. Rasa doesn’t really have a clientele per se, as much as a following and, in return for their devotion, the small restaurant showers them with effusive affection. “I’ve never been thanked so many times in my life,” remarked the same wary local, now sipping a cucumber martini. “It might offend me if it weren’t so damn and deeply sincere.”
The warmth will hold you through a moderately sized dessert menu. Mango cheesecake is as modern as it gets though the fruit is indigenous enough to meld with its surroundings. Better are the standards: mild rice pudding (kheer) or Indian’s answer to fried dough: gulab jamun. A fried ball of flour and milk, these golf ball-sized dumplings are tossed hot into rosewater sugar syrup until saturated. It sounds overindulgent but, just this side of sweet and strangely toothsome, it’s like everything else at Rasa: addictive. Well, there are worse compulsions in the world. Jhal muri on the brain never landed anyone in the hospital.
And though Main Street still evokes a 1950s America, it’s rewarding to see that Sanjiv Dhar has earned his spot on the strip. He could have easily opened a culinary triptych with a single menu. But the more time you spend at his table, the clearer it becomes that redundancy is not part of the plan. Food can be reproduced en masse; but artistry demands its own space, shape and recipe.