Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.[Photos: R. Lopez]
It's been just over a year now since owner Ashok Bajaj and his team decided to debut a second location of the highly regarded fine dining Indian restaurant Rasika, in the West End. Since then, the restaurant has become as difficult a table to snag as its predecessor. But along the way, the owners had to cope with challenges such as name confusion, a mildly disappointing review and the trickiness that a downstairs kitchen presents. Here, Bajaj, chef Vikram Sunderam and general manager Atul Narain reflect on Rasika West End's first year.
How different did you originally plan the restaurant to be from the original?
AB: The plan, from day 1, was for it to be a different restaurant, from the interior to the name. But as we kept looking at the name, we thought that if we didn't keep it Rasika, people would be confused. So we went with Rasika West End.
Menu-wise, there was a lot of back and forth. We always wanted there to be a lot of new dishes, to give the public something different in a new setting. The space dictates a lot about what the design will be.
Was there any confusion, given the similar names?
AN: Sure, it was confusing to the guest. Some would tell a cab to take them to Rasika and the cab driver wouldn't know there was a new one. People with reservations would get confused — sometimes half of a party would show up at one place and half would end up at another.
Tell me a little about what thought went into the design of the space, and how you made them look different from each other.
AB: Rasika in Penn Quarter has the large open kitchen. Here, noise level was a consideration; we wanted to make sure it wasn't as noisy as the other one. I didn't want acoustic tiles, so we used wood near the ceilings to absorb the sound. With three private rooms, we wanted to create something different than Penn Quarter so we added the library room. We just wanted a different feel, so we hired a different designer. A lot of people like it here better; a lot like Penn Quarter. But the interior design magazines called it a top designed restaurant - we were happy about that.
How much has the menu changed over the first year?
VS: We changed it once at the end of March and again at the end of October. Seasonally, as you go you change items.
What new menu items have people responded to?
VS: Well, the black cod is always popular and we have two versions at Rasika West End. That was a welcome change. We added a new dish, lamb with apricots, that's a Parsi wedding dish. There was also a lamb kabob on the menu that people like. We had a goat biryani when we opened but we don't have that anymore.
Oh, that was one of my favorites. What happened?
AB: It was difficult to get a consistent product.
What are the demographics like here compared to the original?
AN: It's a mix. People from Georgetown, people from the Ritz Carlton, Embassy Row. Many tourists end up in Penn Quarter. But people will come down here from Chevy Chase because it's an easier location for them [to get to]. We see a lot of people coming in before the theater.
Was the restaurant busy immediately or did it take some time for the crowds to grow?
AN: It was packed right away.
What were the biggest challenges during Year One?
AB: I would say 1) confusion over the location and 2) Having the kitchen downstairs. We only found out after we signed the lease that it had to be that way. So we had to do things like make sure dishes weren't too heavy for food runners to carry. But other than that, we had a smooth opening. The only thing that was disappointing was getting only 2.5 stars from Tom Sietsema.
Yes, I was going to ask about that.
AB: He quickly upgraded us to three stars. It was honestly a surprise to us because people from Rasika Penn Quarter came here for months to train, and we have a good team. There was a difference between what we thought we'd get and what Tom thought about us. But he is the critic and his opinion counts. I think when we opened here, Penn Quarter was perfect, and we weren't perfect. But we were better than 2.5 stars.
Do the locations compete with each other much?
AB: We knew we would be busy. But we did not see any drop off at the other location. Our concern was that we didn't want to see any drop off in quality, and we wanted to maintain our standards.
Were you nervous at all about the location?
AB: We wanted to be here. I had looked at this location for six years. I think the West End was underserved for a long time. Now, Ris is here, WestEnd Bistro is here. I think we made the right decision.
What are your goals for year 2?
AB: We want to continue to build our customer base. And maybe upgrade those stars a little bit.
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