Rania Restaurant Review: Adventurous Indian cuisine in a royal setting

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Chetan Shetty is wasting no time in grabbing the attention of customers in the new Rania.

Your introduction to the successor to the Punjab Grill in downtown Washington is a gift from the chef: a flower-shaped rice crisp, ground with mashed avocado, that begins with drops of tamarind chutney and glistens with smoked trout roe. Like the dining room, the snack is hearty and a hint of the heat and spice to come on the modern Indian menu.

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The treat, achu murukku, is also personal. The mildly sweet potato chip 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 have recognized avocados.

Owner Karan Singh launched Punjab Grill in 2019 with the goal of elevating the Indian dining experience, a feat achieved in part with a mother-of-pearl inlaid marble bar and temple-silhouetted 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 she learned that Shetty, executive chef of the well-received Indian Accent in New York, was willing 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, ground-breaking Indian Accent in New Delhi, where I was lucky enough to dine. The name of the chef’s new rooster suits both the heritage decor and the tradition of its food. Rania translates as “queen” in Hindi and Sanskrit.

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

Equally impressive as the opening snack is the chaat starring shiso leaves dipped in chickpea batter, fried and planted atop a yogurt drink and white pea puree. The crispy leaves form an elaborate little forest on their plate, which is bursting with garnishes of diced mango and pomegranate seeds and fulfills the mission of proper chaat. It is sweet, tangy and spicy all at the same time.

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Some of the city’s most enticing meatballs 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 hold their shape. The meatballs arrive with a mantle of truffle cream and, for balance, smoked oyster mushrooms that whisper star anise. It’s hard to put down the first courses, a pot of gold that also includes juicy marinated prawns that crackle between the teeth from their rice flour crust.

I then move on to the beef cutlet, a second course option, and enjoy an appetizer of short ribs marinated in onion, curry leaves and black pepper, breaded in Japanese breadcrumbs and deep-fried. While the majority of 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 butternut squash emerging from goat cheese raita and brushed with a curry vinaigrette — Indian accents applied to a popular American beet and goat cheese salad. Ambarsari cod is like fish and chips sans chips. Covered in a chickpea batter that turns into a golden jacket after time in the fryer, the cod is sprinkled with spices such as turmeric and dried fenugreek and served with a ramp chutney. Ramps are found in a small part of northeast India, says Shetty, who likes the wild leeks’ bold, garlic-onion notes.

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

The candles above the wide tables bathe the room in soft light and the golden chairs almost caress their occupants. The setting is a royal setting for the cooking, including my top picks from the appetizers. The Parsi chicken finds a poached egg, sprinkled with a red chili mixture, atop a nest of thin potato threads and spoonfuls of ground chicken that resonate with heat. Crack the egg and you will get a sunny sauce to enrich the dish. The other main course I’m always happy to revisit is savory, grilled monkfish with sauteed baby spinach, bold with garlic, in a creamy yellow moat of coconut milk bursting with ginger and green chilli. To accentuate the flavor of the monkfish, Shetty adds Thai fish sauce to the pool.

The one dish I don’t want to repeat is the pork belly vindaloo. Its sharp green sauce is wasted in white morsels of what smells of nothing but fat. The breads also pale in comparison to the standards at Rasika in Penn Quarter, with the exception of 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 pistachios. Rania’s version elaborates on tradition with a pure sugar coating that you crack open like a brulee to reveal additions of coconut, lime leaf syrup and sweet yellow cherries. Busy? Sure. Refreshing? That too.

Singh had a double treat when he hired Shetty, whose wife, April Busch, heads the wine program at Rania. The couple met while working at Indian Accent in New York. Liquids are an exciting reason to explore the new restaurant, which boasts some winning cocktails, the most impressive of which, To Mule or Not to Mule, arrives in a horn-shaped glass.

The restaurant’s most luxurious space remains the private dining room to the left of the entrance, a jewel box whose walls shimmer with a myriad of tiny hand-crafted 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 off-the-list dishes. (A minimum of two diners is required at the communal table, which can also be reserved for special events.)

The name Punjab Grill meant food from northern India, known for its wealth. Rania lets Shetty narrow down and incorporate ideas from across India, and indeed the world.

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

Taking into account the demand, the public gives him some of the most original Indian food in the city.

427 11th St. NW. 202-804-6434. raniadc.com. Open for indoor dining from 5pm. until 10 p.m. from Tuesday to Saturday. Prices: Three courses $75, four courses $90. Sound control: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: There are no barriers to entry. restrooms are ADA compliant. Pandemic protocols: Staff members, who are all vaccinated, are not required to wear masks.

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