Chetan Shetty wastes no time getting diners’ attention at the new Rania.
Your introduction to the successor to Punjab Grill in downtown Washington is a gift from the chef: a rice-flour crisp in the shape of a flower, dabbed with avocado puree, set off with drops of tamarind chutney and glinting with smoked trout roe. Like the dining room, the snack is sumptuous, and a hint of the heat and spice to follow on the modern Indian menu.
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The treat, achu murukku, is also personal. The gently 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, hold all the fancy accessories. The chef says his middle-class mother wouldn’t have recognized avocados.
Owner Karan Singh introduced Punjab Grill in 2019 with the aim of elevating the Indian dining experience, a feat achieved in part with a marble bar inlaid with mother-of-pearl and booths with the silhouettes of a temple in the main dining room. Less than a year later, the pandemic rained on his party. Singh closed the restaurant to rethink the concept and search “globally” for a new chef. The stars aligned when he learned Shetty, executive chef of the well-received Indian Accent in New York, 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, trailblazing Indian Accent in New Delhi, where I’ve had the good fortune to dine. The name of the chef’s new roost suits both the inherited decor and his fetching food. Rania translates to “queen” in Hindi and Sanskrit.
As with so many upscale restaurants now, this one forgoes a la carte. Instead, diners select three or four courses for $75 and $90, respectively, with a handful of options per course. Experience has taught me to go big, given portion sizes (picture large appetizers), the appeal of so many dishes and the fact that a choice of vegetable and bread are included in the format.
Just as eye-catching as the opening snack is the chaat starring shiso leaves dipped in chickpea batter, fried and planted atop a drift of yogurt and mashed white peas. The crisp 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 proper chaat. It’s at once sweet, tangy and spicy.
Some of the most seductive meatballs in town are the kofta at Rania, where Shetty makes a mousse from chicken thighs seasoned with green chiles, cardamom and cilantro, forms rounds from the goodness and fries them so they hold their shape. The meatballs arrive with a cloak of truffle cream and, for balance, smoked pickled oyster mushrooms that whisper of star anise. It’s hard to leave the first courses, a pot of gold that also includes zesty marinated shrimp that crackle between the teeth from their rice-flour crust.
Then I move on to the beef cutlet, a second-course option, and delight in an entree of short ribs mashed with onion, curry leaves and black pepper, breaded with Japanese breadcrumbs and 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, says Shetty. 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 anointed with curry vinaigrette — Indian accents applied to a popular American salad of beets and goat cheese. The Ambarsari cod looks like fish and chips sans chips. Sheathed in a chickpea batter that turns into a golden jacket after time in the fryer, the cod is dusted with spices including turmeric and dry fenugreek and served with ramp chutney. Ramps are found in a small part of northeastern India, says Shetty, who likes the brash, garlic-onion notes of the wild leeks.
The chef makes his own paneer, using organic milk he curdles with citric acid. The resulting cheese is soft as ricotta and offered as an entree with sweet peas and shaved pecorino.
Candles atop broad tables bathe the room in soft light, and gold chairs practically caress their occupants. The setting is a regal frame for the cooking, including my top picks among the entrees. Parsi chicken finds a poached egg, dusted with a red chile blend, atop a nest of thread-fine potato strings and spoonfuls of minced chicken that resonate with heat. Prick the egg, and you get a sunny gravy to enrich the dish. The other main course I am always happy to relive is brined, grilled monkfish presented on sauteed baby spinach, bold with garlic, in a creamy yellow moat of coconut milk pulsing with ginger and green chiles. To accentuate the flavor of the monkfish, Shetty adds Thai fish sauce to the pool.
The one dish I’m not eager to repeat is the pork belly vindaloo. Its sharp green sauce is wasted on white bites of what smack of nothing but fat. The breads also pale in comparison to the role models 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 clear sugar cover that you crack as if it were a brûlée, to discover additions of coconut, lime leaf syrup and sweet yellow husk cherries. Busy? Sure. Refreshing? That, too.
Singh scored double the pleasure when he hired Shetty, whose wife, April Busch, leads 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 features some winning cocktails, the showiest of which, 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 shimmer with myriad tiny hand-laid mirrors. Punjab Grill asked for $3,000 to rent the 10-seat room. Rania makes the fashion statement more accessible, charging $150 a person for the experience, a chef’s tasting menu composed of dishes that aren’t on the standing list. (A minimum of two diners are required at the communal table, which can also be booked for special events.)
The name Punjab Grill signaled food from northern India, known for its richness. Rania lets Shetty cut loose and incorporate ideas from all over India, indeed the world.
“Come with an open mind,” the chef tells people.
Heeding the request nets his audience some of the most original Indian food in the city.
427 11th St. NW. 202-804-6434. raniadc.com. Open for inside dining 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Prices: Three courses $75, four courses $90. Sound check: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: No barriers at entry; restrooms are ADA-compliant. Pandemic protocols: Staff members, all of whom are vaccinated, are not required to wear masks.