Friday, October 7, 2011

Rasa: Unique South Indian Gem in Stoke Newington

Name Rasa N16
Address 55 Stoke Newington Church Street, London N16 OAR 
Phone 020 7249 0344
Web site
Main dish price range £4-6
Rating 5 Stars. The best restaurant in its genre in London.
Recommended dishes Bagur Baingan, Kovakka Olathiathu 

Tonight the new stewardess of your ethnic eating blog decided to go on a little adventure: I hopped on the 73 bus and headed to Stoke Newington to try out Rasa, a tiny, pink-walled restaurant that specializes in food from the South Indian state of Kerala. Rasa is a vegetarian-only mini-chain that in recent years has grown from a single restaurant in Stoke Newington to a seven-location mini-empire, including locations as far out as Brighton and Newcastle. Being first timers, my husband and I decided to start with the original location, a cozy spot with magenta and orange silks hanging from the walls and smells of turmeric and mustard seed wafting out from the kitchen.

Can you beat these pickles?
I've always thought that creating a truly amazing vegetarian restaurant is no easy feat. As a huge fan of meats, many restaurants wow me by picking excellent, flavorful cuts, smoking them to perfection, and presenting them simply. (See: the delicious lamb chops at Tayyabs, a favorite restaurant of the blog.) Rasa, however, aims to make up make up for its lack of a meat trump card by going for bold flavors and carefully-executed dishes-- chutneys are homemade and hand sliced in the kitchen, and some foods, like the Indian wedding dish Beet Cheera Pachadi, mix up flavors in ways that won't see at your standard Brick-Lane curry house. (That dish consists of beets, yogurt, roasted coconut, mustard seeds, and curry leaves, if you're curious.)

To start off, we ordered a Nair Dosa, which is a rice and black gram flour pancake filled with a combination of potatoes, beetroot, carrots, onion and ginger. The dosa itself was the perfect consistency, and since we asked for our food spicy, had the ideal amount of kick that lingered on the tongue. The sambar that came with it was hardly an afterthought either-- once we'd finished polishing off our dosas, my husband and I kept drizzling it over the our coconut rice, savoring the unique combination of spices.

Another starter, the handmade pickle and chutney platter was also a real star. Unlike a lot of potted chutneys available in many restaurants-- full of so much sugar, some of the nuance is lost-- each one of these six-mini dishes was excellently crafted to serve as the perfect, pre-meal palette cleanser. Of particular was the lemon pickle-- cured lemons, seeded with a hint of sweet-- and also a mango chutney that balanced thinly sliced mangoes with a dusting of spice. The whole thing was a riot of color and taste combinations that we loved dipping into to explore. 

Our feast in its full glory.
After the refreshing jolt of the pickles, we were ready to move on to the main course. One of the curries we tried was a huge hit with my husband, but fell a little flat on my side of the table.  It was the Moru Kachiathu, a bright yellow curry that combines green bananas, globs of sweet mangoes, yogurt, and fresh chili and curry leaves.  With this dish, Rasa continued to prove that fresh ingredients are really this restaurants jam-- even though the days are in London are rapidly getting shorter and colder, the mango was perfectly ripe and soft, and provided an excellent counterbalance to the more pungent taste of the green bananas.  I'm not sure the sweet and sour curry is really my favorite form of Indian food, but it was so unique, it was a dish I could truly respect without wanting to order it next time.

Tindori: cucumbers, baby ones
Any skepticism I had though was quickly washed down when I tasted the next dish.  The Bagur Baingan (the top curry in the photo) is the best curry I've ever in London, and quite possibly the best curry I've ever had, maybe second only to some of the deliciousness at SriPraPhai-- the stunningly amazing Thai restaurant in Queens, New York.  This dish was thick and gloppy, sort of with the consistency of an oatmeal, and a mix of incredibly delicate flavors. Before cooking them over a fire, the chef rolls the aubergines that form the base of this dish in a paste made of roasted onions, coriander seeds, fresh chilies and tamarind. The warm cubes that result, still gooey on the inside, are then pillowed in a white liquid made of yogurt blended with cashew nut sauce. The end product: a masterpiece, clocking in at only.£4.

The rest of our meal had some notable additions that showed the real care that goes into everything on offer at Rasa. A side dish we had, the Kovakka Olathiathu, consisted of a vegetable we'd never seen, Tindori-- or tiny baby cucumbers-- mixed memorably with dry roasted cashews, coconuts, mustard seeds, and curry leaves.  The coconut rice was also good, and comes already blended with a bit of black daaal, a nice touch.

All in all, we were wowed by the food at Rasa and can't wait to return.  (Eating our leftovers cold the next day was surprisingly satisfying too.)  The Website of the Rasa empire-- which is also pepto-bismo hued, charmingly -- displays a prominent, unattributed quote: "Once there was a time when the whole world was enamored with the fragrance of Kerala." After one visit to this gem, I believe it. 

Rasa on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

Toby said...

The Bagur Baingan sounds like a knockout! And your description of the Beet Cheera Pachadi has also piqued my interest!