Food: Regional rarities at Rasam
Rasam, 18-19 Glasthule Rd, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin. (01) 230 0600
Rasam is a South County Dublin institution, a favourite with well-heeled local families who treat it as an upmarket canteen. The restaurant opened in 2003, over The Eagles House pub and is a great-looking space, perfumed with aromatic oils and decorated in rich colours and fabrics. From the moment you step inside, you know that you are in no ordinary curry house.
Nisheeth Tak's restaurant is known for serving authentic regional Indian food. Each of the kitchen's chefs come from a different part of the country and they bring with them the recipes and techniques of that particular culture. If Sunil Ghai at Ananda in Dundrum takes a fine-dining approach to Indian food - the plating is elaborate and you will encounter foams and other culinary exoticism on a menu that pushes the boundaries of modern Indian food - then Rasam opts for a home-style approach. And in forging a distinctive identity for Rasam, Tak - like Ghai - has abandoned the curry-house dishes that do not exist in authentic Indian cuisine.
So you don't go to Rasam expecting chicken tikka masala. Instead, the focus is on spices, freshness, lightness; the dishes do not use a lot of cream or too much tomato.
The kitchen combines the elements of salt, spice, sweet and chilli for heat, and grinds its spices daily for extra flavour and richness.
On a Tuesday evening, every table in the restaurant is occupied and the room is buzzing. We start with squid in a semolina batter served with a spiced tomato chutney that's light and well-judged, the squid tender and the chutney with a subtle kick. A photogenic dish of pork chatpata, marinated in red pepper, dried mango and malt vinegar, and tossed with bell peppers and onions, delivers plenty of heat. There's a sweet and sour thing going on here, and we both think that the pork could have done with a little more vinegar or a note of citrus to cut across the richness of the meat. That's us being picky though; it's a well-flavoured dish, beautifully presented.
My guest prefers her food without sauce, and so she chooses the tandoori sea bass, a recipe from Mumbai, the fish marinated in fresh turmeric, ginger, garlic, red chillies, carom seeds and lime and served dry. Usually this is served on the bone, but we request that it be filleted. The fish is moist and delicately flavoured; it's an ostensibly simple yet sophisticated plate.
Dum Pukht Gosht, a speciality from Lucknow, is described on the menu as Rasam's signature dish. The lamb is marinated in yoghurt and aromatic spices and slow-cooked, before being infused with rose petals. The flavours are rich and complex, and the meat tender rather than falling apart. The dish is satisfying rather than heavy and it's not a surprise that this is the restaurant's best seller.
Vegetable side dishes are as interesting as the main courses, which makes Rasam a good option for vegetarians. We'd happily make a meal of Carrot Beans Poriyal from Southern India - the vegetables combined with potatoes and chillies, curry leaves, coconut, mustard seeds, ginger and coriander - perhaps with the Chonka Patta from Hyderabad, featuring spinach and cabbage with mustard seeds, chillies and curry leaves. A garlic, onion and coriander naan is served pizza-style in delicate little triangles and is light and crisp, a world apart from the heavy breads that you get in many Indian restaurants.
Indian desserts don't have the best reputation and although Malai Kulfi -Indian fudge ice-cream - was beautifully presented, we found the flavour cloying. The soaked basil seeds adorning the dish resembled nothing so much as miniature frog spawn and did little for us.
With pulao rice and a bottle of Trimbach Classic Riesling 2012 (€37.50) - a dry riesling from the Alsace that's an excellent accompaniment for Indian food, particularly fish and chicken - our bill came to €116.30 before service, and I note that we weren't charged for the kulfi, most of which we left on the plate. That's a fair price for food of this quality, and of course, the set menu offers better value still.
I'd heard a rumour that Ajai Chopra of the Troika was a fan of Rasam, and that he used to have the restaurant send food into him at The Merrion. After our visit to Rasam, I asked Nisheeth Tak was this true, and he told me that the day the deal was signed at the AG's Office, all 12 of the IMF team came to Rasam for dinner.
"It was snowing that day and I got the call from Merrion Hotel," said Tak. "First I thought, 'It's got to be a prank! Why would someone travel all the way from Merrion to Sandycove on such a cold snowy day?' But when I called back, it was confirmed that the entire IMF delegation was coming.
"Mr Ashoka Mody from the same group came twice after that and he met [restaurant critic] Lucinda O'Sullivan in the lobby while he was waiting for his taxi and told her it was the best Indian food he'd had. But, no, we never sent food to The Merrion, instead they all came here."
8/10 value for money
On a budget
The early-bird set menu - available every day except Saturday - is priced at €23.95 for two courses.
On a blowout
Nimbu Jhinga pan-seared jumbo prawns flavoured with fresh turmeric and other spices, followed by the Manshari Thali including lamb, chicken, prawns, potatoes and spinach with rice and naan, sweet and sour pickle, and a dessert of Malai Kulfi, would set you back €52.40 before drinks.
The high point
Proper authentic Indian food that isn't dumbed down for Irish palates, served with charm.
The low point
The basil seeds in the Malai Kulfi.
Whispers from the gastronomicon
The announcement of the new Michelin stars for 2016 are cause for celebration. Mickael Viljanen of The Greenhouse landed his long-awaited star, as did Enda McEvoy at Loam in Galway, Stevie Toman at Ox, and Danni Barry (pictured) at Eipic, the latter both in Belfast. Barry is the first woman chef in Ireland to get a star, so that's a double celebration.
Less attention goes to the Bibs Gourmand, but they are important too and more likely to be places that you'll eat on a regular basis. A big cheer, therefore, for Delahunt, The Pigeon House, The Copper Hen, 1826, Cafe Hans, Giovanelli, and Bastion. Phew!