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The treat, achu murukku, is also personal. The gently sweet crunch is based on something Shetty’s mother made for him when he was a kid in Pune, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra – well, hold on to all the fancy accessories. The chef says his middle-class mother didn’t recognize avocados.
Owner Karan Singh introduced the Punjab Grill in 2019 with the goal of elevating the Indian dining experience, an achievement achieved in part with a mother-of-pearl inlaid marble bar and temple-silhouette alcoves in the main dining room. Less than a year later, the pandemic rained down on his party. Singh closed the restaurant to reconsider the concept and search “worldwide” for a new chef. The stars agreed when he learned that Shetty, chef at New York’s well-received Indian Accent, was dying to leave the Big Apple and prepare his own style of food.
“He’s got an amazing pedigree,” says Singh of Shetty, 34, who is also a veteran of the original, pioneering Indian accent in New Delhi, where I was lucky enough to have dinner. The name of the chef’s new quarters fits both the inherited decor and its attractive food. Rania means “queen” in Hindi and Sanskrit.
Like so many upscale restaurants, this one eschews the a la carte menu. Instead, diners choose three or four courses for $75 and $90, respectively, with a handful of options per course. The experience taught me to go big given the portion sizes (picture large starters), the appeal of so many dishes and the fact that there is a choice of vegetables and breads included in format.
Just as eye-catching as the opening snack is the chaat, which features shiso leaves dipped in chickpea batter, deep fried, and planted on top of yogurt and white pea puree. The crunchy leaves form an artistic grove on your plate, which stands out with side dishes of diced mango and pomegranate seeds and fulfills the mission of a proper chaat. It’s sweet, tangy and spicy at the same time.
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Some of the city’s most tempting meatballs are the kofta at Rania, where Shetty prepares a mousse of chicken thighs flavored with green chilies, cardamom and coriander, forms rounds of the goodness and frys them to keep their shape. The meatballs come coated in truffle cream and, to balance it out, smoked pickled oyster mushrooms that whisper of star anise. It’s hard to leave the first courses, a pot of gold that also includes savory marinated prawns that crackle between your teeth from their rice flour crust.
Then I move on to the beef chop, a second course option, and delight in an appetizer of short ribs mashed with onions, curry leaves and black pepper, breaded with Japanese breadcrumbs and fried. While the majority of states in India prohibit the slaughter of cows, which Hindus consider sacred, the meat is consumed in some parts of the country, including Kerala in the south.
“Salads aren’t a big deal” in India, says Shetty. But this is America. The chef’s contribution to this end is a bouquet of roasted beets and butternut squash, emerging from goat’s cheese raita and anointed with curry vinaigrette – Indian accents applied to a popular American beet and goat’s cheese salad. The Ambarsari cod looks like fish and chips without the chips. Encased in a chickpea batter that turns golden after some time in the fryer, the cod is dusted with spices like turmeric and dried fenugreek and served with ramp chutney. Ramps occur in a small part of Northeast India, says Shetty, who likes the wild leeks’ cheeky garlic-onion notes.
The chef makes his own paneer, using organic milk curdled with citric acid. The resulting cheese is as soft as ricotta and is offered as a main course with sweet peas and shaved pecorino.
Candles on wide tables bathe the room in soft light, and golden chairs literally caress their occupants. The setting is a royal setting for cooking, including my top entree recommendations. Parsi chicken finds a poached egg dusted with a mixture of red chili on a nest of stringy potato threads and spoonfuls of chopped chicken swaying with the heat. Pierce the egg and you’ll have a sunny sauce to enrich the dish. The other entree I love repeating over and over again is salted, grilled monkfish, served atop sautéed baby spinach, smothered with garlic, in a creamy-yellow ditch of coconut milk that’s vibrant with ginger and green chilies. To bring out the flavor of the monkfish, Shetty adds Thai fish sauce to the pool.
The only dish I’m not keen on repeating is the pork belly vindaloo. Its spicy green sauce is wasted on white bites that smell of nothing but fat. The loaves also pale in comparison to their counterparts at Penn Quarter Rasika, 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 with cardamom and pistachios. Rania’s version works on tradition with a clear sugar shell that you break like a brûlée to discover additions of coconut, lime leaf syrup and sweet yellow-skinned cherries. animated? Secure. Refreshing? That too.
Singh was doubly pleased when he hired Shetty, whose wife, April Busch, runs the wine program at Rania. The two met while working at Indian Accent in New York. Liquids are a compelling reason to explore the new restaurant, which features a number of award-winning cocktails, the most eye-catching, To Mule or Not to Mule, served 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 gleam with innumerable tiny hand-laid mirrors. Punjab Grill asked for $3,000 to rent the 10-seat space. Rania makes the fashion statement more accessible, charging $150 per person for the experience, a chef’s tasting menu made up of dishes not on the permanent list. (A minimum of two guests is required at the communal table, which can also be booked for special occasions.)
The Punjab Grill name signaled foods from northern India known for their richness. Rania lets Shetty go and brings in ideas from all over India, yes, the world.
“Come with an open mind,” says the chef.
Heeding the request earns its audience some of the most original Indian food in town.
427 11th St. NW. 202-804-6434. raniadc.com. Open for indoor dining Tuesday through Saturday from 5pm to 10pm. Prices: Three courses $75, 4 courses $90. Soundcheck: 70 decibels/talk is easy. Accessibility: No access barriers; Toilets are ADA compliant. Pandemic protocols: Employees who are all vaccinated are not required to wear masks.