Ordering at Rasa, a new fast-casual restaurant opening Wednesday in Navy Yard, will probably feel familiar: Pick your base, choose a topping, finish things off with a sauce.
Some ingredients, like tikki, podi and kokum, though, may feel a little new.
The restaurant is one of the few in the area serving Indian food in the Chipotle-style manner, joining a national movement of new fast-casual joints — led by such chainlets as Curry Up Now in California and the Kati Roll Company in New York and London — that aim to introduce the cuisine to a wider market.
“There’s this perception that Indian food is unhealthy or heavy, or filled with butter,” says Sahil Rahman, 26, who founded Rasa with his childhood friend, Rahul Vinod, 27. “We’re excited to show people that’s not the case. It’s very clean and healthy food. It’s just in the way you prepare it.”
Signature bowls are seasoned with house-made spice blends that draw inspiration from southern and northern India. The Tikka Chance on Me ($9) is overflowing with basmati rice, chicken tikka, roasted tomato sauce, sautéed spinach and pickled radish. It’s topped with toasted-cumin yogurt and mint-cilantro chutney. The Aloo Need is Love bowl ($9) is a vegetarian-friendly mix of sweet potato tikki, coconut-ginger sauce, charred eggplant and a super grain mix made with quinoa, green lentils and ragi, an ancient grain with chocolate notes.
It’s worth veering from the pre-made bowls for the spiced beef, flavored with a blend of cardamom, cinnamon, clove, coriander and ginger that packs fiery heat. Try mixing it with dehydrated bitter melon and a peanut sesame sauce for a harmonious blend of spicy, earthy and savory flavors.
Alcoholic beverages such as a masala gin and tonic ($7.50) and canned rosé ($6) are also available.
The cheery space includes a wall of bright-pink shelves that hold books and mementos from Rahman and Vinod's research travels to New Delhi, Rajasthan, Mumbai and Kerala. A trio of swinging nest chairs add a hint of playfulness, while rainbow-colored canvasses come from Rahman’s aunt. A huge cobalt door was imported from India and installed into the facade.
Rasa is a family affair that’s been a long time in the making. The menu was a collaborative effort between chef K.N. Vinod, Rahul’s father, and Surfy Rahman, Sahil’s father, along with their sons. The elder duo co-own Indique and Bombay Bistro, and worked together in India before moving to the United States.
The two younger men, who both grew up in Gaithersburg, hatched the plan for Rasa in high school, when they pitched it as a business plan for class and won $500. After college, both pursued careers in consulting and investment banking but eventually returned to their idea for a fast-casual Indian restaurant.
“When I was [working in New York], I didn’t eat Indian food very often,” Vinod says. “There was some small hole-in-the wall places that were okay, and there was also very high-end Michelin rated places I couldn’t afford.”
There had to be something in the middle, they thought.
The two left their corporate gigs in 2014 to open a restaurant that they hoped would reflect the changing culinary market and represent their backgrounds. “We are American, and we are Indian,” Rahman says. “India is so diverse, and we try to reflect that on our menu while not limiting ourselves.”
1247 First St. SE. 202-804-5678.
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article included the incorrect name for Bombay Bistro. This version has been updated.