A Rasa sampler: (Clockwise from bottom center) chop suey; iddly lentil cakes; chicken lollipop with Szechuan chutney; dosa, a rice and lentil flour crepe with vegetables inside; haka noodles with garlic and chilies; and medhu vada, crispy lentil doughnuts.
By opening Rasa, the new Asian street food eatery on Sand Lake Road, local entrepreneur Sunny Corda has taken an all-inclusive approach to Orlando’s assortment of Indian restaurants, and by doing so, opens the general public to a world of new possibilities.
In other words, it’s all good.
Defining a cuisine with one word—Mexican, or Chinese, for example—disregards and demeans the multitude of styles, regions and flavors that can be found in those countries: Guo bao rou pork from Northern China is so different from dong an zi ji chicken from the South that it might as well be from another country—which at one time it was. Flavors, preparations and ingredients change from one town to the next in Mexico, let alone between regions, without even mentioning the Tex-Mex thing. And stereotyping a food culture like that of Korea’s as only kimchi and bulgogi ignores the complexity of one of the world’s oldest cuisines.
And so it is with Indian cuisine. I’ve heard the same complaint from several people who know the food of India well: There’s more to it than “gravy,” what they disparagingly call the thick, usually mono-tasting curries insisted upon by the American palate, which fills the majority of Indian restaurants. Rasa, focusing on “Indo-Chinese and South Indian” dishes, has not a gravy in sight, and it is refreshing and—not coincidentally—very, very good.
There’s perhaps no better way to experience Rasa’s offerings than to pop in for lunch and order the South Indian thali (which means “platter”; $12). Easily enough for two (possibly enhanced with a draft beer or cocktails), the round steel tray filled with small pots provides several deceptively simple gems. I can consume chana masala, chickpeas cooked in onions, garlic, ginger, chilies and a warm, rich spice mix (the definition of “masala”) including cumin, coriander and turmeric, by the bowl—and have. Poriyal, a dry spice blend surrounding fresh okra, is just hot enough and can be tempered with the white jasmine rice flavored with cumin seeds. Sambhar, a lentil-based vegetable dish flavored with tamarind, and rassam, similarly tasting of tamarind with tomato, peppers and cumin, are for dipping or eating as soup. Bowls of thin Indian yogurt and salty pickles; puffed fried poori flatbread; and crisp lentil papad all flavor, accent and transport the meal. A sweet semolina dessert called rava kesari (it’s the orange one) should be saved for last. And this thali is just one outrageously inexpensive item—a sushi platter of that variety and quantity would cost $50.
Take a moment to explore dishes that might be unfamiliar, such as iddly Manchurian ($12), a savory Chinese-influenced lentil cake cooked in soy sauce with peppers, garlic, ginger and scallions. The popular street food hakka noodles are quick-fried with veggies and a choice of protein ($13-$16). And get acquainted with dosa, rice and lentil flour crepes that arrive as a large, crispy curl or wrapped, tortilla-style, around vegetables. Uttapam, a thicker, stuffed pancake topped with vegetables, comes as part of an assorted trio called the Indian Moon platter for just $12, another bargain.
Rasa sits in the former Le Rouge wine bar, and while some of the décor has been fine-tuned, its existing stone accents and red-lit bar fit the sophistication and taste of its new inhabitants. I was impressed with Rasa’s take on these extraordinary dishes, and I plan on being back as often as possible.
The Rest of the Empire
Mr. Corda’s focus on the South at Rasa doesn’t mean he shies away from the rest of India in his other two restaurants. Saffron, two doors down on Sand Lake, visits the northern climes with meat and vegetable biryani; korma and tikka masala; wok-cooked kadhai shrimp; chicken from Kashmir; and eggplant from Hyderabad. And at Mynt in Winter Park, many of those dishes are given an upscale dining shine.