Rasa offers Indi-Chinese for Western palates

CorrespondentJune 19, 2014 

  • Rasa

    1826 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill


    Cuisine: Indi-Chinese, Indian

    Rating:* * 

    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: contemporary, casual, colorful

    Noise level: low

    Service: needs training

    Recommended: Manchow soup, dum aloo Kashmiri, fish malabari, lamb rogan josh

    Open: Lunch and dinner daily.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking in lot.

    The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: * * * * *  Extraordinary

    * * * *  Excellent. * * *  Above average. * * Average. *  Fair.

    The dollar signs defined:$ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

A large bowl of chicken Manchow soup – served for two, according to the menu, but easily enough for four – had just been brought to our table. My wife and I were thoroughly enjoying the soup (maybe it would only serve two after all?), and I was casting about in my mental glossary of food terms to describe it. There was the deep golden broth, subtly perfumed with exotic spice notes and punctuated with a bright confetti of diced tomatoes, green chiles and cilantro. A few shreds of chicken and ribbons of lightly beaten egg swirled into the cornstarch-thickened broth gave it body. The soup reminded me of something, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Then my wife spoke up, and as she often does, she nailed it. “It’s like egg drop soup,” she said, “but colorful.” I knew she wasn’t just referring to the appearance of the soup, but also to its vibrant flavor. And for anyone tasting Manchow soup for the first time, a familiar point of reference would in fact be egg drop soup.

Other points of reference from the Chinese repertoire will come in handy time and again as you explore the Indi-Chinese (also known as Indo-Chinese) fare that is Rasa’s specialty. A fusion cuisine developed by Chinese immigrants to northeastern India long before the term “fusion cuisine” existed, Indi-Chinese food is, you might say, India’s version of Chinese-American cuisine.

The two cuisines even share a number of dishes with identical names, though if you order moo shu pork or General Tso’s chicken at Rasa expecting the usual takeout shop fare, you’re in for a surprise.

As long as you know what you’re getting in for, it can a pleasant surprise. Meats are often cut in larger pieces than the chopsticks-friendly cubes you’re accustomed to, and the vegetables that accompany them may be different. Traditional Indian spices sometimes find their way into dishes, where they mingle with familiar soy and ginger flavors. As a rule, Indi-Chinese fare is also spicier in the heat-level sense.

That said, the cooks at Rasa take that rule with a grain of salt. An order of “spicy” Hakka noodles produces shrimp, chicken and a medley of vegetables entangled in a skein of wheat noodles and a savory mushroom-flavored sauce. But they could have saved ink by leaving the word “spicy” off the menu.

Rasa’s rendition of the notoriously fiery chili chicken is tasty enough, too, but a few token slices of jalapeño aren’t enough for the dish to live up to its reputation. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of Manchurian chicken, another Indi-Chinese classic where soy and garlic play a strong supporting role. Vegetarian versions of both dishes, substituting the traditional cauliflower for chicken, are available.

It’s a good bet that the relatively tame spicing of Rasa’s Indi-Chinese offering is an attempt to cater to Western palates. It’s also possible that specifying authentic heat levels when ordering might get results. On the other hand, the default spicing offers a way for curious foodies not blessed with asbestos palates to sample a cuisine seldom seen in these parts. Think of it as Indi-Chinese with training wheels.

Alternatively, you could just go for straight Indian. Rasa offers an abridged selection of mostly Northern Indian fare, including a lamb rogan josh that deserves its designation on the menu as a signature dish. Fish Malabari is a keeper, too, serving up filet pieces of mild whitefish (recently, swai) in a coconut sauce. Dum aloo Kashmiri, whole baby potatoes stuffed with paneer and crushed nuts, then simmered in a spice-fragrant tomato-onion sauce, is a standout among the ample vegetarian offering.

Under the “Appetizers” heading, you’ll find a multicultural smorgasbord ranging from lettuce wraps and potstickers to samosas and pakoras. The Kathi roll, a popular street food in India featuring boneless pieces of tandoori chicken, onion, cilantro and mint chutney wrapped in chapati flatbread, is an adventure worth seeking out.

The wait staff are in need of training, but they’re generally eager to please – except for the hostess who couldn’t be bothered to look up from her cell phone to see if anyone needed, say, water refills. Which we did, as it happens, because our waiter had disappeared into the kitchen not to be seen again until he brought out our next course.

There’s hope that service will improve with time, given that Rasa’s owners are both restaurant veterans.

Richard Lee is an ethnic Chinese who was born and grew up in India, where he worked in an Indi-Chinese restaurant. Lee previously worked at Red Lotus in Chapel Hill, where he met partner Kevin Zhu (whose father owns that restaurant).

Lee and Zhu opened Rasa last October in the former Ming Garden space. Redecorating the dining room with paper globes and stars suspended from the ceiling and photographic enlargements of food closeups on pomegranate walls, they’ve created a space that’s both contemporary and warmly inviting.

Or as my wife might put it, colorful. or

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