Ashok Bajaj likes to keep his Presidents close and their First Ladies even closer. Washington DC’s best known Indian restaurateur presides over an empire of seven successful establishments in America’s power capital. Michelle Obama was seen dining at Rasika – one of the most awarded of the set – in a prelude to President Obama celebrating his 52nd birthday there in 2013. Still, a presidential visit is only one of many feathers in this restaurateur’s hat.
Among many accolades, Bajaj was named one of the 50 Most Powerful people in Washington by GQ magazine in 2009 and in 2013 was dubbed Washington’s Restaurateur of the Year – it is clear he has come a long way from the days when landlords refused to rent him their premises, worried that their rooms would stink of curry.
By this point, Bajaj is an old hand at entertaining political royalty, well past the kind of uncertainty that once had him calling up a journalist friend to ask for etiquette tips on how welcome President Bill Clinton. It seems everyone from Nelson Mandela to Harrison Ford, from Bruce Willis to Condoleeza Rice has stopped by for a meal of superlative Indian cuisine à la Bajaj. One of his favourite guests is Hilary Clinton who first dined here as First Lady, then as Secretary of State and – whether or not she becomes America’s first female president – is someone Bajaj is looking forward to having visit again.
Bajaj is sitting at the bar talking with his manager when I arrive for an interview. Around him, 701 is winding down from the lunch service and preparing for dinner. Bajaj is a man of many suits, and impeccable discipline. He is famously coy about revealing his age, and so I can tell you he was born in Delhi but not when. He graduated with a degree in Commerce from Delhi University and would gain experience of the hospitality industry while working first at the Ashok Group and then at Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces.
The latter relocated Bajaj to London but he would travel to Sydney in Australia before moving to the States in 1988, where he opened the Bombay Club that same year. Over the next two decades he would launch several distinctive restaurants: there’s formal white-tablecloth dining at the Bombay Club and reinvented, reinvigorated Indian at Rasika; Bardeo is a wine bar which serves tapas like dishes, and there’s the foursome of 701, the Oval Room, Nopa Kitchen + Bar and Ardeo where diners go for contemporary American cuisine.
I’m most curious about Rasika, and so when Bajaj sets off at a brisk walk from 701, I tag along. His relentless pace allows him to get around each one of his properties every day to check in on management and stop by the tables of regulars, many of whom he knows by name (and designation). Despite his years of experience, he never seems to slack off: “There’s an old saying – a restaurant is only as good as the last meal you served,” says Bajaj, “it’s always a challenge.”
From the kitchens at Rasika, Vikram Sunderam who was awarded the 2014 James Beard award for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region, sends out a stream of eccentric delicacies like idlis served with a spicy Goan shrimp balchão, foie gras galouti scented with saffron and served with smoked lamb, cashew nuts and tawa paratha and the restaurant’s signature salmon tandoori enlivened with lime leaves.
When it comes to opening a restaurant, location was everything to Bajaj – The Bombay Club, for instance, was just a block from The White House because he wanted to be close to the corridors of power. He tells me that when he first opened up shop on Connecticut Avenue, the area had little going for it. “It was dead but I wanted to be near the World Bank and the IMF, I wanted people who travelled,” says Ashok. With a dearth of sophisticated Indian dining options in the capital, he saw his challenge as being to produce a fine dining restaurant on par with anything else in the city – it would be white glove service all the way.
This determination to raise the standard is something Bajaj has in common with K.N Vinod. When the Kerala born chef started out, it was with a small outlet that ran on the efforts of just two cooks. The year was 1985 and he remembers there being only five Indian restaurants in the Washington metropolitan area. By 1992, good reviews in papers like The Washington Post meant people were queuing up outside Bombay Bistro in Rockville well before the doors opened.
Where Bajaj has expanded his remit beyond Indian cuisine, Vinod continues to reinvent it. He and his long-time business partner Surfy Rahman run three restaurants – they opened Indique in Cleveland Park and followed that with Indique Heights in Chevy Chase (which when we met was closed for renovations).
Vinod himself no stranger to the White House, is also a regular guest of the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program. Between his different venues, he’s hosted a former President of India – K.R.Narayanan – as well as the likes of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Obama’s ex-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and not just Hillary Clinton but her daughter Chelsea, as well.
Both Indique and Indique Heights have made into lists of Washington DC’s top restaurants. Signature dishes like the clever mini-salmon sliders (where the fish is sandwiched between two flat rounds of oothapam), the Kerela shepherd’s pie and the achari chicken tacos, as well as cocktails like the kokum martini and tamarind margherita have earned the restaurant a reputation for innovation. “India has got so much variety,” says Vinod, explaining that what he tapped into regional variations even as he refined the way they were presented.
Vinod, who returns to India frequently, says diners’ appetites for traditional dishes are only growing but to compete chefs must constantly innovate, particularly in terms of presentation. “They’re definitely taking it to a new level,” he says of his compatriots.
Vinod remembers though what it took to get here. Setting up show back then was challenging, not least because Washington DC was then dubbed ‘the murder capital.’ A depressingly high homicides rate and the easy availability of cocaine earned it a reputation as one of the most unsafe cities in the country. Though times were grim, for chefs like Vinod and restaurateurs like Bajaj, the American dream was a powerful incentive not just to immigrate, but to then undertake to train their diners’ palates and raise expectations of Indian cuisine.
“People looked down on the whole concept of an Indian restaurant as high art,” says Bajaj. But now Vinod believes times have changed, with restaurants like his focusing “on reinventing not just the food, but the whole ambience.” In doing so, Bajaj, Vinod and others like them have built a loyal following for Indian cuisine in America’s capital where none existed before. Thanks to them, power dining in DC will never be the same.
Published in The Hindu on April 18, 2015. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Ashok Bajaj and KN Vinod.