Trendsetters Magazine

India on a platter

Indique's mini-salmon sliders in which the fish is sandwiched between two oothapams.

Indique's mini-salmon sliders in which the fish is sandwiched between two oothapams.  

Smriti Daniel talks to chefs Ashok Bajaj and K.N. Vinod who are changing the way Indian cuisine is perceived in Washington.

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 the U.S.’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. Hilary is a fan, and she and Bill Clinton visited while they still occupied the White House. It seems everyone from Nelson Mandela to Harrison Ford, from Bruce Willis to Condoleeza Rice have stopped by for a meal of superlative Indian cuisine à la Bajaj.

Among many other 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.

Bajaj moved to the U.S. in 1988 and 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; reinvented, reinvigorated Indian at Rasika; Bardeo is a wine bar that 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. So when Bajaj sets off at a brisk walk from 701, I tag along. 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 and foie gras galouti scented with saffron and served with smoked lamb and tawa parathas.

Bajaj’s relentless pace allows him to drop in on this and each one of his other properties every day. 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,” he says.

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. Together, he and his long-time business partner Surfy Rahman run Bombay Bistro, Indique and Indique Heights (which is closed for renovations). Vinod himself no stranger to the White House, is also a regular guest of the Smithsonian Resident Associate Programme. 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 Kerala shepherd’s pie and the achari chicken tacos have earned the restaurant a reputation for innovation. “India has got so much variety,” says Vinod, explaining the regional variations he tapped into even as he refined the way they were presented.

Vinod remembers the early days of his business, not least because Washington DC was then dubbed ‘the murder capital.’ 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.

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Printable version | Jul 5, 2020 4:18:20 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/trendsetters-india-on-a-platter/article7116699.ece

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