The restaurateur on his ever-evolving dining empire.
Ashok Bajaj, the New Delhi-born owner of 10 popular restaurants in Washington, celebrates the 30th anniversary of his first eatery, Bombay Club, later this year. We asked him to let us in on the secrets to his longevity and his reaction to Rasika’s shutout from the Michelin Guide. >>
Washington Life: Before coming to Washington you worked in the food industry in London and Sydney. Why did you choose to open Bombay Club here?
Ashok Bajaj: There were not a lot of great restaurants in D.C. then. We had Jean Louis at the Watergate and some other good French places but there weren’t any Indian fine dining establishments in the city. Indian food wasn’t very popular in the United States, with the exception of a couple of restaurants in New York, and I wanted to introduce it more broadly. When I came here, the city felt right and ready for something new.
WL: How has the food scene changed in the last three decades and Do you feel you’ve contributed to the evolution?
AB: Certainly, as a group, we have contributed to the evolution. The food scene has completely changed. Back then, if you opened a restaurant, you did it on K Street or Connecticut Avenue. Now restaurants are in every corridor of the city—Shaw, Brookland, H Street NE, Capitol Hill, Navy Yard, you name it. It’s becoming more like New York, where you can eat, live and play in the same neighborhood.
WL: Your critically acclaimed Rasika restaurants were not awarded Michelin stars in the 2017 or 2018 editions. Were you robbed?
AB: A lot of people were angry. I was angry as well. Everyone wants to be in the Michelin Guide. It would have been nice to be included but what matters the most is what the people who dine here regularly say. I appreciated that so many others, including local critics, felt we deserved to be in the guide, but the bottom line is you have to value what your diners think. Rasika is still very busy. Bombay, 30 years later, is still busy. How can I complain?
WL: Tell me about your cookbook, “Rasika: The Flavors of India”, which was published in 2017.
AB: It was 25 years in the making. I’ve been collecting thoughts in my head since the early years of Bombay Club because I wanted to show Americans that Indian food is as sophisticated and varied as any other cuisine despite its unfair rap for being spicy or smelly. But I needed the right person to work on it with me and that turned out to be Vikram Sunderam, Rasika’s James Beard Award-winning chef. We published it to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Rasika.
WL: What are some of favorite dishes at your establishments?
AB: It’s hard to pick. The tandoori salmon and green chile chicken are still the most popular items at Bombay Club. The salmon is not actually on the menu, but regulars know that we always have it. At Rasika, the black cod and palak chaat (crispy baby spinach) are among my favorites. The chef at our Italian eatery, Bibiana, makes homemade pastas that are really delicious. And I think Sababa has the city’s best hummus.
WL: What’s the secret to your success?
AB: Because dining habits are constantly changing, you may have to change concepts every five to ten years. I recently did that when I closed Ardeo+Bardeo, my Italian restaurant and adjacent wine bar in Cleveland Park, and reopened them as Bindaas and Sababa, which serve Indian and Israeli street food, respectively. Also, I’m still enjoying myself. So far so good. Thirty years ago seems like yesterday.
WL: Name your go-to spots in Washington and why.
AB: I drive by the U.S. Capitol nearly every day and never get bored of the sight. It’s such a spectacular building. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons I like to take long walks in Rock Creek Park to clear my head. Kafe Leopold in Georgetown has a European, hidden-away feel, and the clientele is so eclectic. I always enjoy going there. I am a fan of several local theaters, but the terrace of the Kennedy Center overlooking the Potomac River is so special.
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2018 issue of Washington Life Magazine.