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Washington diary

Indian food may not be as big in America as it is in England, but with new developments on the Indian restaurants’ block, that is sure to change

brunch Updated: Apr 21, 2019 00:04 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Washington,Indian food,America
Washington is also a centre of Sakura, and the US declares National Cherry Blossom Festival around the same time as Japan(Shutterstock)

When Air India first introduced its non-stop flights to America, I thought they were the height of glamour. I remember flying to New York on a flight that had Pranab Mukherjee (then India’s foreign minister), Shabana Azmi and various other famous figures.

Slowly, Air India began to fly to more American destinations and bit by bit, I took those flights too: Chicago and then San Francisco. Admittedly, they were not so glamorous now: First Class had shrunk from a full cabin to a single row and few foreigners took the flights, so they were really NRI Expresses. But I liked them anyway.

So it was no surprise that when I had to go to Washington DC last week, I picked the Air India non-stop. Sadly, it turned out to be among the worst non-stop long-haul flights I have taken in a long time.

It wasn’t Air India’s fault. Ground handling at Delhi was outstanding but everyone had been stymied by the ban on over-flights over Pakistan territory. This meant our plane had to take a longer, circuitous route, which in turn meant that the aircraft would not have the fuel capacity to do Delhi-Washington non-stop. So the flight was diverted to Mumbai for refuelling (three hours) and then delayed on the ground there because of heavy winds.

It took 90 minutes to clear immigration at Dulles Airport because most counters were unmanned

When we finally reached Washington DC, I had been in the aircraft for close to 25 hours. Worse was to follow. About the only thing that Donald Trump says that I agree with is that the US has third world airports. There were around 1,500 people packed into the arrivals hall at Dulles Airport and only a few officers to handle them. (Seventy per cent of immigration desks were unmanned.) So, that took another 90 minutes or so.

DC is a charming town but it lacks the beating heart of New York. Yet, it is full of surprises

By the time I collapsed into my room at the very elegant St. Regis, I was totally exhausted but still alert enough to wonder if I should keep taking non-stop long-haul flights.

My guess is: no. I have been to DC several times before. It is a charming town but it lacks the beating heart of New York City. You are always aware that exciting things are happening nearby. Donald Trump was probably sitting down to compose a semi-literate tweet as I drove into the city. But unless you are an insider, none of this means very much to the casual visitor. You can watch it just as well on CNN in Delhi as you can in DC.

But Washington can be full of surprises. At around this time of year, all of Japan goes officially crazy because the cherry blossom trees bloom (they call them Sakura). This is such a big event that you have to book your flights and your hotels months in advance.

What I did not realise was that Washington is also a centre of Sakura. Each year, at around the same time as Japan, the US declares a National Cherry Blossom festival.

I was lucky enough to land just as the Sakura was blooming and the city was full of the white flowers. Even outside the St. Regis, three Sakura trees blazed away. I have never seen Washington look so beautiful.

The trees, it turns out, were gifted to Washington by the Mayor of Tokyo in the early part of the 20th century (long before Fat Man and Little Boy) and have quickly become an integral part of the DC scene. Unlike the Japanese, however, Americans do not treat the Sakura with much reverence and the blooming of the cherry blossoms is more about partying.

As you probably know, Indian food is not as big in America as it is in England. There are, as far as I know, no Michelin-star Indian restaurants in DC and the average citizen is less familiar with Indian food than say, the average New Yorker.

DC Dosa is a popular outlet in Union Market

So I was pleased to see when I went to Union Market, a development that houses many street stalls and tiny gourmet operations, that among the more popular outlets was DC Dosa. This was a small counter, run (when I went) by two Latina women which served dosas, chilas and uttapams. It was described as home-style Indian food but neither the ladies making the dosas nor the people ordering them were Indian.

This pleased me enormously. Indian food will never hit the mainstream till it goes totally international. The guys at the pizza stand next door in Union Market were not Italians. So why should the dosa ladies be Indians?

Washington does have top Indian places frequented by the high and mighty. Nearly two decades ago, I went to The Bombay Club because I was told that the Clintons went there. The food was pretty awful so I concluded that either I had just been unlucky or that the Clintons and I like different kinds of food.

The same owners have since opened two restaurants called Rasika which have won rave reviews. Mutual friends had told me not to let The Bombay Club experience deter me so I went to the original Rasika. It is a packed restaurant (obviously they are doing very well) that looks rather like an outlet at an Indian five-star hotel where the F&B manager has been asked to increase the capacity by a third so they can inflate revenues.

Rasika in Washington serves modern Indian food and is brimming with people

Service was smart and efficient (I booked under a false name and I don’t think I was rumbled). Some of the food was okay. A kind of dahi puri and ragda pattice were fine if not great and the coconut rice was very good.

It was the mains that let the meal down. The vindaloo masala was okay but the dish tasted like an assembly. The potatoes had been cooked separately and added later. The little cocktail onions that distinguish Urbano Rego’s vindaloos in Goa had been replaced by large pickled onions that completely destroyed the flavour of the vindaloo. I was suspicious of a purdah biryani because it didn’t taste right, but I don’t know enough about the process to tell whether this was a tawa biryani that had been shoe-horned later into a dum vessel.

The service, on the other hand, was first rate. The manager saw that I had barely touched the main courses, and when the bill came they had removed both the biryani and the vindaloo.

Perhaps I am just unlucky or the hype surrounding Rasika is overblown. Either way, I don’t think I will find out. I shall not be trying it again.

Punjab Grill in DC has been designed with artisanal handmade decorative windows and walls

Punjab Grill is an Indian chain started by Zorawar Kalra, based on recipes collected by his famous father Jiggs Kalra. Zorawar first went into partnership with Amit Burman and Rohit Aggarwal of Lite Bite foods and then sold the whole operation to them.

Since then, the chain has followed a complex, multi-pronged strategy. In what we might call B-class locations, it sticks to the butter chicken/black dal formula. But it has had a remarkable (if largely unnoticed) rise in foreign countries.

Amit Burman and Rohit Aggarwal (right), directors of Lite Bite foods

The Punjab Grill in Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands is hugely upmarket, in keeping with the location. The one in Bangkok sticks to more traditional Indian food but it is a quantum leap from anything the brand has done in India. In Abu Dhabi, it is located at the Ritz Carlton and run to Ritz standards.

The Washington DC outpost has just opened (and was jam-packed the night I went) and along with Karan Singh, their partner in America, it is clear that Burman and Aggarwal are going for broke. It is an expensively-designed restaurant with artisanal handmade decorative windows, walls and a decadently gorgeous private dining room that is clearly based on the mirror room at Amber Fort.

Chef Jassi Bindra brings a new freshness to the menu at Punjab Grill

The idea is to combine this super upmarket, artisanally Indian decor with food that is modern and sophisticated. A starter plate of golgappas was filled with two spheres of fruit flavour. The haleem was made with venison giving it a depth that goat meat often lacks. There was fresh buratta with Indian spiced tomatoes. A plate of pickled vegetables had just the right amount of sourness. A chutney sampler came with a basket of Indian crispies: slices of khakras, papads, shreds of paper dosas and more.

Chutney sampler with a basket of Indian crispies like khakra and papad at Punjab Grill

There were all the luxury touches. Some dishes had white truffles on them. There was even an elaborately constructed Indian answer to Peking Duck. A caviar service looked great and used white makhan to a devastating effect rather than the usual sour cream. All this was lubricated by two excellent sommeliers who swung from Burgundy to California to Italy to Champagne.

Judged purely as a modern Indian restaurant with classic, formal service (sauces poured from little boats etc.), this is far ahead of those London restaurants that try and do the same thing. Plus, there is a boldness to the menu which seems to come from the young chef, Jassi, who has incorporated many of partner Karan Singh’s ideas. As a consequence, the food has a freshness about it that most upmarket Indian restaurants lack, especially abroad.

Who would have thought it? All this while, we watched Rohit and Amit and Lite Bite expand all over India. But while we weren’t looking, they managed to create what could soon become the finest global chain of upmarket Indian restaurants.

From HT Brunch, April 21, 2019

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First Published: Apr 20, 2019 22:14 IST