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Meet Ashok Bajaj, desi restaurateur and host to DC’s most powerful

Presidents and First Ladies are among those dining at his 11 Washington restaurants.

more lifestyle Updated: Dec 04, 2017 13:31 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times
Obama,Bush,Trump
Bajaj outside one of his two Rasika restaurants, this one in Penn Quarter, Washington DC. (Yashwant Raj)

It’s the corner table right in the middle of the restaurant, blocked by a wooden wall on one side, and a curtain of beads on the other. Guests at the table get a generous view of the entrance and the rest of the hall, but they themselves remain mostly out of sight.

It’s been a favourite table of some of Ashok Bajaj’s most celebrated and frequent power diners.

“That’s the seat Michelle Obama sat in,” Bajaj says one afternoon recalling the first time the First Lady dined at Rasika, a restaurant that has come to define Indian cuisine for Washington DC’s power elite. She ordered a sampler platter, paired with wine. She came back twice, and took the same table.

“Who would have thought Michelle Obama would one day come to my restaurant,” Bajaj says, still a little surprised after all these years.

Starting out in the 1980s, Bajaj says he used to wonder if he would ever get a chance to host a President or a First Lady. He had heard about the then First Lady Nancy Reagan being a regular at The Jockey Club, a French-American restaurant very popular with Hollywood celebrities visiting Washington.

But there she was, a First Lady, dining at his restaurant.

Who would have thought this Delhi boy would come to Washington DC in the 1980s, start an Indian cuisine restaurant across a park from the White House, turn it into a city icon and go on to establish 10 more restaurants, covering the whole range from Italian to American to French-style brasseries?

Bajaj opened his 11th, and his second street food restaurant, called Bindaas, in November capping a growing career that won him a prestigious lifetime achievement award from fellow restaurateurs recently — the Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award .

In the intervening years, Bajaj’s restaurants — starting with his first, Bombay Club — have become favourites of some of the most powerful people in the world.

President Bill Clinton, a natural glad-hander, once took 45 minutes to make it to his table, in one of Baja’s eateries, as he had to greet so many people on the way.

President George H W Bush was less effusive during his visit to one of his restaurants and chose something different from what he had ordered earlier — lamb chops with chutney.

Recently, former President Barack Obama celebrated his 56th birthday at Rasika with Michelle Obama, just as they had celebrated his 53rd when he was still in office. Chefs from Bombay Club and Rasika — there are two Rasikas — often cooked for the Obamas using the White House kitchen, says Bajaj.

President Donald Trump hasn’t crossed the street yet but his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner have been to the Rasikas several times. And so have the president’s national security adviser HR McMaster and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn.

The boom

President Bill Clinton, a natural glad-hander, once took 45 minutes to make it to his table, Bajaj says.

Bajaj was born and grew up in Delhi Gate area of Delhi and after finishing school and college — with a degree in Commerce — he started training at Hotel Ashok. He joined the Taj group subsequently, which was then planning a new restaurant in London, the Bombay Brasserie.

He came to DC in the late 1980s with dreams of starting an Indian cuisine restaurant, to showcase Indian food, which was then a minor blip on the larger eating out culture and was light years away from its present celebrity status.

He wanted a place where Americans could go, and also take their friends. It had to be a first-class establishment in an “A class” building.

But none of the landlords he contacted would have him. “They did not want an ethnic restaurant on their premises,” he says. “They thought Indian food would smell in the lobby … and were happy to put me in the basement.”

But that was never an option. For a year, Bajaj went around making presentations, holding meetings. With no success.

“I then told one of them to go to London and check out one of the Indian cuisine restaurants there,” he says. He wanted the man to see for himself what he had in mind, not a “small mom-and-pop joint … there will be no smell — I am going to have the right exhaust system”.

Bajaj asked him to go to London’s Taj-run Bombay Brasserie, where he had worked before deciding to strike out on his own. The landlord undertook the trip, and wiser by the experience, agreed to let the young restaurateur from India start working on his dream, which he christened Bombay Club.

Bajaj tells the story of his journey from Bombay Club to Rasika — the latter, he said, would not have been possible without the former — in a book that was released in October, called, what else, Rasika, which he has co-authored with David Hagedorn, a restaurateur-turned-travel and food writer, with recipes of some of the restaurant’s innovative dishes by Vikram Sunderam, the chain’s celebrated chief chef who won the James Beard award, the Oscars of the food world, in 2014.

After the Bombay Club, Bajaj waited 16 years to open his next Indian cuisine restaurant, Rasika at Penn Quarter, a buzzing downtown DC neighbourhood.

Why such a long gap? “There was not that much demand for Indian food,” he says matter-of-factly. So he turned to other cuisines, and kept growing: 701, which serves continental cuisine; The Oval Room, for modern American food with a touch of Lebanese; Ardeo+Bardeo, two restaurants now merged into one serving American fare; NoPa, a brasserie serving American food; and the chain’s solitary Italian food eatery, Bibiana. They are together owned by Bajaj’s privately-held company, the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group.

Food for fame

It was 1994, President Clinton’s second year in the White House. Across the Lafayette Park, Bajaj’s Bombay Club was coming along nicely.

He was pleasantly surprised one day to receive an invitation to join the first family at the annual Christmas Party. “I was not even a naturalized citizen then,” Bajaj says, re-living the rush he probably felt then.

The president had dined at the Bombay Club a few times, and so had the rest of the family — “Chelsea also”, he says, referring to their daughter.

While he refused to name his favourite president, Bajaj did reveal a special warmth for Clinton — whom he mimics exceptionally well. On one occasion, he remembers asking Clinton when he came by for a meal with his family and friends if he could spare a few minutes to meet his parents, who were visiting from India and happened to be in the restaurant then.

Clinton rose immediately, and with an arm around Bajaj’s shoulder, walked towards his parents. “My father was stunned,” he recalls. Relations between India and the US were still improving, and the US president, then as now, was a big deal. Clinton sat down with Bajaj’s parents and spent some time with them.

“I reminded him that his food might get cold,” Bajaj says, and doing his best impersonation of Clinton, “the president replied the ‘food can wait’.”

The restaurateur, who never talks about his age and looks of indeterminate antiquity with his slight build neatly packed in smart suits, has seen multiple White Houses, starting with Clinton’s, which he agrees was every bit as chaotic as Trump’s, hit by the same frequency of leaks, exits etc.

“But the most disciplined?” The Obamas?

“No, the George W Bush — the junior Bush — White House. Very businesslike.” He counts off the aides who made it so — vice-president Dick Cheney, a stern figure who was wrongly perceived to be the real power behind the Resolute Desk, the president’s table in the Oval Office; chief of staff Andy Card and so on. And then, he adds, the President had learnt from his father, the first President Bush, George H W Bush, seeing things “through his eyes” as well.

So, is India calling? No plans yet. Bajaj has no restaurants outside DC. “A shortage of trained personnel,” he says.