WASHINGTON — Decades before people stood in line for hours in hopes to score a seat at a tiny Filipino restaurant, and before Chinese-Korean fast-casual concepts dominated critics’ taste buds, Ashok Bajaj was redefining Washingtonians’ expectations of ethnic food.
In 1988, the restaurateur opened The Bombay Club, a fine-dining Indian restaurant just steps from The White House, to prove that the cuisine could thrive outside of strip malls and takeout containers.
“Washington was a different city back then. People did not go out that much to eat ethnic food,” said Bajaj, a New Delhi native and founder of Knightsbridge Restaurant Group.
Now, that is no longer the case — and Bajaj set the course for that trajectory.
The Bombay Club morphed into a go-to power dining spot for presidents and politicos. And when Bajaj opened his second Indian restaurant, Rasika, in 2005, he defied the norm once again by offering a contemporary take on Indian cuisine.
“What we did differently at Rasika is we presented the food in a modern way … making it more accessible for the public to eat,” Bajaj said.
Dishes such as palak chaat, Rasika’s signature crispy spinach topped with yogurt sauce, quickly became synonymous with D.C. dining. The restaurant, which now has two locations and four stars from The Washington Post, was dubbed the best Indian restaurant in the country by the newspaper’s food critic Tom Sietsema.
In 2014, Rasika’s chef, Vikram Sunderam, won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. President Barack Obama even celebrated his birthday there.
“Eating habits have changed. People are more accepting of ethnic food than they were back 25 years ago,” Bajaj said.
This fall, Bajaj and Sunderam are once again on a mission to introduce more people and palates to Indian cuisine with their cookbook, “Rasika: Flavorful Recipes From a Groundbreaking Indian Restaurant,” co-authored by David Hagedorn.
“I always wanted to introduce it to a wider audience, not only in Washington, but in the States,” Bajaj said. “The timing is right for us.”
The cookbook, due out Oct. 10, contains 100 recipes that span Rasika’s 12-year life and a variety of regions of India.
“And we have tried to put forth the recipes in such a way that it’s easy for people to cook at home,” Sunderam said.
Those new to the cuisine will find a list of pantry staples and easy-to-follow steps alongside the four-star recipes. And true, whipping up the restaurant’s black cod might require an extra trip to the store, but Sunderam said once you have the basic spices on hand, you can make a number of different dishes.
“It’s like any cuisine, even say Italian cuisine, you need your basic onions and herbs and garlic. Same with Indian cuisine. You need basic spices like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, cumin, and powders like turmeric, chili powder, coriander powder,” he said.
Best of all, cooking Rasika’s famed food at home will save time otherwise spent waiting around for a reservation.
Bajaj added, “For me, it’s been a journey for 28 years. [The cookbook] shows how far the cuisine has come and how far the acceptance of the cuisine has come.”
Pre-orders of Rasika’s cookbook are available on Amazon. Bajaj and Sunderam are hosting two book signing events in October: At Rasika West End on Saturday, Oct. 14 from 1 to 3 p.m. (RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org by Oct. 11), and at Rasika on Sunday, Oct. 15 from 4 to 6 p.m. (RSVP to email@example.com by Oct. 12).