Restaurateur Ashok Bajaj: Potentate of the D.C. plate
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 8:47 PM
Ashok Bajaj knows a lot about Karen Shaw Petrou.
He knows, for instance, that Petrou - a prominent financial consultant and lecture circuit wise-woman - navigates Washington with a seeing-eye dog. He knows that she likes Hendrick's gin. He knows that she and her husband, Basil, are prone to sip Bergstrom Old Stones Chardonnay.
Most important, he knows that Petrou has eaten at his Cleveland Park restaurant - the once separate, but now joined Ardeo + Bardeo - at least 203 times in the past five years. All that information, and more, resides in the computer that Bajaj keeps behind the desk in his bland-as-toasted-white-bread Penn Quarter office.
So, it was with some distress that Bajaj observed about a year ago that the Petrous - Olympian patrons that they had become - gradually stopped going to the restaurant. When he finally spotted them back, he asked why they'd forsaken him, and after some hesitation and considerable hemming and hawing, they told him.
"We thought the restaurant had gotten tired," Karen Petrou recalls telling him. She wanted more vegetarian dishes and more appealing fish. And not only that: The couple had taken up with another restaurant. (The Petrous, being discreet sorts, prefer not to mention the place that won their affections, but Bajaj blurts it out when I ask him later: It was BlackSalt, the Palisades neighborhood hangout.)
Like a spurned lover, Bajaj's first reaction was disbelief and confusion. "We have the same fish supplier," he protested. But he kept listening, and what they told him dovetailed with his own concerns that the restaurant needed a makeover. In November, more than $1 million later, Bajaj unveiled a redesigned, rethought, reconfigured restaurant. Louder, younger, more fun. The Petrous approved, and they resumed their metronomic dinner stops on the way home to Forest Hills from their Capitol Hill offices.
And so it goes in the Empire of Ashok, a land of power dining and power appeasement that encompasses six see-and-be-seen restaurants, each with a distinct menu and vibe, but a similar Ashok-ian polish: Ardeo + Bardeo, the Oval Room, 701, the Bombay Club, Rasika and Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca. A seventh is on its way - Bajaj hasn't made any announcements, but in this city where secrets always leak, savvy insiders are already gossiping about his plans for an Indian restaurant near the Ritz-Carlton in the West End.
The staggering breadth of Bajaj's claim on Washington business-lunching gives him a kind of power all his own: to decide what goes into the stomachs of the people who run the country (or think they do). But the formula is more complex than simply attracting boldface names; he also understands how to feed the people who feed off the government - the highly scheduled and highly compensated bedrock of consultants, lobbyists and lawyers who constitute permanent Washington. They may go unrecognized outside the Beltway, but they get treated like Big Men (or Women) on Campus inside the giant fraternity-sorority system that is the nation's capital.
While Washington hot spots come and go, Bajaj's endurance 21 years after opening the Bombay Club, the first of his restaurants, derives in part from his ability to be a shape-shifter. That '90s-style caviar bar at 701? Gone, now that excess is considered excessive. Yet sometimes Bajaj wins by being a dug-in upholder of tradition. That tandoori salmon you loved at Bombay Club during the Clinton administration? In-the-know eaters can still order it, hip to the kitchen's willingness to prepare it for them even though it's not on the printed menu.
"I call him the maharajah of Washington power dining," says Lyndon Boozer, a telecommunications lobbyist whose mother was President Lyndon B. Johnson's personal secretary.
Bajaj recruits talented chefs. For Rasika, he snagged Vikram Sunderam - a fish chutneywala- and cauliflower bezule-conjuring magician - from London's celebrated Bombay Brasserie. But chefs come and go, too; the longest tenure at one of his restaurants was 10 years, and most stay for much less. Even though his chefs can achieve a measure of stardom, it is the owner who is the empire's face. He is "Spider-Man," in the words of some staff and patrons. They marvel at his time- and space-defying ability to appear seemingly out of nowhere on his nightly circuits of the empire. He visits all six restaurants every night, plotting his night wandering to match the ebbs and flows, and A-list juice, at each of his possessions.
He can also be the realm's equivalent of Don King, a nonstop promoter and spectacularly prolific - though curiously unannoying - name-dropper. In a town with more than its share of insufferable prestige accumulators, Bajaj manages to hype his restaurants and his guest lists in an endearing way. Rather than coming off as bragging, his enthusing has the effect of drawing his guests deeper into his circle - they are members of his club, and feel privileged to share in his wonder.