Washington wasn’t the only place Ashok Bajaj considered for his maiden restaurant when the New Delhi native left London for the United States in 1987. Before he settled on the nation’s capital, the man who would go on to open the Bombay Club the next year explored New York, San Francisco and Chicago. Washington won out because it was comparatively close to England, where he had worked at Bombay Brasserie, and Bajaj deemed Washington the most manageable.
The District, or at least some of its commercial landlords, proved less than receptive to the entrepreneur’s plan, however. “They did not want an Indian restaurant in an A-class building,” says Bajaj, who recalls being offered basements and other substandard spaces. “Our lobbies will smell,” more than one agent told him.
Bajaj persevered, landing a ground-floor spot near the White House where he introduced crab masala to the masses. But not before sending out a newsletter to potential customers explaining which dishes were mild and which were spicy. And not before quizzing fish mongers about their best-selling fish: “Salmon,” everyone told him, and his observations around town confirmed. Bajaj figured a familiar fish would warm diners to its Indian style of preparation: marinated overnight in yogurt, garam masala, ginger and more, and cooked in a clay oven.
Thirty-one years after it made its debut, tandoori salmon remains the restaurant’s best-selling dish — though it’s not even listed on the menu. Executive chef Nilesh Singhvi, who has been with the Bombay Club for 14 years and oversees 10 or so cooks, says he serves as many as 30 plates of salmon a day, and it’s easy to see why. The most I ever add to the succulence is a squeeze of lemon.
You don’t have to be an investigative reporter to see how far Washington has evolved, food-wise, since Ronald Reagan occupied the Oval Office. The past few years have been especially good for connoisseurs of Indian cooking. Bombay Club has more competition than ever, not just from its siblings, the original Rasika and Rasika West End, but from even newer restaurants, foremost among them Karma Modern Indian and the posh Punjab Grill.
Warm spices greet you at the double doors, which lead to a modest bar and provide your first glimpse of the dining room. Ceiling fans, shutters, abundant plants and sepia-toned photographs of British colonial rule amount to a historical stage set. As much as I appreciate the pools of space between many tables and the plush seating, it’s hard to ignore the stains here and the scratches there, particularly in the light of day. A grand dame with a run in her stocking, the restaurant could use some touching up.
You might be too busy admiring the appetizers — the lush crab masala that gave some diners their first taste of southern India, the firm paneer partnered with figs and spiked with black pepper — to notice. Even the Indian workhorses show flair, from the sev puri (tiny puffed crackers dabbed with avocado, mango and yogurt) to the elegant triangular samosas, packed this time of year with corn and mushrooms.
Proximity to the White House means more than a few newsmakers have made their way to the Bombay Club over its impressive run. Presidents 41, 42, then-Sen. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have all graced the dining room. A fan of all things spicy, Clinton gravitates to the green chile chicken. Hot heads of every stripe can get around the tender chicken spread with pureed green chiles, cilantro and onion (oh my!).
Diners with commitment issues are well-served by the club thali, basically a mini-buffet for one. The arrangement includes chicken sauced with tomato and fenugreek; dense but pleasing lamb in a blanket of saffron, cardamom and red chiles; and a vibrant creamed spinach that any steakhouse would envy. The platter looks like too much food, but the assortment, including rice and bread, is so compelling, the expected leftovers never happen.
The standouts tend to be seafood dishes. “They are rarely overcooked, never over seasoned, and they are made with quality ingredients,” wrote my predecessor, Phyllis C. Richman — 25 years ago. Her description still fits. Every meal should begin with some version of crab masala, fragrant with curry leaves, and you should find room as well for crab and turbot, shaped into an island and served in a vivid pool of mango curry. Ask for scallop alleppey, and you’ll get outsize bivalves draped with a sauce of mango and curry leaves.
The chef’s M.O.: “Not too many flavors in one dish,” says Singhvi, a native of the state of Rajasthan in northern India.
Infrequently, a lesser dish alights from the kitchen. You can live without the duck, which, despite its paint job of roasted red chiles, tastes warmed-over. Pureed almonds and yogurt make for a creamy sauce atop the venison, simply warmed in the tandoor and garnished with silver leaf. White on gray isn’t the most arresting color combination, but looks don’t matter when the flavor is as rich as this.
Few cuisines can match Indian for meatless dining. Shaved coconut and mustard seeds lift broccoli from the ordinary, and the nizami handi (carrots, beans and shiitakes bound by yogurt and spiced with cardamom) demonstrates that meat dishes don’t have the corner on sumptuousness. Crispy kale is a tip of the hat to the fried spinach tossed with sweetened yogurt and date-tamarind chutney made wildly popular by Vikram Sunderam, Singhvi’s colleague at Rasika, also in the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group. The chef’s pride and joy is his dal makhani, cooked over low heat for up to a day with cream, tomatoes, garlic and ghee. Every spoonful is a little luxury. Basmati rice is $3 a serving; for just a dollar more you can upgrade to yellow rice, pleasantly chewy with cashews and sparked with lemon zest.
Anyone who’s visited a well-run hotel restaurant in India is likely to recognize the solicitous service at the Bombay Club, which manages to pay attention to diners with a minimum of interruptions. Regulars can count on having Bajaj, the city’s best diplomat, touch their table for a little conversation (a big deal, considering that he makes a habit of visiting all eight of his restaurants every night they’re open).
This kitchen cares about the particulars. The papadum snap like few others, the raita reveals a distinct tang, and your teeth don’t itch when they sink into the syrup-sweetened gulab jamun. As at all of the owner’s Indian establishments, Bombay Club offers first-class breads. Right now, I’m keen on the saucer-thin Peshawari naan stuffed with suggestions of apricot, nuts and raisins.
Starting out in the United States more than 30 years ago, Bajaj intended to open branches of the Bombay Club in other cities. “I never left Washington,” he says. Instead, he helped put the city on the dining map.
And just so you know: Bajaj says he’s friends now with the doubting Thomases who wouldn’t make room for him way back when.
The Bombay Club (Good/Excellent) 815 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-659-3727. bombayclubdc.com. Open: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, Sunday brunch. Prices: Lunch appetizers $9 to $12, main courses $12 to $36; dinner appetizers $9 to $12, main courses $19 to $36. Sound check: 74 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No steps. One of the double doors at the entrance does not have a handle. Restroom area is cramped.