The owner of one of the most beguiling new restaurants in Washington aspires to have his establishment thought of not just as Indian fine-dining, but “fine-dining, period,” says Karan Singh. “I want Punjab Grill to stand shoulder-to-shoulder” with the city’s top dining draws.
The New Delhi native is off to a grand start with his downtown restaurant, whose servers are dressed in uniforms created by leading Indian fashion designers and whose details revel in gold (utensils, pitchers, chairs). “We basically built the restaurant in India and shipped it over,” says Singh.
It’s true. Everywhere a diner looks, there’s something to admire from abroad: an onyx ceiling gracing the bar, say, and fanciful mother-of-pearl inlays on the tables.” The grill’s 10-seat private dining room is a jewel box outfitted with more than 100,000 tiny mirrors, Hermès dishware and a light fixture in the shape, and the shade, of a peacock. Party planners, take note: The gem is yours for a minimum food and drink charge of $1,200 at lunch and $2,000 or $3,000 at dinner. (The second seating, at 8:30, is the one that costs more.)
Punjab Grill isn’t just sumptuous, it’s luscious. Singh sifted through hundreds of résumés before inviting three chefs from restaurants in London, New York and San Francisco to audition for him, ultimately selecting the candidate from the West Coast, Jaspratap (“Jassi”) Bindra, 32.
His talent is apparent from first bite. Consider Bindra’s chutney flight, the Indian equivalent of a bread basket featuring naan grissini and six housemade chutneys, mostly fruit and in such unexpected flavors as guava and raspberry. Chana masala is passed through a sieve and served as a silken “hummus,” with potato-stuffed kulcha for swabbing (the breads are all first-rate); tiger prawns emerge from the tandoor hot, sweet and tingling with ginger, lemon and green chiles.
A dish called chicken “red curry” is basically butter chicken viewed through a Thai lens, marinated as the poultry is with lemongrass, lime leaves and Thai basil. The saucer-size naan accompanying the dish competes for the attention of taste buds; brushes with a syrup made from lemonade makes for bright bread.
Baked Chilean sea bass sports a glaze made with jaggery and cumin, which the chef caramelizes with a blow torch, leaving the fish with some crackle on top. A downy bed of shredded Brussels sprouts tossed with fresh coconut and curry leaves provides delicious support.
Venison tastes altogether new when it’s cooked overnight with onions, yogurt and cracked wheat. The next day, recipients encounter a meaty porridge, its bowl ringed with spoonfuls of fresh mint, ginger, clarified butter and other enhancers, allowing diners to season according to taste.
Mustard greens cooked to a mash with fennel leaves and mustard seeds — sarson ka saag, a staple in north India — is fine meatless eating, and it has a nice plate mate in roti made with corn flour.
There are only a few desserts; each has its merits. (Cheesecake is creamy with paneer.) The most original finale is bread soaked in milk, flavored with saffron and cardamom and shaped into a layer cake with kulfi (chewy Indian ice cream) and tufts of mango mousse.
Not every dish sends my pulse racing. Burrata atop coins of spiced eggplant and tomatoes is a yawn at this party, and the lamb chops are better at Bombay Club near the White House. But lesser tastes are infrequent.
The posh restaurant takes its inspiration from the state in north India bordering Pakistan. “Punjabis love life, family, food, entertaining,” says Singh, who also has American Tandoor in Tysons, which is scheduled for a reboot this summer. A former airline pilot with 5,000 flight hours to his credit, Singh went on to start an aviation company, which he still owns. Diners are likely to spot him. He’s the regal presence in the restaurant, happy to show off Sheesh Mahal, the shimmering private dining room.
Did I mention that the bar makes cocktails on par with some of the city’s best lounges? One of them, a riff on an old fashioned, is delivered in a smoke-filled glass cloche. Did I tell you India is my favorite journey, and that this restaurant brings back fond memories of my visits there?
Above all, Punjab Grill is a game-changer in Washington.
427 11th St. NW. 202-813-3004. punjabgrilldc.com. Dinner entrees, $24 to $38.