Best Restaurateur

Ashok Bajaj (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Best: José Andrés/Rob Wilder

Jaleo, Zaytinya, Café Atlantico, minibar, Oyamel

Second-best: Ashok Bajaj

Bombay Club, 701, Oval Room, Ardeo, Bardeo, Rasika

Two of Ashok Bajaj’s dining rooms, Oval Room and Rasika, were ranked in the top 20 in the Washingtonian’s recent “100 Very Best Restaurants” issue. Another one, the Bombay Club, just earned 2.5 stars from the Washington Post in a rare re-review, and I recently raved about 701, yet another of the restaurateur’s properties, after enjoying a thoroughly atypical Restaurant Week dinner there.

Such recognition, of course, does not come by accident. It comes from the relentless supervision of Ashok Bajaj, who, as the sole owner of Knightsbridge Inc., oversees a small empire of six restaurants that include, by anyone’s calculation, some of the finest dining rooms in town. After 20 years as a restaurateur in D.C., Bajaj is one of the select few people who can genuinely claim a deep understanding of the local scene, and it’s his daily mission to pass that knowledge down to every chef, server, and bus boy in his company. They may not always want to hear it, but Bajaj’s experience obviously makes a difference.

But Bajaj has also developed some operating philosophies that help to make his restaurants not only interesting to watch, but also delicious to dine in. One is his willingness to look anywhere for a chef, including outside the D.C. market. Two of his best toques hail from elsewhere, including the Oval Room’s Tony Conte (who came from Jean Georges in New York) and Rasika’s Vikram Sunderam (who previously worked at the Bombay Brasserie in London). Such an approach, Bajaj believes, helps deepen the local talent pool and, of course, gets people talking.

Just as important as a chef’s address, though, is his ambition, Bajaj says. In a way, the restaurateur wants chefs who look beyond the kitchen, to awards, to magazines, maybe to opening their own restaurants. “That’s the kind of people you’re looking for,” he says.

Ambition has not been a problem for Bajaj. The New Delhi native opened his first restaurant, the aforementioned Bombay Brasserie, when he was in his early 20s. By that time, Bajaj had already earned an undergraduate degree in business, a post-graduate degree in hotel management, and worked for a major hotel group in India. Bajaj made good use of his time in London: He worked stages at several restaurants, consulted for others, and even flew back and forth to Sydney, Australia, to launch another restaurant (which never opened).

But in 1988, Bajaj made the decision to come to America. He wasted little time establishing himself; that very same year, he and a partner started the Bombay Club on Connecticut Avenue. Since then, Bajaj, sans partner, has opened 701, Oval Room, Ardeo, Bardeo, and Rasika. A seventh restaurant, an Italian eatery in mid-town, is scheduled to open this fall, Bajaj says.

Change, the owner says, is the key to keeping each property relevant, and not just cosmetic changes like the recent renovations at the 20-year-old Bombay Club or the forthcoming ones at 701. Change happens on the plate, too, as the dining public’s tastes evolve. For example, two decades ago, the Bombay Club served more sweet-and-sour Parsi dishes, which catered to a clientele that was still heat-resistant. “I made the [original] menu,” Bajaj says, “which was sort of approachable to people, and now we can have bolder flavors.”

If Bajaj’s name isn’t as recognizable as the city’s (arguably) most famous restaurateur, tapas pioneer José Andrés, it’s likely due to three factors: Bajaj isn’t a chef. He hasn’t introduced a cuisine to D.C., and he’s much more formal than the flamboyant Spaniard. On the local scene, Bajaj plays Dean Martin to Andrés’ Jerry Lewis.

But Bajaj’s profile has been rising nationally. For the past two years, he’s been a semi-finalist in the Outstanding Restaurateur category of the James Beard Foundation Awards. Bajaj will be the first to admit he likes the recognition bestowed upon his restaurants. He says it means more to him than money.

The question, though, is: Would Bajaj like the recognition in New York City, the dining capital of the country? Would he, in other words, ever open a restaurant there? The restaurateur admits that he’s thought about it but then quickly adds, as if not to make an unnecessary fuss, that “nothing’s on the drawing board yet.”

The important word there is “yet.”