Emily Bell: Many Indian restaurants have pretty fixed menus. Is that also true of Rasika?
Ashok Bajaj: No, we change the menu often to keep it exciting.
EB: Is that way the restaurant is always booked? What is keeping diners coming back week after week?
AB: It’s got bold flavors, and it’s different than your normal Indian restaurant. It’s approachable food and people who have never had Indian food can relate to the cuisine as we are doing it. And it’s easy on the pocket!
EB: What makes it approachable? Do you mean it’s altered for the American palate?
AB: We use local ingredients and we use traditional spices to cook the food, that’s what makes it approachable.
EB: How would you characterize the secret of Rasika’s success? What’s the winning formula that has this restaurant booked early and often?
AB: I own seven restaurants in Washington, DC, and they all have general manager who knows that for me, it’s all about guests and it’s all about service. It’s all about guests, there is no marketing. Word of mouth is the best marketing, it supports our restaurant in DC.
EB: How do you keep your restaurants guest-oriented?
AB: Hiring the right personnel. A person who is positive, or somebody in the kitchen who can really cook. In the front of house, if I see a passion for hospitality, those are the few qualities I look for in people.
EB: What made you decide to open Rasika?
AB: I’ve been here for 22 years. I knew the neighborhood had changed. It was a different neighborhood with people looking for something different, people living downtown. I knew exactly what I wanted to do here. But I had lots of luck to be able to achieve it.
EB: How is Rasika different from other Indian restaurants?
AB: I have another Indian restaurant called The Bombay Club, my first Indian restaurant. Indian food is well received here, both in sophisticated restaurants and others. Rasika is more bold, fun, geared towards a different kind of dining experience. More people come here in jeans, and it’s no problem. The food is more bold, so is the style of the restaurant and the design.
EB: You’ve had great success with your seven restaurants. What advice would you give to other restaurateurs?
AB: Hire the right people, train them well, show them what you’re looking for, and be open minded about it. If it works for you, implement it. Be a team player, everybody has great suggestions and ideas. Just because you own the restaurant doesn’t mean everything you say is right! Let people speak their mind, let their own personalities show up in the restaurant.
EB: How did you come to bring Chef Vikram Sunderam to Rasika?
AB: I’ve known him for 18 or 19 years—I knew him from London. I’ve really known him for a long time.
EB: How do you work on the menu at Rasika? Do you collaborate?
AB: There is absolutely coordination over the menu. He’s new, he’s been here about five years. I own modern American, Italian, and other restaurants. I have very fine American restaurants, so I guide him on what would work and what would not work and he creates the food. And he is good, he understands, we work well together.
EB: If you had to characterize it, what would you say diners are getting out of Rasika?
AB: They’re looking for an experience, they’re not just coming for Indian food. Rasika is wonderful cuisine, and that’s what people are looking for. Like John Mariani of Esquire magazine said, it’s not the best Indian restaurant in the country, it’s the best restaurant, period.