On Connecticut Avenue, restaurateur Ashok Bajaj opens La Bise and revives the legend of The Bombay Club with a new design.
Barberie duck breast at La Bise
A year ago, I chatted on the phone for an hour with legendary DC restaurateur Ashok Bajaj. During our wide-ranging conversation (kids, wineries, COVID), he told me about his plight as the owner of upscale dining spots in the city during a pandemic. It was a refrain heard across town: Survival mode was paramount, as were keeping his staff and reinventing the way he feeds Washingtonians from his esteemed kitchens helmed by everyone from a James Beard Award winner (Vikram Sunderam at Rasika) to a former White House chef (Frank Ruta at Annabelle). He told me how much he loved and wanted to protect his staff, and, since he’s an influential fixture in the District’s dining community, he mentioned how much he hoped the industry would power through the crisis. But he assured me, over and over, his unique approach to fine dining would prevail. Still, I hung up not entirely sure what would happen to Bajaj and every other upscale restaurateur in the city.
completely new dining room, including lush carpeting, chairs and art, greets patrons at The Bombay Club
I shouldn’t have worried about Bajaj.
Not only did he find a way to satisfy our collective craving for salmon with pomegranatelabneh marinade (Sababa) or masala crabcake (Rasika West End), but it turns out he also was busy drawing up plans to emerge from the pandemic with a new French concept known as La Bise, which opened in June, and a complete redesign of The Bombay Club, which reopened in August. The beauty of this symmetry is that both venues are directly across the street from one another on Connecticut Avenue, adjacent to the White House and Lafayette Park.
La Bise (“the kiss” in French) resides in the same spot where Bajaj’s well-loved Oval Room once presided. Bajaj completely redesigned the space by commissioning New York City-based Martin Vahtra of Projects Design Associates. This is a tale of two dining rooms, each charming, warm, audacious and fun (visual panaceas to the pandemic, anyway). The first space features a wall with mirror blocks reflecting the spacious patio outside; gold theater lights, strung together under a circular ceiling alcove, announce that the culinary show is about to begin in a room lined with cozy booths, gold chairs and tables covered with white tablecloths (naturally). Twenty feet away, another dining room of equal size—let’s call it Bajaj’s homage to blue—holds orange booths surrounded by rich cobalt walls and chairs. Art ranges from Parisian cityscapes to pop art to a portrait of Picasso. Both sides are bright and offer exceptional views of the street outside.
One of the stunning starters at La Bise includes chilled pea veloute.
The kitchen is led by North Carolina native Tyler Stout, who has cooked at Bethesda’s Barrel and Crow, Macon Bistro & Larder and, most recently, in Boston at Troquet on South as its executive chef. For starters, Stout’s butter-poached Maine lobster— drizzled with sauce Américaine (a heavenly mix of wine, saffron, tomatoes and onions) and accompanied by summer corn and celery leaves—is a fresh late-summer take on a classic. The kitchen’s main-course standouts include a summer corn risotto, with creme fraiche, serrano pepper and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a tender Barberie duck breast given a sweet finish with local blackberries. But perhaps the biggest hosanna is reserved for Stout’s king salmon coulibiac. Puff pastry forms a scaffolding around salmon, mushrooms, herbed rice and dill, sharpened with sauce mousseline. It’s a small wonder.
One of two glamorous dining rooms at the new La Bise
The Bombay Club reopened a few days before I visited in early August. Most of the city had retreated to the shore, and the streets were nearly empty, save a few savvy tourists, early on a Saturday evening. But when I walked into the restaurant, it looked like mid-September. Every booth and table was taken. While a pianist played reinterpreted classics on a baby grand near the entrance, the room had a happy buzz, and for good reason: The restaurateur’s first hit has never lost its mojo. And after closing for a month to undergo a significant redesign at the hands of Harry Gregory of London-based ARA Design, it’s easy to recall why this bastion of traditional Indian cuisine is so spellbinding.
“We replaced everything— the carpeting, furniture, lighting, tableware, glassware, even the art,” Bajaj tells me. He points at the ceiling and grins. “But we kept the chandelier.” He refers to a handmade brass piece, created and imported from India. The restaurant’s elegant ceiling coffers, classic wall paneling and traditional bar counter also stayed, and they’re now framed by vibrant silk wallcovering handcrafted and printed by Scottish company Timorous Beasties. The main dining room, bathed in hues of royal blue and turquoise, also has a new artistic focal point: a massive original oil and acrylic painting of a traditional Indian Kathak dance.
Amish chicken at La Bise
The new decor and setting are exquisite, but everyone returns to be dazzled by executive chef Nilesh Singhvi and his team. First course winners include crispy kale—flash fried to perfection—accompanied by chutney, onion and yogurt; and the roasted Kasundi scallops, flavored by seared tomato, mustard and curry leaf. For a balanced survey of Singhvi’s craft, choose one of the thalis served on silver platters. Samundari features grilled fresh seafood in curry; Club comes with fish, chicken, lamb and palak; and Bombay satisfies vegetarians with dishes like cauliflower and peas, lentil dal (cooked to fragrant perfection for 36 hours) and spinach paneer. Sweet finishes here are impressive, as always, especially the kesar pista kulfi—handmade Indian ice cream coated with crushed pistachios. But a newcomer, mango cheesecake, will soon become a favorite closer. A huddle of freshly cubed mangoes rests alongside a cardamom cookie topped with Chantilly cream. The execution is simple yet dreamy, sort of like two gold-standard restaurants that sit across the avenue from one another. La Bise, 800 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202.463.8700, labisedc.com; The Bombay Club, 815 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202.659.3727, bombayclubdc.com
Photography by: Greg Powers