Uber Restaurateur Ashok Bajaj Has a New Baby
When it comes to cooking up success, Ashok Bajaj has a formula that could well be called the ‘ultimate dish’. It’s simple, really. Hire a talented chef, train your staff to a fare-thee-well, commission a trendy architect to design a stylish restaurant, and put it in a high-end location with plenty of foot traffic. What could go wrong? Not a blessed thing, as it turns out.
Bajaj’s latest foray into downtown DC is nopa Kitchen+Bar, whose floor-to-ceiling windows face out onto the exquisite Greek Revival façade of the stately National Portrait Gallery. It’s an area he’s already dominated with 701, Rasika, Rasika West End, Ardeo + Bardeo, Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca, The Oval Room and The Bombay Club, his first outpost in Washington.
Over the past twenty-five years, Bajaj, a transplant from New Delhi whose training at the Taj Hotels, Resorts, and Palaces prepared him well for DC’s kingmakers, has been showered with umpteen awards from industry titans to magazine editors, who track his latest ventures like Bengal tigers. Earlier this year Bajaj was named “Restaurateur of the Year” by Washingtonian Magazine, an accolade bested only by his recognition by the James Beard Foundation, Foerbes, CNN, and GQ Magazine.
So what’s nopa got that sets it apart from the others? To begin with nopa’s Executive Chef, Canadian Greg McCarty, who has brought along his impressive resumé. Before landing in DC he spent six years alongside celebrated chef, Jean-George Vongerichten at the luxurious Bahamian restaurant Dune, later trotting off to Manhattan to open Nobu 57 and assisting renowned restaurateur Drew Nieporent on a number of special projects.
Described as an American brasserie, nopa’s fresh decor has beautifully transformed its earlier incarnation as Zola. Martin Vahtra, the resto’s swank designer has swept away the heavy velvet drapes to reveal a series of light-filled dining rooms with white-washed brick walls, rustic wooden beams, and a black-and-white original mosaic tiled floor beside the zinc bar to reveal a unique space that can now highlight the historic building’s distinctive architectural elements.
Let’s have a cocktail, shall we? The bar’s designer cocktails are surprisingly well priced at ten dollars and list six under two categories “The Classics” and “Signature Cocktails.” “Blood and Sand” is an updated version of the original using Black Bottle Scotch Whiskey with Luxardo Cherry Liqueur, Dolin Rouge Vermouth and blood orange puree and “Red Envy” is an exotic concoction of El Dorado Rum, Heitz Cellar Ink Grade Port from the Napa Valley, lime, and Fee Brothers Chocolate Bitters. But the warm day spells gin to me, and the “800 F & Tonic” sportsPlymouth Gin, house-made tonic and lavender with a ginger infusion to spice it up.
Because of its Penn Quarter proximity to the International Spy Museum and other local attractions, the menu ranges from family friendly choices like burgers and vegetarian options like the veggie bánh mi sandwich with cauliflower purée and a fresh herb salad, to fine dining and designer drinks. At a recent lunch I found some hits and a few misses. Foie gras terrine with a swoosh of carrot ginger purée was addicting, but the bluefish paté was disappointing, the negligible amount of fish in the spread renders the whole thing inconsequential and its accompanying triangles of earthy Russian-style black bread become far too ponderous a vehicle, especially when the bread basket has such alluring choices.
Gazpacho seems to be the only soup offered. Unfortunately, it was blended into the consistency of a breakfast smoothie and the crunch of summer vegetables unexpressed. But crispy soft shell crab with avocado basil purée was precisely on point, as was the sprightly radish salad with chunks of pineapple, feta, and mint.
When it comes to fish the chef treats it with a gentle respect, no doubt from his days in the Bahamas preparing fresh catch with a French chef, and a glazed Chilean sea bass with tender baby eggplant and wasabi pea mash was everything one would hope it would be – the sweet taste of the fish balanced against smoky soft eggplant and a hint of fire from the Japanese horseradish.
At this point dessert beckoned and it was, well, cute! Tasty fried cherry hand pies with crushed raspberry icing – the sort of thing grandma would toss into a cast iron skillet and a creamy dreamy version of banana pudding that was reminiscent of a church picnic.
For Ashok Bajaj the formula is still working.
Photo credits – Jordan Wright