Meet Ashok Bajaj, The Knightsbridge Restaurant Group and owner of Bindaas and Sababa in Cleveland Park
by Allison Shashok
This past March, Cleveland Park’s newest restaurant entered the scene—and from one of the neighborhood’s longtime merchants. Sababa – the name comes from Hebrew slang meaning cool and carefree – offers a modern Israeli menu drawing inspiration from the Middle East, Turkey and Greece. On a Friday night, the dining room buzzes with energy. Neighborhood families check in to get a table. Sophisticated couples share small plates and sip glasses of wine. Groups of men enjoy beers and kebobs at the bar. Millennial gourmands take photos – no doubt for Instagram – from their perch at communal tables. The bartenders expertly shake cocktails behind the bar.
A line forms at the front door with eager parties. The room overflows with friends, family and food. Owner Ashok Bajaj welcomes guests at the door with hugs, high fives, and handshakes. He seems to know everyone in the room, and makes each person feel welcome. He drops off a signature dish – the halumi – at the bar top and says, never missing a detail, “Let me get you a spoon.” Max, the bartender, as if on cue, brings over perfectly polished silverware to scoop bites from a beautiful spread onto small share plates.
30 Years in the DC Restaurant Business
Bajaj opened his first restaurant, Bombay Club, in Washington, DC in 1988 one block from the White House. Thirty years later, three of his Knightsbridge Restaurant Group’s restaurants are on Washingtonian’s “100 Very Best Restaurants” list. The New Delhi-born restaurateur made his way to DC via London and Sydney learning the hospitality business along the way. The James Beard Award nominee is known for bringing “power dining” to the Capitol and is called DC’s “rock star restaurateur” and “king of Indian food” by the local media. In 2017, Bajaj was honored with The Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award for his outstanding initiative increasing the profile and success of Metropolitan Washington dining. He was named one of the 50 Most Powerful People in Washington by GQ Magazine and Restaurateur of the Year at the 2013 RAMMY Awards Gala.
Many of Bajaj’s restaurants are located downtown, including Bombay Club, Oval Room, 701 and Bibiana. Years ago, diners at his downtown locations told the restauranteur that he should branch out into Cleveland Park. “Twenty years ago, Cleveland Park needed a good restaurant,” says Bajaj. “There were not many in the area at that time. It is an affluent and congenial neighborhood and a great community.” When Bajaj was ready to expand, Cleveland Park made perfect sense.
The Appeal of Cleveland Park
“The neighborhood feeling” is Bajaj’s favorite part of Cleveland Park. “It has so much history and a great sense of community. It’s living in a big city, but with the feeling of a small town. The people who live in the neighborhood and patronize the restaurants give them a real community feel.”
Bajaj started in the area with a wine bar, the now shuttered Ardeo+Bardeo. His goal was to create a place where neighbors could simply go for a drink and small bites. “It didn’t have to be a three-course meal,” said the restauranteur.
Bajaj helped make Cleveland Park a destination for Washingtonian foodies. Ardeo+Bardeo was a spot for locals, but it was also a draw for residents from throughout the region. His power dining roots shine through: “Hillary Clinton came to Ardeo, as first lady and then as secretary of state. Madeline Albright and Joe Lieberman also came in [amongst others].”
In 2016, Bardeo transformed into Bindaas, serving Indian street cuisine and named to The Washington Post’s top restaurant list that same year. Bajaj brought over his James Beard Award-winning chef, Vikram Sunderam, from his popular Indian restaurant Rasika to create the more casual menu at Bindaas.
Neighbors certainly won’t have to worry about his restaurants getting tired – keeping things fresh is an essential ingredient to his success. “I’ve updated [the Cleveland Park locations] at least three times.” Bajaj continues, “The neighbors can get bored and you need to keep them engaged so they support the local restaurants. These are everyday restaurants to go to repeatedly, but guests want something different so we keep them fresh.”
Sababa: The Latest Restaurant and New Cleveland Park Favorite
Diners enjoyed the sharing aspect of Bindaas, Bajaj points out. When it was time to refresh Ardeo, Bajaj asked himself, “’What cuisine can I do here?’ I’ve traveled to Israel and had been wanting to do Israeli cuisine for a while. I hired a chef who knew the food well.” Ryan Moore, executive chef of Sababa, brings 15+ years of experience from work at restaurants throughout DC. Moore’s familiarity with the cuisine comes from frequent travels to Dubai, North Africa, and Egypt.
What’s Bajaj’s favorite dish at his newest restaurant? “The hummus is one of the best in the city. You will be happy with anything you pick.” The roasted halumi with dates, honey and charred lemon is another favorite. “
The menu will change seasonally, but with mainstays like the charred eggplant [with herbed labneh, pomengranate, and pistachio], the hummus, and the halumi.”
Sababa is located at 3311 Connecticut Ave NW in Washington, DC 20008. Phone: (202) 244-6750. Walk-ins welcome. A limited number of reservations are also available. Read some of Sababa’s latest reviews.