Editor’s Note: Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants around the country that define their cities. Here now, a look at one of the Great’s signature dish, tandoori salmon.
With its prime location just across the White House, Bombay Club’s clientele has included Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr., heads of states from around the world, and plenty of celebrities. But when it opened 33 years ago, the average D.C. diner wasn’t familiar with the panoply of dishes that comprise Indian cuisine, owner Ashok Bajaj says.
Bajaj was nonetheless determined to open the first white-tablecloth, fine-dining Indian restaurant in the nation’s capital, inspired by the ones he was familiar with in London, with rich wood paneling and potted palms that evoke the old-world clubs that sprouted under British rule in India and remain popular gathering spots today. So the founder of the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group added tandoori salmon to Bombay Club’s menu — a move that he didn’t know at the time would help put the restaurant on the map and turn it into the vital D.C. institution it is today.
While salmon was not commonly served in India then, it was a favorite among D.C. restaurant-goers who often ordered it from the ubiquitous French eateries of the day. It was also light enough to entice the power lunch crowd without leaving them feeling too full to return to work, Bajaj says. So he applied traditional tandoori cooking methods to the popular, familiar fish, marinating it overnight in yogurt, lemon juice, ginger, garlic, and 11 different herbs and spices, including black pepper, cinnamon, and mace. After being cooked over charcoal in a tandoor oven, the result is a fish that’s “crispy on the outside and very succulent,” Bajaj says.
The outcome was instantaneous — Bombay Club’s tandoori salmon became one of the restaurant’s best-selling, and signature dishes. Prior to the pandemic, Bombay Club’s longtime executive chef Nilesh Singhvi and his team of ten cooks would make as many as 50 tandoori salmon dishes in a day. Over the years, the restaurant has used the same preparation for other fish dishes, including rockfish and sea bass, and Bajaj’s desired effect has come to fruition: “Now [diners] educate me on what is Indian food,” he quips.
In the years since Bajaj opened Bombay Club in 1988, he has built a restaurant empire that now comprises ten restaurants including the award-winning Rasika and fast-casual street food favorite Bindaas. Bombay Club has garnered rave reviews and several awards, and its menu goes way beyond tandoori salmon into inventive dishes that help the restaurant continue to stand out in a now-thriving Indian restaurant scene. Seafood specialties include lobster with tomato, onion, and fenugreek (lobster lababdar); lump crab with fennel, onions, and curry leaves (crab ularthu); and Bengali fish curry. There’s also a new spring menu highlighting regional dishes in the form of thalis, or an assortment of small dishes on a large platter, accompanied with rice and pickles.
But decades after its first appearance, the appeal of the tandoori salmon remains. And for years, the salmon wasn’t even on the menu, instead spread solely by word of mouth. “Regulars know about it. People who know it come and ask for it,” Bajaj says. And during the pandemic, customers still order it for takeout. “A lot of lunch clientele who come here, that’s exactly what they come for: a piece of salmon, a side of spinach, a piece of bread, and off they go.”
Julekha Dash is a Maryland food, travel, and arts writer who has written for Conde Nast Traveler, Wine Enthusiast, USA Today, Architectural Digest, Lonely Planet, American Way, Thrillist, and others. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.