Nearly every element of the new D.C. restaurant was made by hand in India.
Over the last year, an American restaurant was built in India. Using methods that were passed down over generations, artisans hand carved a 40-foot, 12,000-pound swath of pink sandstone to adorn one wall. A white marble bar was inlaid with mother-of-pearl (another example of the technique can be seen at the Taj Mahal) and positioned under a striking, faceted ceiling. Handmade wooden screens in intricate geometric patterns separate rooms. The restaurant, , opens on March 11, roughly seven thousand miles away, on in Washington, D.C.
“We didn’t get parts of the restaurant in India,” says Punjab Grill CEO Karan Singh. “The entire restaurant was built and assembled in India, then dismantled and sent over in five shipping containers.” This painstaking process, and each opulent detail it bore, adds up to a 4,700-square feet of stunning space.
“I wanted to build a restaurant that had a very rich, traditional feel, but done in a way that was relevant to Washington, D.C. in 2019,” says Singh. He did so with the help of not one but two architecture and design companies—local firm Grupo7, and Incubis based in India.
Punjab Grill is part of a collection of restaurants by the same name, though the company doesn’t consider it a chain. Each one—including those in Singapore, Bangkok, and India—showcases Punjabi flavors and cuisine via its own distinct menu. Singh, who has called the area home since 2012, says the decision to open the first North American outpost in D.C. was made, in part, because of the city’s diverse population, as well as its emergence in recent years as a food capital.
The kitchen is helmed by chef Jaspratap Bindra, or Jassi, who hails from Kanpur, India and did a stint at a restaurant in San Francisco before being scooped up by Singh. (He beat out two other chefs from Michelin star restaurants in London and New York to land the gig.)
“When I curated my menu, I wanted to bring the childhood memories of mine,” says Bindra. “And I want people to have fun.”
Though the restaurant is rooted in traditional Punjabi cuisine, it’s peppered with whimsical takes on classics, highlighting Bindra’s refusal to take himself, or his dishes, too seriously. Small plates are bites like gol gappa, the crisp puri filled with yogurt mousse and passionfruit, along with chana masala hummus with housemade naan for dipping, and a surprising burrata badal jaam, with spiced eggplant and truffle shavings. Signature items include regional classics like curries and butter chicken and the Lion’s Share section of the menu includes dishes from the grill or the tandoor, like chicken tikka and a nearly entire leg of lamb, served on a silver platter with roasted vegetables and garnished with real gold leaf. Diners can also go big with caviar service, in which Petrossian Ossetra arrives, not with sour cream and blinis, but with housemade white butter and tiny discs of warm tandoori naan. (Singh says he knows of no other Indian restaurant in the world offering caviar service.)
Bindra worked on the menu for a year leading up to the restaurant’s opening, collaborating with Singh along the way. The CEO, for example, was inspired by a Peking duck on the menu at a popular Chinese restaurant nearby. The chef came up with his own spices and marinades, and the dish is served with flourish, carved tableside, and comes with housemade accompaniments like pickles, tamarind duck sauce, and rumali roti. “It’s a traditional Peking duck service, but the flavors are uniquely Indian,” says Singh.
That Punjab Grill is doing cool things with Peking duck and chana masala isn’t the only element making it modern. The restaurant demonstrates that Indian food can and should be served in such luxe surroundings that are historically reserved for French or New American dining. In the same city in which food reporter Tim Carman to help shed the stereotype that certain foods should be cheap, Punjab Grill is a timely underscore to that gesture. All of this isn’t lost on Singh.
“We’re not trying to be a fine dining Indian restaurant,” he says. “We’re trying to be one of the best fine dining restaurants, period. Why are people going out and eating at a certain level and drinking certain kinds of wine only at French and Italian restaurants? Why can’t they do that in an Indian restaurant? We want to change the perception of Indian food in this country.”
One aspect of Punjab Grill that will do just that is its private dining room. The sheesh mahal, or palace of mirrors, is covered from floor to ceiling in 150,000 hand laid mirrors (which, like the rest of the restaurant, was also built by artisans in India, created there to make sure it fit together, then numbered, disassembled, shipped, and refitted like a puzzle here.) In the center of the room, one long table is set with Hermès dishware and surrounded by chairs upholstered in custom fabric designed by textile wizard Peter D’Ascoli (who worked with Diane Von Furstenberg and now lives in India), not only for this restaurant, but for this specific chair. The sheer drama and opulence of the room stand in stark contrast to many of the other, more austere private dining room options in a city where power lunches are the norm, and that’s before taking into account the custom, multi-course menus available here.
The rest of the restaurant consists of the bar, with high-top table service, the Passage to India room, with booths that recall classic train cars (each table is held up by a 200-pound, hand-carved mable leg), and the main dining room, where servers in custom-fitted Shantanu & Nikhil-designed uniforms wheel around a golden drinks cart, dropping off cocktails like the GT&T—made with mango-infused gin and housemade turmeric tonic—to tables inlaid with semi-precious stones. No detail is spared here, which is part of the reason the restaurant overshot its original opening date by over a year. (That, and the fact that building a restaurant on the other side of the globe comes with certain inevitable hiccups. The 12,000-pound marble panel, for example, couldn’t be affixed to the wall here without Singh reinforcing it with steel via the building next door.) Even the bathrooms are outfitted in hand-carved black marble and solid brass detailing.
A few nights before its official opening, Punjab Grill hosted a friends and family dinner, and Singh paused before the bathroom door to lament plastic signage that he calls "horrible"—it's just a standard black restroom sign). But he seemed to take comfort in the knowledge that a bespoke version is on its way from India.
Punjab Grill, 427 11th Street, NW, Washington, DC.