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Sudhir Seth is a reasonable man, a proud and dignified man, so when I asked this chef-owner recently about the cause of his split with his former business partner and friend of some 30 years, Sanjeev Tuli, he was at great pains to cast things in the best possible light. He praised Tuli’s business acumen, called him “a very good restaurateur,” and ascribed the breakup to the usual vagaries endemic to an uncertain, pressure-filled industry.
Heritage India, on Cordell Avenue in Bethesda, the spinoff of the Glover Park restaurant the two opened only a year and a half earlier, was now in Seth’s possession, albeit with a new name: Passage to India. Meanwhile, Tuli, still at the helm of the original location, was just weeks away from the launch of Heritage Brasserie and Lounge on Connecticut Avenue in Dupont Circle; that restaurant is now in its fifth week. On the surface, anyway, things could not have appeared more settled and, it seemed, equitable.
So, I ventured a guess, it was an amicable split, then?
Here Seth paused for what seemed like a minute. “Amicable,” he repeated, as though pondering. “It is amicable,” he allowed, finally, “to the extent that you take a knife to your skin and blood comes out.”
What happened? That depends on whose side of this deeply layered story you believe, but it is beyond doubt that a long-simmering conflict between two friends had been brought to a full, roiling boil before finally spilling over.
This much is also beyond doubt: The battle for supremacy as the defining name in Indian cooking in this city has been joined.
Seth and Tuli met in 1974, when both were enrolled in the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering and Nutrition in Delhi. Seth applied himself to learning his craft as a chef, while Tuli set about mastering the intricacies of management. Upon graduation, they set off on their respective career paths: Seth came to the United States in 1988, taking over the kitchen at Bukhara in New York. In 1995, he arrived in D.C., becoming the chef at the elegant Bombay Club and bringing the city its first taste of high-end Indian cooking. Tuli, meanwhile, built himself a small empire, with three Jewel of India restaurants in Frankfurt and one in Prague, in addition to a Prague hotel. In 1998, the two men, who had kept in touch over the years, went into business together, opening Heritage India in Glover Park. It didn’t take long for the restaurant to establish its reputation as not just the best of its kind in the city, but one of the best restaurants in the city, period.
But from the start, there were tensions. Tuli, who put up all the capital for the restaurant, gave his friend a one-third stake in the operation—a decision he now regrets. “Big mistake,” he says.
And although these days Tuli has divested himself of all his European holdings, save for the hotel in Prague—in order, he says, “to better focus on my businesses here”—at the time he was, by his own admission, living in Europe, traveling to the States only every six weeks. The arrangement grated on Seth, who grew to resent his absentee, jet-setting partner: “He was not even in this country until a year ago!”
Tuli, in turn, contends that any troubles with the Glover Park location can be traced to neglect on Seth’s part. “You see, day to day you have to be working in the kitchen. That’s the job of the chef. He was not in the kitchen. He didn’t want to be in the kitchen. He wanted to run the business. Which, as a chef, he didn’t know how to run.”
I ask Tuli how he could have known this about Seth, given that he was spending most of his time in Europe.
“Sir, listen to me,” he says with a sigh. “He was always picking up the phone. That was my biggest bone of contention: ‘Are you a telephone operator or a business owner?’ He never cooked for the four years he was here….I even brought a manager over from Europe, because he could not manage.” Tuli cites as evidence of Seth’s inattention the fact that since his former partner left the original location, food costs have dropped by 4 percent—a “huge amount.”
Though the agreement became legal last May, the actual separation was protracted—with all the high dudgeon and low comedy of a long-in-the-making divorce. As per the agreement, Tuli handed over full control over the Bethesda location to Seth—a decision that, in purely business terms, sounds not a little odd, given that Seth was only a one-third partner. But there was a stipulation: Seth would have to change the restaurant’s name.
“The brand name,” Tuli asserts, “belongs to me.”
Seth was given six months to make the change. By January, he still had not done so. Tuli accuses his former partner of engaging in “Mickey Mouse things”—among them, holding off as long as possible in re-christening the restaurant so as to “take advantage” of a glowing Washington Post review.
Enraged, Tuli got an injunction against his old friend. “He came to me,” reports Tuli, with unconcealed disdain, “with knees down, begging for more time to get the name out.”
On Feb. 8, a new sign went up on Cordell Avenue: “Passage to India.”
“If I were a businessman, a money-spinner, maybe I would think differently—I don’t know. But there are more things in life than just making money,” Seth states.
Tuli, meanwhile, having consolidated his business overseas, has expanded his reach in D.C. In addition to the original Heritage India and the new brasserie, he recently opened the Heritage Club, on River Road in Potomac, Md., an exclusive 10-acre villa to which the local Indian elite can repair for their weddings, banquets, and receptions.
The new restaurant in Dupont Circle features a menu that is, in Tuli’s own words, “half authentic Indian,” with the full complement of tikkas and masalas and curries, and half contemporary interpretation, with a raft of small plates, salads, and pastas—or “pastabilities,” as the menu has it.
Though Seth, a traditionalist, wonders why anyone would want to go “bastardizing a great cuisine,” Tuli makes no apologies about his concerted effort to create the sort of happening, after-hours place that crops up wherever you find a heavy concentration of young, single urbanites. Asked why he’s chosen to depart from traditional Indian dishes with his new venture, he responds, impatiently, “Well, to go with the times, sir.”
The menu is not all that’s different. Tuli has kept the 55-foot bar, a holdover from former tenant Acropolis, as the centerpiece of the new restaurant. It can seat 30, Tuli notes, and on a relatively quiet Wednesday night recently many of those seats were occupied. He has also installed a smartly priced executive’s lunch in an effort to attract the K Street crowd. So far at least, the restaurant seems to be managing the difficult task of appearing hip and trendy while still delivering the goods that made its reputation. The “Hawker Zone” section of the menu, with more than a dozen Indian street foods represented, makes for some lively eating: chana dabalroti, a spicy chick-pea stew, with, yep, half of a soft hamburger bun for easy scooping; bhel puri, a sweet-and-sour concoction of puffed rice, diced potatoes, shallots, and cilantro mounded atop a crunchy papadam and looking not a little like a modest version of ballpark nachos; the dosa-like golgappas, bite-size puffy crackers stuffed with potatoes and chick peas; as well as an assortment of kebabs and samosas.
Seth, for his part, intends to introduce his changes gradually so as not to alienate the tradition-bound clientele he inherited. And while he won’t go so far as to say that he intends for Passage to India to one day be regarded as the best Indian restaurant in town, he will allow that he aims to make it the “most distinctive.”
Eventually, he says, the restaurant will feature the cuisines of all areas of India—an ambitious goal, given that our acquaintance with Indian food in this country has so far been mostly with the cooking of the north, with an emphasis on tandoors and breads, and the south, with its profusion of vegetarian dishes. Seth says he is uniquely suited to pulling off something so ambitious: “I was born in North India, my wife is from East India, I worked for four years in South India, and my first four-and-a-half years were spent in West India, where my mom is from.”
Seth also envisions one day opening a kind of boutique restaurant, one that would allow him the same degree of intimacy and creativity as, say, Roberto Donna in his Laboratorio. Still, as much as the restaurant future tantalizes him, and as much as the restaurant present challenges him, the restaurant past is never very far from his thoughts: “When you were in Europe,” Seth says, in an apostrophe to his onetime friend and current rival, “I was raising the child. You are taking over a well-groomed teenager. If anything were to happen to it, it would pain me terribly.”
Heritage Brasserie and Lounge, 1337 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 331-1414.
Heritage India, 2400 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 333-3120.
Passage to India, 4931 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, (301) 656-3373.
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.