Indian flair at new AJ's Cafe
Longtime Columbus diners will probably recognize Ajay Kumar from his years of welcoming customers to Taj Mahal Indian restaurant in North Campus. His signature hospitality made Taj a regular stop for more than 20 years, as he led the restaurant-one of the first Indian restaurants in Columbus-along with his family.
Last July, Taj closed for various reasons, one of which was the constant upkeep needed for the restaurant space, which was housed in a 100-year-old home along High Street. He sold the restaurant within the family, and last fall it re-opened as Mughal Darbar.
After selling the restaurant, Kumar took a few months off, but his heart remained with the restaurant business, especially his native cooking. "I did some research into an Indian food truck," he says, "but when you think about it, in the truck you've got the plate oven, you've got the burner, it gets so warm. I couldn't see myself sitting there all day."
He scouted out other locations for Indian restaurants, and began working at Clintonville's Mozart's Cafe. "I learned about cafes a little bit, learning sandwiches and coffee," he says. When his brother notified him about a newly-vacated cafe space on East State Street, former home to the C-Town Market, he jumped at the chance to open a new brick-and-mortar. "It's fun coming to Downtown, it feels alive," he says.
Kumar has spiced up his newfound knowledge of grab-and-go meals with classic Indian flavors. "When you eat Indian food," he says, "you get some rice, some salad, some chutneys and naan for the bread. I thought how I'd bring those things together in a sandwich. So I started baking the chicken, making the rice, putting together the sauce, using the wrap for the bread."
For instance, breakfast features a vegan Zen Wrap, comprised of rice, lentils, spinach, carrots, sliced apples and seasoned with a tamarind and cilantro vinaigrette. One of the more popular lunch items is the Raja Wrap with tandoori chicken, rice, onions, jalapenos and a cilantro chutney. Another traditional Indian dish, chicken tikka masala, is adapted into sandwich form with lettuce and cheddar on a panini.
Kumar seems interested in playing with a variety of flavors, too, as evidenced by the Tilapia Torpedo with baked tilapia, lettuce, tomato and the cilantro chutney. Customers in search of more traditional fare will find it, too. Breakfast also features a simple bacon, egg and cheese wrap, or bagels with cream cheese. The lunch menu is rounded out with items like a Reuben, a turkey meatball sub and a Bourbon Street chicken philly, plus salads, soups and pastries. Coffee is sourced from Upper Cup Coffee in Olde Towne East, and Kumar makes an Indian ginger chai, combining black tea, spices and milk.
Customers who remember his hospitality at Taj Mahal will find it again at AJ's Cafe. "I like to serve people," he says. "I like to see people happy. I like to treat them the way I would like to be treated. That will always be there."
The cafe is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.