Food & Drink

Singhs for Supper

How the Singh family went from rags to roti.

Kehar Singh is holding a cake, and, for a fleeting moment, he seems to have forgotten where to take it.

The oldest brother in Maryland’s first family of Indian food can be excused—no less than three parties in his Ambassador Dining Room are celebrating birthdays at the Tuscany-Canterbury restaurant on this warm April evening. After serving dessert to the proper table, he heads to another, where he extends his right hand and delivers a pat-on-the-back bro-hug with his left to a regular whose family also chose palak paneer and pakora over pizza to commemorate their milestone. It’s the kind of embrace basketball players exchange before tip-off, not the standard greeting a proprietor dishes out to diners in his upscale restaurant.

The next day, 25 miles south in the bucolic suburbs of Fulton, Kehar’s brother, Binda Singh, strolls around the bar at Ananda, shaking hands with all the customers as if they’re in a receiving line. As always, he’s immaculately dressed—even the white handkerchief peeking out from the breast pocket of his black suit jacket is perfectly folded.

The brothers each ooze charm, but in different ways. The same can be said about their restaurants.

“Running a restaurant is like having a party at your house every night,” says Kehar, 49, who, like your favorite uncle, always seems to be smiling. “Nothing makes us happier [than] when guests are walking through the doors. That’s the greatest honor there is. Somebody thinks you’re good enough to spend time with you. There are hundreds of restaurants around people can go to. They chose this one, and that gives us honor and a certain responsibility to meet their expectations.”

At the Ambassador, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, and now at Ananda, which opened to critical acclaim and adoring crowds two summers ago, the Singhs take that as an opportunity, not a burden.

“I was talking to my father, who’s 80, about who Binda reminded me of in Baltimore history,” says Larry Yumkas, an Ananda regular who lives “300 yards” from the Maple Lawn restaurant. “The only thing I could think of was the Pimlico Hotel in its heyday. When you walked in, Lenny Kaplan was there to greet you. He knew every customer and made you feel special. It’s a really unique skill that Binda has.”

Eight years younger than Kehar, Binda, a sharp dresser with an even sharper jaw line, is the baby of the family and its most stylish and charismatic member. He mostly handles operations at Ananda, while Kehar spends the majority of his time at the Ambassador. They’re not the only siblings responsible for the family’s success, however. Their sisters, Kinday and Boli, run the kitchens in Howard County and Baltimore, respectively. No one gets hung up on job titles. (In fact, both brothers brag that their sisters are good cooks.) “It doesn’t matter whose name is on it, we all own everything,” says Kehar, who arrived with almost nothing when he became the first Singh to make it to America 31 years ago.

The aromas of curries and masalas, of succulent chicken, lamb, and fish cooking in a tandoor oven, are undeniably enchanting. More than any other ethnic cuisine, the smell of Indian food transports the imagination to the land from which it originated.

It was in a farming village in the northwestern part of the world’s second-most populous country that the Singh family sprouted. Sarwan and Darshan’s five children (a middle brother, Sokha, is now a cheese-maker in Toronto) grew up dreaming not of a life of prosperity in might-as-well-have-been-mythical America—they just hoped for some time off their feet.

“The kind of life you live—it’s hard,” says Binda, who’s sitting at a table with Kehar and Kinday in Ananda’s handsome dining room. “There’s never a moment you can just chill. It’s on 24/7. Sitting down is a luxury.”

Back in their village, clover and root vegetables grew in the winter, and cotton, sugar cane, rice, and wheat thrived during the rest of the year. “Farming crops was the easy part,” Kehar says. “It’s the damn livestock that never takes a day off.” Water buffalo, goats, oxen, cows, and pet dogs were staples on the farm. “Don’t forget the monkeys,” Binda says, chuckling.

They all laugh, the fond memories fresh in their heads. It was a laborious childhood, but not an unhappy one. Waking up at 4 a.m. to work the fields and tend to the animals was the only life they knew.

The Singhs are Sikhs, and their religion requires sharing of surnames and preaches truthful living and equality of mankind. Much of their free time in their town of Bundala, in the Punjab region, centered around their temple.

“We grew up barely making ends meet,” Kehar says. “Just like everywhere else, poor people love God a little more than anybody else. We were always cooking at the temple, making sure God’s been pleased.”

“D.C. was a $35 fare, and Baltimore was $12,” recalls Kehar. “So I ended up in Baltimore.”

That task often fell on the shoulders of the girls. Kinday, who, like Boli, speaks primarily Punjabi, says she’s been cooking as long as she’s been on her feet. She started with lentils—which are difficult to botch—and learned to prepare dishes using regional ingredients like toasted sesames, limes, and chilies.

Few people from their village near the Pakistani border ever traveled, let alone to the United States. When then-17-year-old Kehar made the monumental decision to seek a “better life” in the U.S., he had a somewhat delusional idea of what he would find.

“You heard of a country being so rich, you think you just have to show up and you’re rich,” he says. Imagine his surprise, then, when he arrived in Houston, unable to speak much English, with few possessions to his name. Oddly, money wasn’t growing on the trees.

Following a few months in Texas, Kehar boarded a flight east. When the plane landed at Baltimore/Washington International Airport, he hopped into a cab. “D.C. was a $35 fare, and Baltimore was $12,” he recalls. “So I ended up in Baltimore.”

He got a room at the Belvedere Hotel on Chase Street and was hired as a busboy at an Indian restaurant in Mount Vernon. He didn’t know a soul in town, harbored no dreams of opening his own restaurant—and couldn’t have been happier. “That comes from our religious philosophy,” he says. “No huge pipe dreams. One step at a time. The times you are in are the great days, not what is going to be next.”

After five years working at what was then the Harbor Court Hotel, he opened Banjara, an Indian restaurant in Federal Hill. When the last customers shuffled out after his first day in business, he returned to BWI, this time to pick up Binda, who was just 15.

“When you grow up on a farm, you’re always dirty,” Binda says. “Every day [Kehar] would change his shirt, he told me. I thought that must be pretty great. So you start to build ideas in your head. I showed up, and the next day I was at the restaurant washing dishes.”

Banjara became a success, and the brothers bought other businesses, including a nightclub and gas stations. In the mid-1990s, the family decided to help fund a community center back in Punjab that provided needy kids with schooling and food. It’s now run by the government, Binda says.

“It’s such a small community, and my father knew that early education is the only way out of poverty,” he says. “That’s all he would push all day long. The only way you can get ahead is education, and nobody could take that away from you. We wanted to get these youngsters in school or get them some sort of discipline.”

Meanwhile, Binda began looking for a location for a second restaurant. He noticed an ad in The Sun for the Ambassador, a long-vacant restaurant in an apartment building near The Johns Hopkins University. The moment he stepped inside, he knew his search was over.

“The whole look reminded us of old buildings back home,” he says. “Most beautiful old buildings back home are the temples or the old bank. All the woodwork, that English Tudor look, it totally worked for us. The only thing we did in the dining room was paint it. Although restaurants are commercial spaces, if they feel commercial, you have failed. [Customers] must feel at home. There must be anticipation when you get out of your car. You want to go a little bit farther and see what is beyond those walls. There must be a little bit of mystery.”

With its garden setting, roaring fireplaces, and genteel nod to Colonial India, the restaurant, set inside a ’30s-era apartment building, exudes romance. Two decades later, it’s hard to remember that the Ambassador Dining Room wasn’t always a Baltimore landmark.

“Before we opened the door, I remember this vividly, a phone call came in,” Kehar says. “It was a man on the other line and he told me, ‘I heard you bought the Ambassador and it’s going to be an Indian restaurant. I just want to tell you, people around here don’t like Indian food.’ I said, ‘Oh, OK. Have you had it?’ He said, ‘No, I’ve never had it, but I know I don’t like it.’”

Thankfully, more open-minded Baltimoreans did, and, to this day, they continue to flock to the Ambassador. The Singhs’s philosophy for the restaurant can be summed up in three words: Keep it simple. “The accessibility to the freshest ingredients in this country is mind-boggling,” Kehar says. “We are not trying to reinvent the wheel here. What we are doing here, it’s being done thousands of times every day in India.” As business flourished, the brothers brought Boli over in 2008 and Kinday in 2011. (Their parents also now spend half the year in town.)

Amazingly, the Ambassador’s popularity hasn’t waned. Among its biggest fans is Stewart Greenebaum, whose real estate firm was developing 600 acres in Howard County into the planned community of Maple Lawn. He wanted the Singhs to open a second restaurant there (they sold Banjara in 2000), and providentially, the family was itching to design and own its own property. A match was made.

In Ananda (the name is Sanskrit for “bliss”), they created a modern, sleek-looking restaurant that retains the Ambassador’s old-world grace but feels bolder. That’s also reflected in the menu, which features some nontraditional Indian dishes like tandoori beef tenderloin and Himalayan-style roasted duck. From the start, it attracted throngs of locals and national praise. GQ magazine included Ananda on its list of 25 best new restaurants of 2015.

Last year was a banner one for the brothers, who starred in an M&T Bank commercial that captured their playful warmth toward each other and their customers. There was no script and little direction, just two men standing in a studio discussing their unlikely journey, unshakable bond, and unrelenting optimism about life.

“It’s surreal and very humbling. I never thought I could be on TV,” says Binda, whose family didn’t even own one when he was growing up.

“Love, respect, honesty,” Kehar says in the ad. “Those things matter.” At Ananda and the Ambassador, they’re ingredients in every dish.