At Tulsi, Vijay Rao set out to open a fine dining Indian restaurant in New York that would offer the authenticity of Indian cuisine, while reflecting modern-day India in its design and ambiance. He partnered with one of New York’s most celebrated Indian chefs, Hemant Mathur, to present diverse regional flavors in a chic, contemporary setting.
Since opening in 2011, Tulsi has been featured by numerous media, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, New York Magazine, Time Out New York, Crain’s New York Business, Elle Décor and Huffington Post, among many others; and was awarded a Michelin star rating for 2012, which named the 55-seat restaurant as “the ‘incomparable one’” with regional creations from Chef Mathur that are “original, dashing and studied.”
Rao’s first restaurant venture was Bukhara Grill, which opened in midtown Manhattan in 1999, offering northwestern Indian specialties and a traditional, yet sophisticated atmosphere. As one of the founding owners, he had hoped to tap Mathur as the executive chef, but at that time Mathur was working under the late Raji Jallepalli to open Tamarind on 22nd Street, and then went on to garner critical acclaim along with a Michelin star at the highly touted Dévi.
He first met Chef Mathur in 1990 at Diwan Grill, where he quickly became a loyal customer, dining every Friday evening on Chef Mathur’s lamb chops, tandoori prawns and chicken tikka masala. Now two decades later, and after almost two years of searching for a favorable restaurant space, Rao is delighted to finally collaborate with Mathur at Tulsi.
Raised in Nadiad, India, in the northwestern state of Gujarat, Rao was on a career path to become an engineer, but had two big dreams: one day he wanted to own a restaurant, and he also yearned to make Bollywood films. Growing up, he was a huge movie buff and would see every film released in India, especially seeking out the limited number of American films shown with big screen actors like Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds and Charles Bronson. In fact, it was while watching “Saturday Night Fever” in 1978, as John Travolta’s character drives across the Brooklyn Bridge to make the big move to Manhattan, that Rao knew he had to go to New York and become a part of this vibrant metropolis. He made that life-changing move in 1986 and later studied filmmaking at SUNY Purchase, but then decided that the more realistic course of action was to apply for a job with the City of New York.
Having risen through the ranks of New York City’s water commission, Rao is now the chief operator for reservoir operations and also a restaurateur. He still dreams, though, of producing movies in the future. When he is off-duty and not at Tulsi, he sees as many movies as time allows, always in a theater on the big screen.