COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Before Avishar Barua made his TV debut on NBC’s “Top Chef” and became a two-time restaurant owner, he said he was just a Bengali-American kid from Columbus whose culinary lexicon largely consisted of ramen noodles.
It wasn’t until college, however, that the former biology major realized his noodle-heavy diet wasn’t sustainable. So, Barua said he picked up a cookbook, nearly set his apartment on fire, and “got the bug” for mastering recipes in his own kitchen.
Fast forward to today, and the Joya’s Cafe owner is celebrating the opening of his second restaurant in less than a year: Agni, a Bengali-American restaurant in the Brewery District neighborhood whose fine-dining, live-fire menu is designed to reflect the experiences of Avishar and his staff.
“Now that I’ve embarrassed myself in front of millions of others,” Barua said of his “Top Chef Portland” performance, “what else could go possibly wrong?”
Agni, located at 716 S. High St., occupies the former home of Ambrose and Eve. The restaurant takes its name from the Hindu word for “God of Fire.”
Although its menu features five courses – egg chaat, Bengali shrimp taco, anellini a la vodka, dry-aged Rohan duck, and caramelized chai pudding – it’s likely that visitors will get a taste of 10 or even 11 dishes, Barua said.
“It’s like a movie; there’s a beginning, middle and end,” he said. “With a menu like this, you have to keep someone’s attention the entire time and keep their palate excited because you can get bored very fast if you eat the same thing too much.”
Despite the fancy nature of Agni’s food and paired wine, Barua said expensive chef attire and mandatory uniforms aren’t on the menu. The restaurant’s most valuable asset, he said, is its people: from customers who walk in the door to staff inside the kitchen.
“Some people, when they want to open a restaurant, (they say) ‘I just wanna show everyone this thing; I make the best burgers, I want to have the best burger,’” he said. “And I’m not sure I feel that way anymore. I just think, ‘What can I do to provide happiness to somebody?’”
Barua – who said his life has been defined by “identity crises” as half-Bengali, half-American – hopes his unconventional career path, from a contestant on “Top Chef” to a two-time restaurant owner, inspires other central Ohioans like him.
“If I can use that to help somebody in the future, like ‘Hey, I’m just a kid from Columbus, Ohio, and I got on there; you can of course get on there,’” he said. “I can only imagine there’s several hundreds of thousands of other people that are in this world that are trying to find their way, too.”
Agni is open from 5 to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.