Meditations

Vij’s: Elegant & Inspired


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Since Vikram Vij opened his first restaurant twelve years ago, like many of my fellow Vancouverites I’ve been an ardent fan and enthusiastic supporter. What got me hooked wasn’t necessarily a by-the-book interpretation of Indian food as we’ve come to know it here in this part of the world so much as it is the miasma of flavours and perfect execution.

With a few exceptions, much of what we experience in Indian restaurants here is northern Indian, specifically Punjabi or tandoori cooking. In fact, rather than focus on one region of India, Vikram Vij and his wife Meeru Dhalwala of Vij’s and Rangoli Restaurants take their cues from no single region, hence they are often referred to as “Indian fusion”. Yet, in their words, “our own philosophy is to keep our spices and cooking techniques Indian, while using the meats, seafood and produce that are locally available and popular.”

With terrific food and service to back him up, the one thing that always struck me as amazing, even though I am not what one would consider a regular diner there, is Vik’s ability to remember names. Without fail I am greeted by my first name even after long absences to his establishment. And so it was with great pleasure Mark and I found ourselves at Barbara Jo’s Books To Cooks this past rainy Sunday afternoon to support the launch of Vik and Meeru’s first cookbook, Elegant & Inspired, Vij’s Indian Cuisine. And just as if I were walking in the door of his restaurant, there he was with a wide smile, tray of hot chai and a genuine, “nice to see you Ben”.

vijs_book_2.jpgSometimes you can forgive a restaurant a few details here and there when the owner greets you by name. It is impressive. Thankfully, I’ve never had to do so at Vij’s, as the service and food has always been exemplary. But just try to get a reservation. Not going to happen. Ever. Not even for the Dali Lama – no kidding. Vik regaled us with tales of the rich, famous and powerful who’ve tried to muscle or buy their way past the ever-present line. He refuses where most others would cave under the pressure, cash or cachet. Why?

Vik explains it this way: Very early on in his first, tiny location he struggled to make $100 in receipts a day. That was his break-even point. If he made $97.50, he might even ring in a $1.50 naan bread himself just to inch that much closer to profitability. When the first glowing review came out he started to get calls for reservations, but it didn’t take long before a late arrival for a reservation threw everything out of balance and revenue started to suffer under the weight of empty tables waiting and walk-ins turned away. In a move that most restaurants would balk at, he decided never to take reservations again. An inconvenience offset by the fact that the money they don’t lose by holding tables goes right back into the food: A lower than normal mark up on wine, and maybe instead of paying $30 for an entré, it’s $25!

So, a decision to dine at Vij’s, no matter what day of the week, means a decision to wait for your table. However, you can be assured of at least three things: complimentay cups of hot chai and “nibblies” taken in the warm glow of the bar or outside on the benches; the food will make the wait worthwhile; and you won’t see the likes of Jamie Oliver or Jessica Alba passing you in line. So what if you have to wait 45 minutes for a table? Go on a night when you’re feeling social because, “if you don’t have anything to talk about for 45 minutes, what the hell are you going to talk about over dinner?” Vik says with laugh. He’s got a point.

lamb_popsicles.jpgWith a passion and level of hospitality most only reserve for their own homes, Vik and Meeru continue to treat their guests to fabulous food and now, a great cookbook. In it you will find many of the favourites that have put Vij’s on the culinary map including their signature Marinated Lamb Popsicles with Fenugreek Cream Curry. He says if they ever took it off the menu there would be a revolt from the loyal Vancouverite following, though I suspect maybe its inclusion in the book is a hint that one day he may stop making it and you’ll have to do it yourself. If you do, and like Vik, want your guests to stop delicately poking away at it with fork and knife, you’ll call them Lamb Popsicles too.

If you want the same results, then cooking at your own home the way Vik and Meeru do also means committing to doing things in the traditional way. No pre-mixed curry shortcuts here; you’ll be roasting and blending your own spices which will either have neighbours clamouring for a taste, or trying to evict you. And take your time, fresh garlic is chopped by hand and old-school food preparation rules with a focus on quality, not quantity. The intention is to prepare just a few dishes really well (you’ll notice the restaurant has a small, select menu too), not to overwhlem your guests and the table with many mediocre dishes. For example, although not in the book, we sampled a type of traditional Indian fudge that takes five hours to make. Vik and Meeru don’t shy away from doing things from scratch, or complex combinations of flavours that take serious devotion to realize in the final result. Their intention with the book is to prove that you shouldn’t either.

Whether you are an experienced cook or budding amateur, you’ll be able to follow the recipes in this delightful book. Most of us familiar with Vij’s will treasure it in our collections as much as we do the restaurant. However, I imagine that rather than diminishing the line up outside, it’s only going to fuel the throngs waiting for even more of their beautiful cuisine.

Vij’s is located 1480 W 11th Avenue in Vancouver, BC; (604) 736-6664, www.vijs.ca

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