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2005
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Vij's, Vancouver, Canada, tasted on March 17, 2005 Awhile ago I started getting bummed about the state of food in Seattle. After a bit of back and forth with faithful tastingmenu readers, other bloggers, and various rankings of populations in major cities across the country and the planet, I had to concede that given its size, Seattle is pretty good when it comes to food. That said, I also must point out that when it comes to food I think I'm only really truly happy in a world class city like New York, Tokyo, or London. (I really do love living in Seattle, but it's simply not New York.) The diversity in those cities is pretty much incomparable. But one thought gave me hope. It's a bit of a drive, but if I consider Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver as one large metropolitan area (with a 6 hour drive from the top to the bottom) then I can feel like I am not quite so far away from a wide selection of high quality eating experiences. And Vancouver really does hold its own. Down the road I'll do a proper post on what Vancouver's all about. But in the meantime the main thing to know is that there is one restaurant in Vancouver that is mentioned every time anybody tells me about their experiences eating north of the border - Vij's.

Run by a husband and wife team - Vikram and Meeru - Vij's is quite simply the pre-eminent Indian culinary experience on the west coast. I have long said that when it comes to ethnic food I crave either homey authentic small ethnic hideaways, or I crave super refined but still authentic versions of a specific country's cuisine. Either makes me happy. The latter is pretty rare.  I count Hakkasan in London as one of the best examples I've ever seen of that archetype - refined dim sum and Hakka style Chinese food. Vij's is an excellent example of this archetype as well.

We got there early as they don't take reservations. We sat out by the fountain. Since we got there so early we got seated right after they opened. And while we got some yummy fried Indian snack delivered to the table, the waitresses (and Vikram himself) often take small snacks to the people standing in the nightly line to keep them happy while they wait for a table. Such a small touch, but it's so essential to making Vij's a memorable and welcoming experience. Almost everyone who went to dinner had already been to Vij's. As much as everyone else was looking forward to the meal and experiencing their favorites again, I felt intense pressure to catch up. So naturally, we ordered just about everything on the menu.

The meal passed in a blur. The appetizers included: Beef and Ginger Kebobs in Vij's Masala Curry; Winter Greens Grilled Butternut Squash, and Bacon in Cumin Seed Curry; Quail Cakes with Celeriac Puree; Lemon, Cayenne Pepper Marinated and Grilled Sablefish in Tomato-Yogurt Broth; Braised Goatmeat in Fennel, Kalonji and Indian Thyme Curry; and Grilled and Chickpeas in Green Onion Curry.

And only after that intense array of dishes did the entrees start showing up including: Pomegranate Glazed Specialty Chicken Breast with Coconut Onion Curry and Vegetable Rice Pilaf; Beef Short Ribs in Spicy Cinnamon and Red Wine Curry with Cauliflower and Honey Paranta; Duck Breast and Coconut-Green Chili Rice Pilaf in Lime Leaf Curry; Grilled Pork Tenderloin, Filled with Khoa and Potatoes in Porcini Cream Curry with Spiced Whole Almonds; and finally Wine Marinated Lamb Popsicles in Fenugreek Cream Curry.

I'm not entirely sure how to describe the array of bright, intense, and exciting flavors that oozed out of every nook and cranny of every bite served to us over the evening. The Lamb Popsicles, in many ways the iconic dish  of Vij's. The popsicles are chunks of lamb on a bone that's conveniently empty of meat at one end. The bright yellow sauce is simply unforgettable. A uniquely Indian herby aroma arises from a creamy and super tangy pool of goodness. The meat and sauce combine for the kind of dish that inspires extra effort gnawing at the bone, and surreptitious plate licking. Just about every dish at Vij's was like this. The rice perfectly cooked. The naan buttery, light, and flaky.

As good as the food was, the warm atmosphere, Vikram himself moving from table to table making sure each customer is happy, there were other key details of our visit to Vij's. Rangoli is the cafe/take-home market next door. Many of Vij's dishes (not to mention the spices to cook with) are available there.

There's one other interesting detail, when I snuck a peek at the kitchen I noticed the kitchen staff was all female. I think it's safe to say that if you look at restaurant kitchens almost anywhere in the world the vast majority are staffed almost entirely by men. Seeing women in the kitchen is not rare. But seeing a kitchen staffed with all women definitely is. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that Meeru (Vikram's wife) took on the role of managing the kitchen and creating the menus (according to the Vij's website). There are other examples where restaurants run by women staff almost entirely (or entirely) with women. While I won't assert that women in the kitchen necessarily make a difference, I think it's likely that there's a different dynamic in terms of the dynamics between the people making the food. And I do wonder if it's possible to recognize that different dynamic in the food.

Whatever the reason, a deep and passionate commitment to quality, consistency, and exciting flavor is resonant in every bite of every dish you'll have at Vij's. And when it comes to eating out, I really couldn't possibly ask for more.

 

     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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