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 -
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
Beef and Ginger Kebobs in Vij's Masala Curry;
Greens Grilled Butternut Squash, and Bacon in Cumin Seed Curry;
Cakes with Celeriac Puree;
Cayenne Pepper Marinated and Grilled Sablefish in Tomato-Yogurt
Goatmeat in Fennel, Kalonji and Indian Thyme Curry; and
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;
Short Ribs in Spicy Cinnamon and Red Wine Curry with Cauliflower and
Breast and Coconut-Green Chili Rice Pilaf in Lime Leaf Curry;
Pork Tenderloin, Filled with Khoa and Potatoes in Porcini Cream
Curry with Spiced Whole Almonds; and finally
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.