Friday, October 14, 2011

Vij's: Elegant & Inspired Indian Cuisine

Easily one of Vancouver's most renowned and beloved restaurants, Vij's has been setting the bar for serving haute Indian-fusion cuisine in Vancouver, since opening their doors in 1994. From then on, the restaurant has garnered swooning praise for its sexy, dimly lit jewell-box-like interior, its fragrant and fresh interpretation of classic Indian dishes, and its innovative integration of wine and cocktails with the menu. Even the New York Times is smitten, naming Vij's “easily among the finest Indian restaurants in the world”. 

Meeru Dhalwala and Vikram Vij

Husband and wife team Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala are the owners and co-chefs of both Vij’s and Rangoli in Vancouver. Well known for its no-reservation policy, long lineups and devoted fans, Vij's is notable for its intricate regional interpretations of Indian food and also for its all-female kitchen staff, all of whom hail from small villages in the Punjab. "Growing up in India, my mother and grandmother played a huge role in my life", says Vikram "so all the food I did at the restaurant was a kind of homage to them. I am who I am because of their delicious foods."

Vij's whimsical jewell-box features - the play of light

A celebrated chef, certified sommelier and ardent supporter of sustainable food, Vikram's journey spans three continents, from being born in India, growing up in Amritsar and Mumbai, studying hotel management in Austria, to operating a gem of a restaurant in Vancouver. The Punjabi kitchen team under Vikram’s wife and fellow chef Meeru Dhalwala only uses traditional spices that adhere to regional cuisine found in India. Meeru has the kitchen with her team of chefs. Vikram holds court on the floor. Food and wine flow together. And guests are left to enjoy the experience the pleasure of Vij's cuisine.

Vij's all-woman team of chefs

All Vij's seafood, including the succulent B.C. prawns are local, as is the lamb for the kebabs and the beef, pork, chicken. He buys his chickpeas from Saskatchewan and the vegetables for their great curries are from B.C. Of course, they also make all of their own spice blends and beautiful soft paneer.

The lineups are legendary at Vij's, but definitely worth the wait. The restaurant opens at 5:30pm with a steady stream of complimentary appetizers passed around to dinner guests as they're seated, such as crisp potato pakoras, spicy cassava fries and fragrant onion bhaja – a welcome gesture as diners reflect on the wonderful menu and wine list. With a variety of wines, beers and cocktails to choose from, we finally decided on a Spanish Estella wheat beer with coriander and orange, a light, fragrant chilled beer which arrived in a wine-shaped bottle and was served in wine glasses — a lovely touch. 

Chickpeas with star anise and date curry on grilled kale

Samosas filled with lamb and beef, sautéed in fennel, cloves and sumac

The innovative menu features an inspiring selection of Indian-fusion appetizers such as Portobello Mushrooms in a richly flavoured porcini cream curry, exquisitely spiced allowing flavours such as mango, tamarind and cardamom to shine through; Samosas filled with lamb and beef sautéed in fennel, cloves and sumac; Mutton Kebabs with Bengali style curry; and Organic Cornish Game Hen with lemon & beets sautéed in star anise. Entrées are perfectly designed to be shared and include dishes such as BC Spot Prawns in coconut & fenugreek masala with wheat berry pilaf; Saag-Paneer with Punjabi daal and chapati; Wine Marinated Lamb Popsicles in fenugreek cream curry on turmeric and spinach potatoes; and Lemon-Ghee Marinated and Grilled Organic Chicken Breast and Thigh in tangy tomato curry with roasted garlic and cashews. 

Garam masala sautéed portobello mushrooms in porcini cream curry

BC spot prawns in coconut & fenugreek masala with wheat berry pilaf

The couple's first recipe book, Vijs Indian Cuisine, includes delectable offerings such as grilled chicken breast marinated in lemon-ghee dressing with garlic and cashews and seared venison medallions with fig and roasted pomegranate khoa. Vegetarian selections abound, and there is also a selection of side dishes and accompaniments such as rice pilafs, chapattis (flatbread) and chutneys. Each recipe is accompanied by a suggested wine pairing.

A second cookbook, Vij's at Home, feature delicious everyday Indian recipe that Meeru and Vij prepare and eat at home each day. Designed for flavour, versatility and convenience, virtually every recipe can be adapted to suit your palate, your dietary preferences or your on-hand ingredients. Like the first cookbook, clear instructions, stunning photographs, and a charming conversational tone make this cookbook an informative and engaging read.

Vikram and Meeru's big focus last year was setting up a production facility in Surrey, BC to prepare Vij’s packaged gourmet curries, which are cooked by hand and are original popular recipes from Vij’s restaurant. Now available throughout Canada, they can be found in Toronto at All the Best Fine Foods at 1101 Yonge St. and McEwan Foods at the Don Mills Centre.

Vij's is also purported to be moving into a brave new world, as they will start to serve insects in some of its dishes. That's right! They have decided to introduce insects to their menu as 'green cuisine'. Meeru has argued that insects are environmentally positive, and can provide a much healthier protein than that found in meat. Dhalwala says 2,000 crickets would make enough paratha for 12 people. "Crickets are so good for you," she says. "They're actually healthier for us than meat. They have three times more iron than beef, way more calcium, is low in fat and is super-low in cholesterol and aren't raised with antibiotics." I wonder if that recipe will show up in their next cookbook?

Vikram's Marinated Lamb Popsicle with Fenugreek Cream Curry
Makes 16-20 popsicles
by Chef Vikram Vij

For the popsicles:
2-3 French cut racks of lamb, with the bone cleaned down to the chop
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup grainy yellow mustard
3/4 tsp salt

For the Curry Cream:
2 tbsp crushed garlic
3 tbsp canola oil
1 tsp turmeric
1 litre whipping cream
1 tbsp dried green fenugreek flakes (known as ‘kasuri methi’)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 lemon juice
1/4 tsp paprika

Cut the racks of lamb into the ‘popsicles’ by slicing the chops in between the bones. Mix the white wine, mustard and salt together in a large bowl, then add the popsicles, turning to coat them on all sides. Cover and set aside in the refrigerator for a couple of hours.

In a separate bowl, mix together the whipping cream, salt, paprika, cayenne, fenugreek flakes and lemon juice. In a medium-sized, heavy pot sauté the crushed garlic in the canola oil. Once the garlic is golden in colour, add the turmeric, stir and heat for one minute. Add the whipping cream mixture, stir and heat on low to medium heat for a few minutes (the water in the whipping cream will evaporate, thickening the sauce. If your heat is too high, the cream will separate.) If making the sauce a day ahead, let the garlic mixture cool completely then add to the cream mixture and refrigerate. Thicken the sauce close to serving time by heating gently.

Grill the popsicles just before you are ready to serve your meal. You can either pour the cream curry over the grilled popsicles or use it as a dipping curry for them.

Vikram serves them over some sliced, cooked potatoes that have been lightly sautéed in oil, with a couple of handfuls of washed spinach thrown in just until the spinach wilts slightly.

1480 West 11th Avenue
Vancouver, British Columbia