Vikram Vij has finally opened up his new restaurant in South Surrey, and one thing is clear: My Shanti by Vikram Vij is not the same restaurant as Vij’s. Comparisons are inevitable, but you will not find lamb popsicles on the My Shanti menu, nor will you have to line up before the doors even open to score a table for the first seating. (Not yet, at least.)
Situated in Morgan Crossing between a White Spot and the second location of Commercial Drive’s Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria, the place is much bigger than Vij’s flagship spot. Complete with a cement-block-encased patio, it doesn’t have the intimate feel that Vancouver diners have come to love. And before you even walk in the door, you’re struck by My Shanti’s bold-as-a-Bollywood-movie-set exterior.
Three walls have been erected atop the single-storey restaurant, covered on one side by what look like oversize silver sequins that shimmer in the sun and shift with the wind like ripples on a lake; hot-pink paint that’s visible through a windowlike cutout plasters the other side. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen in a local suburban mall.
Inside, the room is more subdued. It’s fairly dark, with an enormous hand-painted mural from India depicting a village scene adorning one wall, candle sconces decorating another, and purple saris hanging from the ceiling.
Vij himself was there on a recent Saturday night, doing what he does best whether it’s at Vij’s, Rangoli, or even his food truck: making a point of welcoming people and checking in with each and every table at least once.
While Vij’s specializes in an upscale, contemporary take on Indian cuisine, the menu at My Shanti (which means “my peace” in Hindi) is wide-ranging and adventurous; items are inspired by Vij’s annual travels throughout his native country and beyond. In a phone call a few days after my anonymous visit, he explained that his goal is the same today as it was when he started out in the restaurant business 20 years ago: to introduce people to Indian cuisine.
“I wanted to bring the awareness of the cuisine up and showcase India as a country and as one of the greatest cuisines in the world,” he said. “I have always opened up different restaurants with different menus and different styles of cooking, and with My Shanti I wanted to bring awareness of different regions of India, different parts that are not so well-known. Everybody knows New Delhi and Calcutta and Punjab, but there are so many other places, little towns that have these wonderful, unique foods.”
Consider the Udiapuri chaat. Taking its name from a district in the state of Rajasthan and a type of street-food snack, the salad combines chunks of eggplant and squash that are coated in rice flour and deep-fried, then tossed with generous handfuls of spinach and mint leaves as well as three types of chutney: mint, tamarind, and yogurt. Add in little rice puffs and crispy chickpea strings, and you’ve got a starter that blasts the tongue with playful textures and lively flavours.
Bombay’s chattpatti squid awakens the taste buds too. Chattpatti means “tangy and sweet”, and the dish strikes a fine balance between bright and spicy, thanks to the accompanying tamarind and garam masala. The squid is served on a thin rice pancake, which you use to scoop it up with the sauce. “That’s one dish that I believe all five tastes are there: sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and umami,” he said. “It all comes through on your palate.” The squid is also refreshingly ultratender, not rubbery.
Hyderabadi chicken biryani consists of chicken, rice, and fried onions that all go into the oven in a terracotta pot to bake slowly. It’s Indian comfort food, served with “three mistresses”: cashew gravy, raita, and a salad of tomato, cucumber, and onion for a crunchy dimension. Like paella, it takes a good 35 minutes to cook, so avoid it if you’re pressed for time.
Other highlights include “Indian democracy of samosa (chicken, lamb, beef)”, the meat all combined in a nongreasy pastry, the plump bites reminiscent of a rich, flaky tourtière. Chettinand tamarind prawns are cooked in a soupy, peppery sauce and accompanied by string rice hoppers, which resemble angel-hair pasta.
Lamb is served bone-in on a bed of saffron rice. Compared to other dishes, this one seemed bland; one of our friends told Vij as much when he came by to check on our food. He went straight to the kitchen, tasted some, and came back saying it may have needed a bit of salt but that the dish was served as intended, more even than full of oomph. In fact, he said, one of his relatives had come in the day before and found it too spicy. A difference of opinion, to be sure, but I loved the fact that Vij took her words to heart.
The rice pudding crème brûlée disappointed; while the edges had the requisite skating-rink like surface, the centre of the topping was mushy. But the Malabar vanilla ice cream served with chai caramel sauce went down quickly.
Dishes are meant to be shared family-style. Prices range from $10 to $13.50 for starters and from $12.75 to $24.50 for mains.