Vij gets ready to open new Surrey restaurant My Shanti, reflects on 20 years of Indian food in Vancouver

With My Shanti set to open, Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala reflect on their success.

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      It’s no contest, really. Year after year, Vij’s tops the category of best Indian restaurant in Vancouver in the Georgia Straight’s Golden Plate awards.

      Although some readers might take the results for granted, any restaurateur will tell you it’s not easy to stay at the top of the fast-moving restaurant industry. Co-owners Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala have done so since they opened Vij’s 20 years ago this September. So as Vij prepares to launch a new restaurant in Surrey at the end of this month, the Straight chats with the owners about the secrets of their success.

      “Anybody who would look at this restaurant model would say, ‘Are you crazy? This definitely would not work,’ ” Vij says over the phone with a laugh. He’s referring to the policy at Vij’s of not taking reservations—which results in an average wait of 60 to 90 minutes for a table, according to Vij—and offering free snacks and chai to those in line.

      But Vij has always done things a little differently. Famous for greeting guests and working the dining room, he doesn’t believe in the typical restaurant-industry separation of front- and back-of-house. “I’ve always treated people as if they come to my house,” he says. “If you came to my house for dinner, I wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’m just doing the cooking; I won’t get you a glass of wine.’ ”

      Vij takes a hands-on approach because he’s passionate about introducing the cuisine and culture he loves to diners. Vancouverites, he notes, have come a long way since Vij’s opened two decades ago. Back then, he says, Indian food was considered “ethnic”, and most restaurant offerings didn’t go beyond butter chicken and chicken tikka masala.

      He knew it was important to introduce the non–South Asian public to Indian food in a way that wasn’t intimidating. “Part of it was meeting people halfway,” he explains, giving the example of describing menu items in relatable terms, such as “wine-marinated lamb popsicles”. He didn’t simply open his restaurant and put his food out there; he guided people on how to order and eat it, roaming the floor and offering suggestions for condiments to match certain dishes. “I was becoming the motherly person, saying, ‘You have to use your hands to eat the lamb popsicles,’ ” he recalls.

      While Vij became the face of the business, Dhalwala chose to stay out of the public eye. In a separate phone chat with the Straight, she explains how the two divide their duties at Vij’s and Rangoli, the more casual eatery they opened in 2004. “Vikram and I can both cook everything on the menus,” she explains. “But I’m the one who comes up with the recipes, and I’m the one who’s actually day-to-day running the kitchens. He’s out front doing the wonderful thing that he does.”

      From the outset in 1994, Dhalwala wanted to focus on cooking. “As a chef, I was pretty much quiet and kept to myself for the first 10 years. No one practically knew I existed,” she says matter-of-factly. That never bothered her. In fact, she still feels it’s essential for her happiness to do what she does best and let Vij handle the distraction of publicity. She says this allows her to keep her kitchens grounded (there’s nearly zero staff turnover) and stay creative and innovative. (Vij says it was Dhalwala’s idea, for example, to put insects on the restaurants’ menus in the form of cricket paratha in the name of global-food-supply sustainability.)

      In the past five or six years, however, she says that media attention has come to her. “I blossomed into that role,” she notes. “But for me, in order to keep blossoming…I know where my anchor is. I have not lost sight of my anchor. And my anchor really is my finger stinking of onions and garlic at the end of the day.”

      Vij plays to his own strengths. “He is so proud of being from India and being Indian,” Dhalwala says. “His anchor really is to go out there and showcase Indian-ness. And I think that’s how it works so well between us.”

      While the partners share the operation of Vij’s and Rangoli, they’re each running their own side project under the Vij’s umbrella. In December 2012, Dhalwala opened her own restaurant, Shanik, in Seattle. She spends about 60 percent of her time running Vij’s and Rangoli and the remainder at Shanik.

      Although Dhalwala says that Shanik is flourishing, she learned quickly that what works in one city doesn’t necessarily work in another. Shanik launched with a no-reservations policy, for example, but it recently started to accept them. Shanik also caters to the Seattle market by offering more vegetarian dishes than Vij’s, as well as a happy hour.

      Comparisons to Vij’s were inevitable but still jolting, Dhalwala says. Customers and critics claimed that Vij’s was better than Shanik, or vice versa. “I actually found myself being compared to myself,” she says, mystified. “It was the most weird thing in the world.” Throughout it all, focusing on her cooking has kept her grounded; Dhalwala’s partner at Shanik, Oguz Istif, handles most of the restaurant’s media.

      For his part, Vij flourishes in the limelight and can currently be seen as a judge on television’s Recipe to Riches. “The key to surviving in this industry is thinking ahead and remaining focused on what you believe in,” he tells the Straight. To do so, chefs must keep pushing their limits, adding new menu items, and attracting attention.

      Vij’s new restaurant, My Shanti (shanti means “peace” in Hindi), is part of his efforts to push the limits of Indian cuisine in Vancouver. “It’s going to be totally focused on regions,” he explains. Although Vancouverites might know the difference between northern and southern Italian cuisine, for example, many can’t distinguish between regional Indian dishes. My Shanti will highlight those.

      For example, he feels that the food from the Bengal region is underappreciated: the mustard oil often used in preparing it doesn’t get the same glory as the olive oil used in Tuscan cooking. So My Shanti might feature fish that’s lightly pan-fried in mustard oil. Because the restaurant will make use of local ingredients—and serve only B.C. wine and beer—that Bengali fish could be sardines from B.C. waters.

      Vij describes My Shanti as “a really warm, cozy kind of restaurant”. The casual spot will be open only for dinner and will be less expensive than Vij’s, with mains running about $16 to $19. Vij says he chose South Surrey’s Morgan Crossing area because there weren’t a lot of independent restaurants there. Surrey residents were already driving to Vij’s in South Granville, and South Surrey has “a huge clientele that loves Indian food and loves Indian flavours and has travelled”.

      This fall, Vij and Dhalwala are planning to open the new Vij’s restaurant at Cambie and West 15th, a project that has been delayed for two years. It will retain the same menu as the current Vij’s, which will get a new concept. The pair haven’t yet decided what that concept will be. “We just go back and forth with ideas,” Dhalwala says.

      Perhaps 10 years from now, Vancouverites could be casting their ballots for the city’s best Bengali or best Goan restaurant. Odds are good that a Vij/Dhalwala venture would win it.

      Comments

      12 Comments

      Veej Kismybhut

      Mar 12, 2014 at 3:42pm

      The no-reservations policy is absurd. The only time I attempted to dine there, i was waiting over 2 hours for a table. How does he view this as hospitality? This is different from going to a dinner party where you socialize with people you know and the idea of hanging out before you sit down makes sense. When I became fed up waiting and decided to leave, Mr. Vij himself came running to me and confronted me right outside his restaurant because "i did not get his policy of no-reservations".

      Two things: I am part east Indian (so there is no prejudice) and that happened to be on my birthday. We had left our 2 kids (1 & 4 yrs at the time) with a babysitter (that's not free either)

      He may have no recollection of that incident but that was sufficient for me to boycott that establishment. Many people seem to share the same opinion that it's overpriced fusion cuisine!

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      RUK

      Mar 13, 2014 at 2:59pm

      It is his business model, and while I don't understand it, something about it seems to work. And the food is beautiful fusion cuisine. If you want to eat it at a particular time, why, I suppose that is why you can buy it next door at Rangoli to warm up at home (Indian food makes excellent leftovers)

      Paradyz

      Mar 14, 2014 at 4:07pm

      The first thing I thought to myself when I read this article was ... What? Mr. Vij is too scared to compete with the REAL Indian restaurants in Surrey on Scott Road? He has to find his bland 'fusion' food he tries to pass off as 'Indian' food at Morgan Crossing? Ha! Yes, I am biased... but I am tired of people praising this dude when we have so many awesome chefs cooking Indian cuisine in the Lower Mainland and get no love from the media!

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      @ RUK

      Mar 14, 2014 at 5:21pm

      if you've read my comment: i went there to celebrate a special occasion after i have heard so much hype about the place. (A) it was my birthday (B) may be you do not have any kids which involve booking a babsitter on a night out and having to pay for it by the hour. It is different if i chose to willingly waste over 2 hrs of my time prior to the confrontation. Once inside, i had to stay put if i wanted to be seated. I chose to leave because i needed to eat and return home to pay the babysitter, that's my right. But him catching up to me just outside the door and to yell at me was the most unacceptable part!!! Had he taken the time to ask me why i was leaving might have changed my mind.

      @ Paradyz
      Right on! FUSION food was my other peeve. I do not understand all the bozos that are too timid to try authentic indian food and to year after year vote for it as the BEST INDIAN category.

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      Paulo

      Mar 14, 2014 at 6:02pm

      I've had some pretty exciting experiences spotting a celeb having a drink and waiting for a table like anyone else. Vij treats everyone with the same hospitality and there's something about knowing we are all just as valued that makes the experience extra special.

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      cathy

      Mar 18, 2014 at 9:20am

      Eaten at Vij's twice. Second time got there before 5 p.m. so we wouldn't have to wait too long.
      Yes it was good & pricey.
      Would i go again? No.

      With all the great restaurants around, there no need to wait in line anywhere.
      Vij's no reservation policy is just plain rude and disrespectful of people's time.

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      Vic Fontaine

      Mar 18, 2014 at 8:56pm

      I've never had to wait long or if there's a wait I come back later.

      As for Scott Rd, if you ask any cab driver in the city what the best Indian restaurant is (dunno if they are touts/shilling) they all recommend Indian Bistro and claim the owner parachutes in great chefs from India and rotates them often to keep the food 'inspired and new'. No idea if this is true but it's supposedly the best food around.

      Whenever I'm out that way I usually just go to the small restaurant beside the Sikh temple on Scott Road (Rajas? Or Rama sweets.. don't know what it's called now) and they always have really good food and it's not insanely priced.

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      Gareth

      Mar 30, 2014 at 8:09am

      I have been on my birthday the last three years and only waited over 15min once. When we have waited we either got drinks in the back of the restaurant where they also served us free appatizers or they provided us with a little pager that would buzz when our table was ready while we were grabbing drinks at a nearby bar (which staff were more than happy to recommend, they even phoned a few places to see if they were busy). Vikram has personally served us each time I have been there, whether it was filling up our eaters or asking if we wanted more rice and naan. He truly appreciates all guests coming in and spending their hard earned money on his food.

      Are there better traditional Indian restaurants? I don't doubt there are but this is one families take on fusion Indian food and I have always enjoyed the complex and nuanced flavours.

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      LuvVijs

      Apr 6, 2014 at 12:36pm

      Is there a lot of good Indian food, perhaps...are those establishments clean and could you eat off the floor no? There are so many dirty Indian restaurants with good food, which completely takes away from the experience. To enjoy the divine Vij's you have to be smart, eg; want to avoid line ups, go early and get in early. Everyone that knows that place knows there are line ups. It is clean, hospitable and an experience and the food is delicious. This is a family of trained chef's, so why would they cook a plain old dish? I think everyone needs to manage their expectations and if you want cheap then go get cheap, you want an experience with a family passionate about quality, clean, style and excellent flavours pick any Vij establishment. Thanks Vij for drawing people into India and showing off the flavours with style. Thank goodness South Surrey will finally have some high quality Indian food. Current choices are slim to none.

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      foodlover

      Apr 14, 2014 at 12:54pm

      My Shanti looks hideous. Hopefully the food will be better.No reservations just say his time is more important than his guests.

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