If you rejoice in the scents of herbs, spices and aromatics, then the entryway to Vij’s restaurant is your door to culinary heaven.
Vikram Vij opened Vij’s restaurant in Vancouver in 1994, with Meeru Dhalwala joining him soon after to collaborate on a menu that would change the landscape of Indian cuisine in Canada. The menu focuses on using traditional Indian methods paired with sustainable, local produce to create North America’s most celebrated Indian restaurants. The restaurant group has expanded since then, with sister restaurant Rangoli opening in 2004 and Vikram Vij’s first solo restaurant My Shanti opening in South Surrey at Morgan Crossing in 2014.
The day we visited Vij’s, the kitchen had just finished preparing their homemade spices, and the delicious aromas wafted out from the front door as soon as Co-Founder Meeru opened the door to welcome us in. Vij’s Restaurant has long been hailed as the most celebrated Indian cuisine in Vancouver, with fans lining up from as early at 5PM to wait for their doors to open for dinner time.
The interiors incorporate vibrant colours and exquisite craftsmanship. Bright, green tiles make up one wall of the dining room, while colourful, glazed glass act as the backdrop for the bar area. Guests can watch chefs prepare the food in the open kitchen, as finishing touches are placed atop the appetizers and sablefish are torched to enhance its aromas and to give it added texture on the top layer.
We watched as chefs prepared large bowls of fresh vegetables for the evening’s dinner service, and Meeru shared her philosophy of sourcing responsible and sustainable produce. Meeru takes on the task of creating the menu in the business, a daunting task for a restaurant that has attracted the attention and commentary of international visitors and locals alike. She gets her inspiration not from cook books, but from reading and researching on what is sustainable; her non-fiction readings have also helped her gain awareness of what is happening in the world with agriculture to ensure the Vij’s menu does not serve anything irresponsible.
In contrast to other restaurant kitchens where the kitchen staff may be predominantly male, Meeru emphasizes that the Vij’s kitchen is 100 percent female, because her rules in the kitchen are 1) no yelling and 2) no smoking breaks because there has to be a zen to the cooking process and she believes there should not be any negative energy put into the food.
Meeru stresses that “Food is not a man’s ego. but about the gentleness, the careful cooking and the emotional nurture of a woman (or a man).”
Through our conversation with Meeru, we learned what truly makes the Vij’s menu unique.
Whereas social media platforms have made ‘more is more’ cuisine where foods are heavily salted, packed with meats, cheeses, and other greasy ingredients (‘for the gram’), Meeru believes in serving fresh and ‘light’ food. Light not as in it will not fill you up, but as in the feeling one feels after consuming the meal. A heavy meal inevitably leaves one feeling bloated and even congested on the inside, which is hardly a great way to experience the rest of the evening and the morning after.
While Meeru is constantly on the lookout for tasty and fresh local produce, Vij’s sources their ingredients from four farms: UBC farm, Vancouver Farmer’s Market, Klippers Organics, Hazelmere Organics. She reasons that while she would like to order from more local producers, she needs to make sure that her orders are sizeable enough for the farmers to profit, a very business-centric mindset that we applaud her for.
Meeru shared some of her menu’s signature items with us, including a trio of appetizers perfect to kickstart your appetite. There is the roasted, mashed eggplant and tomatoes served on yellow and red bell peppers, topped with a delicious, juicy prawn.
In the middle you have the Saag Paneer, a vegetarian curry which means “spinach-cheese”. Paneer is a mild Indian cheese. Every ingredient in this trio is local from BC, and given that eggplants are in season for just two months of the year in the province, Meeru makes sure to get them all, as eggplant is the national vegetable of India and also originated from India. She highlights how the dish’s health value makes it complete, because you are getting the freshness, amazing flavours and your body will thank you for it.
Another favourite starter item on the menu is the Garam Masala Portobello Mushrooms in Porcini Cream Curry. You will want to order a side of naan or rice to go with the sauce. This item has been so well received that whenever the team has attempted to replace the item, they have received calls requesting this specific item be put back on the menu. Guess this one is here to stay!
For those who are fans of sablefish and its smooth, velvety texture, we recommend trying Vij’s rendition of this ingredient. We watched as Vikram Vij prepared the sablefish from plating to torching the top of the sablefish to add texture to the top layer. With the fish’s high oil content, the torching of the exterior makes the fish give off a delicious aroma, something that few will be able to resist(!)
The sustainably-caught sablefish is served in tomato yogurt and garam masala broth, so you can enjoy the lovely, flavourful medley with the large sablefish flakes. Meeru explains that the fish is served in a simple broth because the sablefish’s unique flavours should not be covered, and who can argue with that as they inhale in the mouth-watering aromas?
As the season warms up and the sun comes out to play, Vij’s rooftop patio is a great spot to enjoy the weather and the fantastic menu lineup. Bright lights are strung across the trees to create a casual and cozy dining atmosphere. Where better than an open-air rooftop patio to enjoy North America’s most celebrated Indian fare creations? Make sure to get there early on a weekday to avoid a long lineup!
3106 Cambie St. Vancouver
Photos by Florence Leung