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Vikram's Choice

A consummate host and innovative chef continues to dazzle the Canadian food scene

Written by Daenna Van Mulligen
Photography by Lyndsay Greenwood
Recipes by Vikram Vij

  • Warm Welcome: For 16 years, Vikram Vij has been welcoming guests to his eponymous restaurant
  • Full Capacity: Lineups are a matter of course at Vij's, which doesn't accept reservations. The food and hospitality, including snacks in line, make it worth the wait
  • Food & Wine: A well-edited core list of five whites, five reds and a rosé are selected seasonally because of their affinity with the dishes
  • At Home: Vij has become the face of the restaurant, working the floor and greeting guests, while a talented brigade of female chefs do the cooking

Everyone loves a success story. Especially when it's something we all have the pleasure of sharing. Vikram Vij's success is the result of outstanding food, an engaging personality and a constant drive to feed and make people happy.

Undoubtedly, his is a name recognized around the globe — synonymous with the finest Indian cuisine in the world. It's often been suggested that his namesake restaurant, Vij's, is the best Indian restaurant in North America.

Vij was born in the Punjab city of Amritsar. He later moved to Austria to study hotel management and ended up training as a chef. Vij eventually landed in Canada at the Banff Springs Hotel in 1989. In the early 1990s, he worked in the kitchens of acclaimed Vancouver chef John Bishop of Bishop's and at the iconic Raincity Grill. It was in these early years in Vancouver when sommelier Peter Bodnar Rod saw his potential as a host and brought Vij out of the kitchen and to the front of the house. In 1994, at age 30, Vij went solo to open a tiny, 16-seat restaurant on Broadway Avenue at Granville Street. Named Café Arabia, he created home-style Indian dishes and pulled in a meager $100 per day in sales. "I did the dishes, I was the server. I would prep and chop and cook then place the food on the passthrough and come out and around to serve it." A local food writer happened by one day and, looking at his menu, asked where the butter chicken was. "I don't do traditional Indian dishes," he said, "I do home-style Indian dishes." Her resulting column was enough to bring a steady stream of other critics as well as curious diners.

I don't do Traditional Indian dishes. I do homestyle Indian dishes.

In 1996, he and his new wife, Meeru Dhalwala, were walking down an alley near Café Arabia when they came across a For Lease sign on West 11th Avenue near Granville. It was a former Korean restaurant. "It was a disaster, a sad story. We had to air it out for four days," Vij recalls. Not long after, the Vij's the world has come to know opened its doors and, now 16 years later, the lineups remain. Although the decor has not changed, there have been some prudent additions over the years. The log benches outside, where patrons would line up and be treated to chai and crispy pappadums while waiting for a seat inside, are gone. In their place, twin concrete ponds, which double as tables, and plenty of stools allow those in the queue to drink wine and socialize while awaiting a table. The back of the restaurant was expanded in 2000, making room for a bar and lounge to cozy up in when the weather is cool. Then, in 2004, Vij opened a second restaurant next door. The modern and bright Rangoli is a more casual, daytime version of Vij's. At inception, Rangoli was meant to be more than just a lunch spot; it was to serve as a mini market for his new pre-packaged line of gourmet take-home. Inspired by the frozen Indian dishes his grandmother would make for him when he was a young man, the Vij's at Home gourmet line took on a life of its own. Demand in local specialty stores increased to larger grocery chains and the products are now available across Canada.

Vij calls his trademark cuisine modern Indian. It's a reflection of his northern Indian heritage; he uses the ingredients and spices of the region, but cooks using the traditional French techniques he was trained in. You'll not find him in the kitchen with his army of female cooks, though — he's the face of the restaurant and is always out front with his guests. "It's called Vij's," he says. "If I was invited to your house and you weren't there I'd ask why." Being on the floor and serving guests allows Vij to keep an eye on what dishes his guests truly revel in. Although the menu changes seasonally, there are some items that (on threat of riot) remain steadfast, like the ceaselessly popular saag paneer with Punjabi daal and chapati — jackfruit in black cardamom and curry and wine-marinated lamb popsicles in fenugreek cream curry.

Vij has always had a great love of wine. From day one, his goal was to have a place where people could enjoy food and wine together. "My focus was the food, but at the bottom of the menu I added five white and five red wines by the glass."

In the beginning, he sought complementary wines from British Columbia. "They are low alcohol and fruit-forward with great acidity." But Vij doesn't believe there is such a thing as a perfect pairing with his cuisine. "There are too many factors — ginger, spice and acidity." They are complex dishes that are notoriously hard to pair with wine so he simply endeavoured to offer delicious options.

Sommelier and general manager, Mike Bernardo, came on board in 2001 and the wine program was expanded. He has maintained the prices and kept a listing of five white and five red wines by the glass, but he also always offers a rosé. He feels rosé wines are as close to perfect as you can get with Vij's cuisine. The list also changes each season, introducing Vancouverites to a slew of obscure varieties and rare wines. Bernardo says, "We were the first to introduce Grüner Veltliner to the market. I love finding those unique little wines that no one has tasted and opening them for a customer." Early on, Bernardo would keep some additional treats in the back to hand-sell to customers but, over the years, as the restaurant became busier, he put together a reserve list in case he or Vij couldn't personally be there. It's an eclectic list, which keeps the cuisine in mind and avoids too much tannin, oak or alcohol — attributes that light spicy foods on fire.

There seems to be no stopping Vij. He built a 28,000-square-foot processing plant in nearby Cloverdale in 2011 to increase the output of his Vij's at Home pre-packaged cuisine. Around the same time, the Vij's Railway Express food truck took to the hungry streets of Vancouver, paying homage to regional Indian dishes. His desire to educate others in home-style Indian cookery and the use of exotic spices led him to pen two cookbooks with his wife, Meeru, and he recently donated $250,000 to the University of British Columbia. The money went toward modernizing an outdated kitchen needed to support undergraduates in the Faculty of Land and Foods Systems. You'll occasionally find him there, in Vij's Kitchen, teaching classes. Last year, Meeru opened Shanik in Seattle — the third (and first international) property within the Vijs' stable of restaurants.

This promises to be another defining year for Vij's growing empire. He is set to open a new restaurant called My Shanti in South Surrey and Vij's will be moved to a new, slightly larger, home on Cambie Street. He's tight-lipped on the theme for the current Vij's location on West 11th Avenue, but you can be certain it will include exceptional food and wine. "You'll like it. It's something I've wanted to do since I was a kid," he chuckles.

Vikram's Bone-in Goat Curry

Serves 6 to 8

During a recent visit to Rajasthan, Vikram spent a few nights visiting Thakur Pritvi Singh of Kanota at his palace. The Thakur's cook prepared many dishes for Vikram and this recipe was partly inspired by that experience. Both Meeru and Vikram grew up eating goat curry with the bones in and Vikram loves to make this dish for friends as a surprise. He acts as if eating the meat off goat bones is an everyday occurrence and it's fun to see people follow his lead and start picking up pieces of goat meat with their fingers and sucking the tender meat off the bones. Even though this dish is eaten with your hands, it really isn't that messy, especially if you serve it with naan or rice to soak up some of the rich curry broth.

1/2 cup ghee or cooking oil 120 mL
1 TBsp & 1 tsp cumin seeds 19 mL
3-inch cinnamon stick
5 black cardamom pods,
lightly pounded (optional)
10 cloves
1 lb red onions, thinly sliced 455 g
6 lbs goat meat, bone-in, cut into 2–inch dice 2,720 g
1 TBsp salt 15 mL
3 TBsp chopped garlic
(9 medium cloves) 45 mL
2 TBsp finely chopped ginger 30 mL
4 cups puréed tomatoes
(8 medium tomatoes) 960 mL
7 cups water 1,680 mL
1 tsp black pepper 4 mL
2 tsp nutmeg 8 mL
2 TBsp ground coriander 30 mL
1 tsp turmeric 4 mL
1 TBsp paprika (optional) 15 mL
2 tsp ground cayenne pepper (optional) 8 mL
2 cups plain yogurt (minimum 2% milk fat), room temperature, stirred 480 mL

HEAT ghee or oil in a large pot on medium-high for 1 minute. Add cumin seeds, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves and allow cumin seeds to SIZZLE for 30 seconds. Stir in onions and sauté for 7 to 8 minutes or until crispy brown on the edges.

Stir in goat meat and salt and cook, stirring regularly, for 10 minutes. REDUCE the heat to medium, cover and cook for 35 minutes, stirring occasionally. (You may need to add 1/2 cup of water if the meat is sticking to the pan.)

Add garlic and ginger and stir well then add tomatoes and water, COVER and continue cooking for 1 hour.

In a large bowl COMBINE black pepper, nutmeg, coriander, turmeric, paprika, cayenne and yogurt. To prevent the yogurt from curdling, STIR 3 or 4 TBsp of the hot curry into the yogurt. Then pour the yogurt/curry mixture into the pot of curry and stir well. Cover and COOK the meat for another 20 to 45 minutes or until goat is tender and cooked. Remove from the heat and serve.

Marinated Lamb Popsicles with Fenugreek Cream Curry

Serves 6

Signature Style: The lamb popisicles have become synonymous with Vij's. They're a mainstay on the menu.

This is our signature dish at Vij's — probably our most famous and most popular. The size of the lamb popsicles will depend on the rack of lamb you buy. If the popsicles are bigger, then four per order is usually enough. This recipe is for 30 medium-size popsicles with five per order. Serve these popsicles over turmeric new potatoes.

For the lamb
1/4 cup sweet white wine 60 mL
3/4 cup grainy yellow mustard 180 mL
1 tsp salt 4 mL
1 tsp ground black pepper 4 mL
4 lbs French-cut racks of lamb,
in chops

For the curry sauce
4 cups whipping cream 960 mL
1 TBsp salt 15 mL
1 tsp paprika 4 mL
1/2 tsp ground cayenne pepper 2 mL
1 TBsp dried green fenugreek
leaves 15 mL
1/4 cup lemon juice 60 mL
1/4 cup canola oil 60 mL
3 TBsp finely chopped garlic 45 mL
1 tsp turmeric 4 mL

COMBINE wine, mustard, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add lamb and COAT well with the marinade. COVER the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine cream, salt, paprika, cayenne, fenugreek leaves and lemon juice. HEAT 3 to 4 TBsp of the oil in a medium pot on medium heat and sauté garlic until golden. Stir in turmeric and cook for 1 minute. Then stir in the cream mixture and COOK on low to medium heat for about 5 minutes or until it is gently boiling.

When ready, preheat a stove-top cast iron grill or barbecue to high heat. PLACE lamb on the grill and cook for 2 to 3 minutes per side.

SERVE popsicles piping hot off the grill. Place 4 to 5 lamb chops on each plate. Pour the cream curry over the meat or LADLE it into a small bowl and use it as a dipping sauce for the popsicles.

Excerpted from Vij's at Home: Relax, Honey by Meeru V. Dhalwala & Vikram Vij