I am partaking in a journey where I will appraise every non-franchise restaurant in town and review their food as well as their service. It is an attempt to expand my mind and appetite. Simultaneously, I will also be taking what I learn from these establishments and attempting to remake them with my extremely limited skill.
On its surface, you could dismiss Vij’s, baring you possessed some form of extrasensory culinary clairvoyance. I had criticized restaurants in the past that matched the straightforward décor approached by Vij’s, but here, it’s intentional and not the result of a limited budget. Vij’s stands a proud achievement in a city of over half a million people that the most respected, most critically praised restaurant is so modest and unpretentious that it refuses to take reservations. Compared to the other dinners I would have on this Vancouver outing, Vij’s not only came up the cheapest, but the friendliest as well. Of course, the day had to balance that experience with a depressing lead in.
I had arrived that same day, and after dropping my bag on the bed of the hotel, I hustled out and took to the road, guided my by TomTom voiced by Billy Connolly (“Turn around, if possible…it’s important to turn your whole car around; don’t just turn around inside the car.”). Prior critics had recommended arriving around 5:00, thirty minutes ahead of the dinner service, if one had any hope of getting in on the first seating. My watch read 5:00, unaware that it would take 15 minutes to find a parking spot in this cursed town. I eventually stumbled into an empty stall mated to a Canada Trust that threatened to tow any car before 6:00 unless it was owned by a customer. Anxiety began to build. I couldn’t remember if the doors opened at 5:00 or 5:30, and I began to worry that I’d be standing in line for hours, my empty stomach trying to convince my brain to eat the toddler in front of me while his parents tapped away on their iPhones.
Vij’s is paired with another restaurant, Rangoli, owned by the same chef and promising modest prices with smaller portions. Rangoli also features a store where interested buyers can purchase prepackaged food and cookbooks related to the franchise surrounding the head chef and owner, Vikram Vij.
My substandard $15 dollar watch silently flipped to 5:30 and the doors opened, revealing the pleasant head chef and host, the celebrity himself. What modesty to welcome each customer personally? I managed a table at the first seating and took a moment to enjoy the décor, or rather lack thereof…well, what I could see in a restaurant as dark as an adult video store…I’ve heard. I did make out a painted but otherwise unfinished roof with exposed pipes and air ducts, bargain light shades only in fashion before 1979, and a cluster of female chefs clad head-to-toe in black like gastronomic ninjas frantically preparing the first set of orders.
The first waiter placed an unidentified brass jug on my table and I spent the first few minutes of the meal staring at it, unsure what could be concealed in its dimly-lit depths. As I pondered this culinary Lemarchand’s box, passing waiters kept offering me free food. To start was pana puri, followed by glass of masala chai, a cassava root fry, and a vegetable pakora. My assigned waiter followed and poured water from the brass decanter still mocking me at the center.
Just water, huh? Kind of disappointed now.
Disappointment is being sarcastic. Some critics have pointed at the owner’s boisterous attitude as being pompous, that the restaurant’s refusal to accept reservations is inexcusable. My scholarly counter to such a criticism is to tell those people to fuck off. Show up at 5:00 and swallow your god-damned pride; or better still, just avoid Vij’s and drop twice as much money on a pretentious slab of cow you self-important philistine. I’m sorry that Vij treats each patron equally, regardless of the house they live in or the car they drive. There’s no bouncer, no mandatory tie. Vikram Vij wears a scarf over an un-tucked kurta and doesn’t ask for anything from his patrons. Expensive? Vij’s was the cheapest place I patronized for dinner during my vacation, and maybe it might be expensive if what you’re used to is the Indian equivalent of a culinary bukkake (yeah, I went there), where you’re offered thirty variations of curries and kormas and can eat nonstop until you bankrupt Macau. Waiting twenty minutes is a small price to pay for the best Indian-inspired food you likely ever to find.
Don’t expect butter chicken or masala chops; Vij’s is about something entirely new, original recipes inspired by classic Indian traditions. The menu is a meek collection of dishes, scattered on the single page in seemingly no sensible order. I opted for the popular wine marinated lamb popsicles in fenugreek cream curry on turmeric and spinach potatoes. The dish was delivered with a side of rice and chapattis. Given the snacks preceding the meal, I hardly required an appetizer, although I would’ve liked to have ordered those somosas. Although I’m not one to enjoy tearing meat off bones, I found myself bravely diving in. There was no gristle or tough sections, the bones stuck up inviting from the large bowl and I alternated between them and the cream sauce, spooned up with rice or bread. The curry was without a doubt the best I had ever had.
The stress of my car’s fate took hold and a rushed through the bill, racing to the stall to find my car still waiting patiently without a ticket. I wandered back to Vij’s and dropped down cash for one of his cookbooks. The clerk asked if I wanted Vij to sign it. Yeah, she actually asked. While the chef signed my sister’s name across the leaf, he recounted how easy the fenugreek sauce is to make at home, and that the secret to the lamb’s tenderness is to marinade it in the wine for a full day. Oh, simple as that?
If I lived in Vancouver, or anywhere near it, I would make it my mission to order each and every dish on Vij’s modest menu. I would run a blog dedicated to just this one restaurant. It truly is that good, even ignoring the demands imposed by its novelty. It isn’t pretty, could stand with a few extra lights, and I did feel rather tight against other patrons, but Vij’s placement on the upper echelon of the culinary elite is well earned.
OVERALL: 9 out of 10
By the way, I think describing a buffet as a culinary bukkake may be my most disgusting metaphor yet.
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