[It was a tremendous pleasure to be on hand for Vikram Vij's appearance in Niagara-on-the-Lake last weekend. Vij's is among my three or four favourite restaurants in the world and to taste the food that I've missed from Vancouver right in Ontario's glorious wine country, with some of the best reds and whites in the nation at Stratus Vineyards, was a true culinary treat. Here's the report that first appeared on Vacay.ca]
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONTARIO — “It’s the only time you’ll never have to wait for Vij’s food,” Charles Baker told the guests who had gathered at Stratus Vineyards on Saturday night for a meal coordinated by Vikram Vij, the Vancouver-based chef whose restaurant is famous for its hours-long line-up for a table as much as it is for its remarkable food.
The Coast to Coast dining series at Stratus kicked off with Vij overseeing a five-course meal featuring pairings from Stratus, one of the finest wineries in Canada. The undertaking was a feat and not simply because Baker, the winery’s director of marketing and sales, managed to land the services of one of the country’s most acclaimed chefs.
“Getting Vikram here was easy. Figuring how we were going to feed 70 people — that was the tough part.”
The winery has a small kitchen, so the food was prepared at a nearby college with the help of chefs from Niagara-on-the-Lake and culinary school students. Hemant Bhagwani of Toronto’s Amaya pitched in with cooks and an oven to prepare the naan.
“We had chefs sacrificing a Saturday night at their own restaurants to be here,” Baker said. “If you know the restaurant business, you know Saturday nights are the biggest night of the week, so for them to do that is pretty unbelievable.”
Vij gave the chefs a crash course on how to spice his recipes, which are usually prepared by a team of women from Punjab at his flagship restaurant in Vancouver’s South Granville neighbourhood that has operated for 18 years.
“The spices he uses are the Bordeaux of spices, and what he does with them is brilliant. I don’t think I was quite aware of how complex it was to spice Indian food,” said chef Ryan Crawford, who heads the kitchen at Stone Road Grille in this theatre town 90 minutes from downtown Toronto that’s known for its wineries and picturesque view of the Niagara escarpment. It was Crawford’s duty to find the products needed for the dinner. The toughest to find were British Columbia spot prawns, which arrived the night before the feast. Served in a coconut masala curry, the prawns were lobster-like in their tenderness and succulence.
They started off the meal in the Stratus press alley, a long, narrow hall lined with wine barrels and metal vats. Tables were set up end to end to create one long console that looked like something out of an olden-days royal court. After the prawns, came a vegetable curry with asparagus and cauliflower, a chicken curry that diners of Vij’s sister restaurant, Rangoli, will know well, and the chef’s famous lamp popsicles — rack of lamb served with each piece attached to a bone meant to resemble a stick. It’s one of the ways Vij encourages his diners to pick up their food.
“Indian food is meant to be eaten with your hands,” he says, touching his thumbs and fingers together in that passionate way of his.
Prior to the dinner, Vij demonstrated the depth of his knowledge during a discussion about the spices that are so essential to his cooking. Turmeric, cayenne, fenugreek, fennel seeds were among the items laid out in front of guests, who were invited to touch and smell. “Curry shouldn’t make your palate hot,” he told the audience of mostly Caucasian diners. “You should have a little sweat on the back of your shoulders and maybe on your forehead, but it shouldn’t be burning your throat. You can’t enjoy the flavours if you’re constantly drinking water.”
It’s his refined and thoughtful approach to Indian cuisine that has helped set his restaurant apart from every other Indian restaurant in North America, if not the world. Vij is also one of the most vocal proponents of Canadian food and talked about the importance of using local ingredients to help define a national cuisine.
“I would say his food is Canadian, because even though he uses Indian spices, all of the meats and vegetables and fish are locally sourced,” said Crawford, pointing out that fiddleheads were part of the menu.
The evening culminated a whirlwind weekend for Vij, who made an appearance on Breakfast Television in downtown Toronto on Friday morning before meeting with retailers, some of whom are stocking his line of packaged foods. Vij is also aiming to re-locate his Vancouver restaurants from 11th Avenue to Cambie Street and he and his wife, Meeru Dhalwala, are expanding to Seattle, with the opening of Shanik (named after their youngest daughter) planned for November.
“That is really Meeru’s restaurant. She is American and has always said she wanted her own restaurant when the time was right,” Vij said. Dhalwala has been in charge of the kitchen operations at Vij’s and Rangolifor about 15 years, since Vij decided to concentrate on being a host, a role he plays as well as anyone in the country.
Despite the long waits, diners are happy, in part because complimentary hors d’oeuvres are passed around and Vij is on site with his affable personality to greet those who arrive. “If I came into your house and you took me straight to the dinner table, I would think that was rude,” he said, offering a humorous reason for his no-reservations policy at his establishment that judges named No.1 among the inaugural Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada list in April.
The Stratus series celebrates Canadian cuisine and as Baker points out it was fitting for Vij to be the first of three star chefs to participate.
“Vikram has done so much for the Canadian culinary scene, helping chefs in Vancouver and now spreading that spirit east,” Baker said.
September 8 will feature a dinner with Mike Moffatt, who runs Play Food & Wine and Beckta, two of Ottawa’s top restaurants, and will soon open gezelllig in the nation’s capital. Chef Jeremy Charles of Raymonds, the highly acclaimed restaurant in St. John’s, Newfoundland, will close this inaugural year of the Coast to Coast series on November 3.