For all its culinary delights, Seattle has never had an Indian restaurant the quality of Vij’s in Vancouver, the famed fusion eatery hailed as one of the best in the world, where customers line up well before the doors open for a crack at warm hospitality, lamb popsicles, and jackfruit in black cardamom and cumin curry.
Seattle’s shortfall is set to change in November, when some of the Vij family is coming to us, in the form of a new restaurant called Shanik. It’ll be spearheaded by Meeru Dhalwala (who runs Vij’s and sister restaurant Rangoli with husband Vikram Vij), in a partnership with Oguz Istif, who has been the equivalent of Vij’s chief operating officer.
Look for the restaurant in a Vulcan building in South Lake Union to open by November if all goes well. (Original reports called it Vulcan-backed, but they’re not financial partners.)
Rumors of a Seattle outpost from the family have circulated for years, mostly without cause. News that a restaurant is finally coming sent Seattle food-lovers into fits of delight, even though Shanik (named for the couple’s younger daughter) will have a menu of its own rather than featuring the signatures of either the main Vij’s or the more casual Rangoli.
Dhalwala started getting requests for opening night reservations as soon as the news broke. Sorry, fans — Shanik, like the other Vij restaurants, will be first-come-first-served.
“We love the personality and ambience and what it means to have a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations, where everyone is equal,” Dhalwala said. They’ll still pass hors d’oeuvres and house-made chai and provide a good atmosphere to hang out during the wait for those who miss the first seating.
“It brought really good energy to Vij’s and I think it’ll bring good energy to Shanik. People love it that Harrison Ford is waiting for a table along with everyone else, and he’s been drinking his beer for an hour and a half.”
Dhalwala made the decision to go forward witih the cross-border project after talking with both her 4-member home family and her 54-member restaurant family.
She told them what would be involved, and that if they said “No, Meeru, it’s too much” that would be OK, and she put it to a vote. “They were resoundingly ‘Yes, let’s get a new sister on board!” she said.
She’s already seeking out Washington farmers while starting the buildout on the roughly 70-seat restaurant.
Here’s an edited, condensed version of our conversation:
Q: Why would a Vancouver-based restaurant group come to Seattle?
A: “Eight or nine years ago, I had said I really wanted to do something at home. I came to Canada, but I’m an American…
“Vikram and Mike, our general manager, went to Seattle looking for potential restaurants. That was when the economy was booming, and it was going to be way too expensive… I hired Oguz Istif as a manager at Rangoli at about that time. He went … to basically the COO of Vij’s. He’s Turkish, we just got a big rapport going in terms of running the business. We used to joke that when things calmed down, he and I would open up our own restaurant in Istanbul. The cookbook came out, I did a cookbook event at Sur La Table and a “chai chat” where some Seattleites took me out for coffee afterwards, and said “You might be interested in this…”
“When you get a great opportunity presented to you, sometimes you’re a fool to say no.”
Q: So what are you planning?
A: “It’s going to be a mixture. Obviously it’s my style – I’m sure by now a lot of Vancouverites could taste Indian food and say ‘It’s got Meeru’s thumbprint on it.’ It’s not going to be as fancy schmancy dark and elegant as Vij’s, but it’s not going to have the “Hey everyone, let’s play” (like) Rangoli. It’s going to be where ‘You want to go on that special date but youre not dressed up? You’re just wearing your blue jeans? You can come to Shanik…’
“The restaurant needs to reflect the community, and what I’m sensing so far is people in Seattle love going out, but a lot of the time they want to do something special, but on a whim…”
“My style of Indian food is that I take all the different spices, but I don’t regionalize them. The fun part of what I do is also the mixtures of ingredients and things. I’ve been thinking about new projects and ideas. (For instance,) I’m not sure if I can get organic beef tenderloin and be able to serve that for a $20 price point… but I bet I can get organic ground beef in Seattle for a decent price….I’m going to mix black chickpeas and ground beef. What spices are going to (work with them?)
Q: Are you planning on selling packaged prepared foods, the way you do at Rangoli?
A: “Not immediately in terms of packaged meals… I don’t want to push my staff beyond what they’re ready to do. (Eventually) I will be preparing a different set of curries, not the same ones on the menu, that you can take home and heat up. We’ll have rice and naan and chutneys for people to take home, then a simple takeout as well.”
Q: Besides renting an apartment in Seattle come August, logistically, how will it work?
A: “The key is going to be my kitchen staff, making sure I have a really committed and well trained staff. I’m a big delegator. If I had issues with delegating I don’t think I’d be doing a Seattle project. Every week I will be in Seattle 3-4 days and every 2 weeks Oguz will be in Seattle 3-4 days. Every week one of us is going to be there, but we can still have a family life here in Vancouver. (And) Vancouver is close; if something was up I could easily drive down for the day…”
“I’m not expecting everything to be perfect on Day 1. It will take Shanik a good 6-9 months to get settled in there. Rangoli was a gong show for the first two months.”
Q: Won’t the commute be a huge hassle for you?
A: “A hassle? Something is a hassle only if you psychologically make it a hassle. For me, a hassle is when you’re bored.”
Q: Why start up a new restaurant when a second branch of Vij’s would be a pretty guaranteed success?
A: “It wouldn’t be fun for me… I’m not a chain kind of gal. If I can’t come up with something new, then why do it?…”
“I’m ready for it, that’s how I feel. Am I daunted? Yes I am daunted. Am I nervous? #@$ nervous. But at the same time, it’s a good kind of nervous.”
Photo courtesy of Meeru Dhalwala