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December 26, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Shanik tops list of 2012 restaurant openings


There’s not much doubt that Shanik was the most hotly anticipated restaurant opening of 2012 in this area. After all, Seattle diners familiar with Vij’s in Vancouver B.C. had been waiting for the place years before they knew the name or location … or even whether Vij’s owners would seriously consider a U.S. outpost. The first night that the South Lake Union restaurant opened at 500 Terry Ave. N., all 72 seats were full. For lunchtime — still take-out only for now — the line was out the door.

It was a big step for owners Meeru Dhalwala of Vij’s (she’s married to Vikram Vij, and co-owns and cooked at Vij’s and sister restaurant Rangoli) and company business partner Oguz Istif.

With the Vancouver businesses, “we did everything gradually,” Dhalwala said. “At Vij’s, we went from 14 seats to 21 seats to 40 seats to 60 seats.” Here, pent-up demand for their “original, non-traditional” Indian food — as well as figuring out the Seattle market — made the experience a whirlwind.

“I’m training an entirely new kitchen staff, and most of them have no restaurant cooking experience whatsoever,” she said. That’s the way she wanted it — she prefers “women who love to cook and who know their spices” over culinary school preparation — but it means more specialized on-the-job training. Even the region’s public transportation raised issues. Many of her chosen employees lived in cities like Kent and Auburn and Renton, and she found it wasn’t easy for them to get to Seattle.

Shanik offers meat dishes, but has more of a focus on vegetarian foods. Dhalwala was thrilled to see sales of an eggplant, butternut squash and black chickpea dish on par with the company’s signature spice-crusted lamb popsicles. “For me, personally, it’s a lot easier to make meat taste good,” she said — vegetarian and vegan foods are a challenge that are “just fun for me.” (Note: Reservations are accepted only for the private dining room, but, as at Vij’s, servers circulate carrying complimentary chai and snacks to ease the wait.)

After a few chaotic weeks, Dhalwala said, she thinks they’re hitting their stride. “Everybody has got a big smile … It’s magical, what happens with these women in my kitchen.”

Other eagerly awaited recent openings

Mamnoon (1508 Melrose Ave., Seattle). Middle Eastern food used to get short shrift in Seattle, but it’s hard to think that anymore, especially with Wassef and Racha Haroun’s lovely Capitol Hill ode to Syrian and Lebanese flavors. The idea for the restaurant began as a place to provide mana’eesh breads and other popular, delicious street foods that are “not represented here,” Wassef Haroun recalled last earlier this week. It soon grew into a major project including both to-go street foods and sit-down meals specializing in dishes that are more commonly found in Middle Eastern homes than in restaurants. The couple, former Microsoft workers, wanted to do a project together that “had a long lasting value for the community,” Wassef Haroun said, and they found a chef with equal passion for the idea — Garrett Melkonian, perhaps best known for his years as executive pastry chef for Tom Douglas Restaurants.

Agrodolce (709 N. 35th St., Seattle). Maria Hines — both a James Beard Award winner and an Iron Chef winner — started out specializing in New American food at Tilth in Wallingford, hopscotched over to the Mediterranean with Golden Beetle in Ballard, and is now focusing on Sicilian fare with Agrodolce. She opened the café in one of the most emotionally freighted spots in Fremont, the former site of the Still Life Café (and for the past several years, the well-liked 35th Street Bistro.) Like Hines’ other outposts, Agrodolce is certified organic. The opening menu includes the likes of hand-cut tagliarini with Sicilian pistachios and sweet myrtle, cavatelli with duck tender marsala, and slow-cooked rabbit cacciatore.

The Whale Wins/Joule (3506 Stone Way N., Seattle). Turn left or turn right, it’s hard to go wrong entering the new Fremont Collective building. To the right is the latest project from Renee Erickson, who won fervent local fans with her Boat Street Café (now in lower Queen Anne) and then a national following with The Walrus Bar in Ballard. The clean, bright, welcoming Whale — an art installation spells out “hello” in lights on the ceiling — features a wood-fired oven to cook everything from radicchio to beef tenderloin. (Forget the whale, Erickson’s rendition of sardines on toast could win over us all. ) To the left is the new incarnation of Joule, from chef-couple Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi, who also run hot spot Revel in Fremont. Yang and Chirchi closed the original Wallingford Joule and reimagined it as a modern take on a Korean steakhouse here. It’s got petit tenders (with preserved tofu) and coulottes (with Szechuan peppercorn sauce), but also spicy rice cakes and seaweed risotto, mackerel with a green curry-cilantro crust, and other ingeniously serendipitous combinations of flavors.

Which openings are you looking forward to in 2013? Here are some of the ones coming up.

Updated 1/14 to correct the description of Agrodolce’s scrumptious duck dish

Photo of Meeru Dhalwala and diners at Shanik by Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times



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