Meeru Dhalwala: The Aloo Paratha Paradigm

Meeru Dhalwala, Shanik Restaurant | BCBusiness
After delays and a flurry of anticipation, Dhalwala’s Seattle restaurant, Shanik, finally opens.

Meeru Dhalwala, the co-owner and chef of legendary Vancouver Indian restaurant Vij’s, is invading the U.S. via Seattle. But is her long-awaited Shanik restaurant the ingredient that begins to tie Cascadia together?

On the first Monday of December, an anxious sigh broke through Seattle’s Twittersphere as rumours circulated that the opening of Meeru Dhalwala’s Shanik restaurant would be delayed by 48 hours. Shanik had topped’s national list of “Most Anticipated Bar & Restaurant Openings of Fall 2012.” The most-viewed story on city magazine Seattle Met’s site that week read: “We’ve waited. And waited. And salivated. Now the Vij’s Seattle sibling is finally here. This. Is. Happening.”

By 9 p.m. on its first official night of operation, Shanik was winding down. Inside, the song “Mykonos” by local band Fleet Foxes hung in the air and there was no hint of the pre-opening buzz. Yes, there were signs that the Vancouver gastronomic phenomenon had arrived: Dhalwala’s signature “wine-marinated lamb popsicles in fenugreek cream curry on turmeric and spinach potatoes” had become “spice-encrusted lamb popsicles with coconut curry and split peas, spinach and garlic mash,” and there were some familiar faces from the all-female kitchen back home on South Granville. But it was all a bit out of place on a glassy corner in South Lake Union, across the street from Inc.’s world HQ. It’s the sort of corner where you’d expect to find the new Cactus Club. It’s a Yaletown kind of corner.

“In a way, Seattle chose me,” Dhalwala says. “Oguz Istif is COO for Vij’s [Restaurant Inc.] in Vancouver. For the past few years, he and I have joked and talked about opening a restaurant together in Istanbul. I was approached to visit Seattle and meet with various developers interested in a Meeru-run restaurant. So, Oguz and I decided that Seattle would be a good trial for Istanbul! Seattle is close enough that we can run a restaurant there while being able to spend time with our families in Vancouver.” She adds that Vij is planning to open a restaurant in White Rock and the flagship location on Cambie this year. “All of our restaurants informally, emotionally are part of the Vij’s mother ship. Even if they are independently owned,” she says.

“She wanted to do something on her own, so this is her venture,” says her husband and business partner Vikram Vij, adding that the couple still considers the Seattle restaurant as falling under the Vij’s/Rangoli umbrella. “We are both ready for side, independent projects,” says Dhalwala. “I want to get out on the floor and interact with customers and do more marketing work, whereas Vikram would like to get back into the kitchen more.”

Ten years ago, Mark Bittman travelled to Vancouver and wrote the New York Times review of Vij’s that put Dhalwala and her husband on the world map. Bittman wrote that the experience was uniquely Vancouver, but paradoxically regional at the same time. Vij was the classically trained chef; Dhalwala eschewed culinary school for a master’s in development studies and an assignment in Rwanda. They brashly mixed spices from Gujurat with spices from Punjab. Bittman referred to the restaurant’s aloo paratha as “a paradigm.” And then he wrote the line – the glorious line that would ensure a two-hour lineup every night for the next 10 years – “easily among the finest Indian restaurants in the world.” It would be repeated again and again. Sometimes the word “among” would slip out of the sentence, the “s” off “restaurants.”

But the aloo paratha paradigm was nothing. One year later, Vij and Dhalwala opened a second restaurant, Rangoli, next door. Dhalwala, who likes to anthropomorphize her businesses, likened Rangoli to the wilder younger sibling of the original Vij’s restaurant. Rangoli’s paratha was made with spiced, roasted and ground crickets. The couple worked with a specialist in edible insects from Seattle to source the crickets. “Customers were both shocked and curious about our decision to put crickets on the menu,” she explains. “Vikram thoroughly enjoyed the look on their faces.”

Raised in Washington, D.C., Dhalwala was introduced to Vij just after he opened up a 14-seat restaurant on West Broadway. “It was easier for me to move to Vancouver, since I could look for a job anywhere. I was so head over heels in love that I would have moved into a slum with stray dogs and cats.”

If you don’t count Daniel and Henrik, Dhalwala and Vij are arguably the closest Vancouver comes to royalty: they are the faces of a city and represent a way of business that both transcends and defines physical location. The popular frozen food counter at Rangoli became a 28,000-square-foot production facility in South Surrey, pumping out a line of 15 different 300-gram flash-frozen products sold in more than 100 grocery stores. They published two best-selling books, launched a high-end downtown food cart, built a $250,000 culinary lab at UBC and organize the annual Joy of Feeding celebration of ethnic home cooking. Years after Dhalwala literally put ground crickets on Vancouver tongues, the potential of insects as food in the Western hemisphere has become an intelligent conversation in the popular media.

Of course, Seattle is not exactly a culinary backwater itself. New Times food critic Frank Bruni recently declared that he was “hard-pressed to think of another [city] where the locavore sensibilities of the moment are on such florid (and often sweetly funny) display.” And true to form, Shanik’s mission statement promises “foremost attention to locally sourced, seasonal produce; sustainable seafood and clean, medication-free meats.”

But it’s too easy to mistake Shanik for the missing South Asian piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is the Seattle food scene. Maybe what’s really driving the interest is an awakening to Vancouver as a kind of long-lost cousin – there’s a deeper Canadian literacy in Seattle than in most other American cities. At a dive bar near Pioneer Square, the manager grilled me about which B.C. craft beers he should pour. At Revel, a restaurant in Fremont – the Korean equivalent of Vij’s – a cook, already well-versed with Dhalwala’s craft, wanted to know about restaurants like Maenam and Phnom Penh. Less than a dozen blocks from Shanik, Burnaby developer Nat Bosa has just broken ground on the first of two 41-storey condo towers, the first new Seattle condo project in five years. And when shows like The Killing mash grim angles of the Emerald City skyline with the fine grain of Vancouver’s back streets, the cumulative effect is that the two blur in your imagination like a pair of hand-crafted wet wool socks. Add in a friendly Whitecaps and Sounders rivalry and you have a strong cultural synergy between two cities on the physical and psychological edge of their respective countries. This 72-seat dining room, 40-seat lounge and takeout counter across the street from the biggest online retailer the world has ever known might be the ingredient that begins to really tie Cascadia together.