Although many moons ago, I remember a moment from a day trip to Vancouver with utter clarity--after absorbing an exhibition of Emily Carr's Pacific Rim fascination with old-growth tree trunks at the Vancouver Art Museum, I boarded a bus along with half a dozen Chinese men whose skin oozed with the smell of a thousand roasted garlic bulbs emerging from a sweaty oven. At that instant, Vancouver became something exotic, an international metropolis of glittering capsulated high rises towering over Granville Island, an experience so far from my small town life in Bellingham that I made a stunning revelation--eh, Canada is a different country!
Despite all the SNL stereotypical jokes about a Canuck fascination with cheap beer & hockey pucks, Vancouver & Montreal may be the New York & Paris north of the border, where international cuisine & well-heeled citizens make me feel a little timid about donning polar fleece even on the drizzliest of days. So while I will always opt for the solitude of a quiet weekend on the Pacific Rim, Ken thirsted for some cosmopolitan action, & as life goes in our own little microcosm of a kitchen, a fusion of our two tastes met & were briefly sated with a three night journey in honor of my hubbie's birthday.
The #1 reason for our trip to Vancouver? Vij's. Simply the best non-traditional/yet-traditional Indian food we've ever tasted, proudly defiant of being sub-standardized as cheap "ethnic cuisine". Vij's began as a fourteen-seat earnest experiment, & became a place where no-reservation tables are a coveted gourmet coup. So how did this come to be?
Vikram Vij is there himself to welcome you at the door, his indigo-on-ice blue eyes are nearly as startling as the wait (one hour we were told on a Friday night), but when the front of the house IS the house (and the New York Times says, "Easily among the best Indian restaurants in the world"), who's to say no? So while Ken faced the impossibility of parking, I was whisked through the lantern-lit dining room packed with glowing diners, through an aromatic cloud of curry leaves & steaming basmati from the open kitchen, to the romantic teak-walled lounge that sets Vij's apart from your run-of-the-mill spice route joint. Examining the carefully thought out glass pours & free appetizers for waiting guests, I wondered why this is so seldom the case in the restaurant world, & perhaps why I haven't gone to Canada more often?
Unfortunately Vij's lighting is so romantic that we gave up our photo session & got down to some serious eating... California prawns in coconut masala on grilled kale, Paneer & back bacon with spicy sauteed brussel sprouts (a Canadian-Indian fusion that makes you wonder how anyone could hate a brussel sprout) for our starters, Bitter melon, paneer & raw sugar with yellow moong & masur lentils (you can never have too much paneer!), Pan-fried coriander quail cakes with coconut curried vegetables for our entrees, & a gluttonous finish of Mango kulfi (mango-pistachio ice cream with a gorgeously edible silver leaf placed on top) & fried pistachio dumplings (so sorry I don't know the Indian name for this!) Top that off with a bottle of the highly coveted Blue Mountain Pinot Gris 2003 from the Okanogan Valley, stellar service that would blow Rachel Ray's budget for about 4 days, Vij's sets a new standard for what Indian cuisine can be if you have the audience to appreciate it.
I'll admit that I balked a little bit at the bill, having paid nowhere near that price for any Asian meal outside of Wild Ginger & our dinner at Tojo's the next night (I'll get to that later), but for such inventiveness, attentive service & atmosphere, you kind of have to switch gears & think outside the box which is exactly what Vij's does best. Do we have anything like this in Seattle? Well, I think next on our list should be to check out Thomas Hurley's (of Hurley's Portland) new French-Korean venture, Coupage, in Madrona... After stumbling upon Blue Ginger in Bellevue last weekend (again check back for a full review) I'd be interested in comparing the two, having a very traditional Korean lunch in an upscale atmosphere. Sounds like a throw-down, or maybe it's apples & oranges.
But perhaps our best future dining discovery was Barbara-Jo's Books to Cook's in Granville Market where my eyes set upon what else but Vij's cookbook!!! My heart did a little tap dance while my heart raced at seeing nearly every dish we had ordered (& some we sadly passed up for modesty's sake) for $40 Canadian bucks burning a hole in my pocket. Forget the year of Italian food, maybe this is our year for a role reversal--I cook Asian & Ken goes European! Well, for this month anyway... Fickle, fickle, fickle is the foodie. But that's what makes us passionate in the kitchen--a meal can change your life!
Cumin Basmati Rice from Vij's: Elegant & Inspired Indian Cuisine
Ah, rice. An ingredient so simple but with so many secrets... Perhaps this is why the Chinese have traditions passed on from generation to generation--how many times to rinse, & in which direction, clockwise or counter-clockwise produces the best results? Maybe this is why I am asked to teach classes on how to perfect paella, a dish that can be absolutely delicious or an abomination gone wrong. Rice, such a fickle grain, but a staple more than half the world depends on when it comes to breakfast, lunch, & dinner.
I know this is a basic recipe to start with, but like ordering phad thai at at new Thai joint, rice seemed like a good litmus test in breaking in the cookbook. I had some leftover frozen paneer from Pabla down in Renton, I wanted a savory counterpart to some Skyway in-house saag paneer & the aromas of this rice side dish had Ken lifting the lid to absorb its sweet onion & cumin perfume. I had to swat him out of the kitchen until it was on his plate! Vij notes, "Nothing beats the flavour, aroma or texture of Himalayan basmati"---we used Tilda brand found locally at Uwajimaya's. Soaking is also imperative, unlike the rices of Spain with which I am so familiar...
- 2 cups basmati rice
- 3 cups cold water for soaking
- 1/4 cup canola oil
- 1 Tbs cumin seeds
- 1 cup finely chopped onions (1 medium-large)
- 3 & 3/4 cups water for cooking
Wash basmati rice twice in cold water. Soak rice in the 3 cups of cold water for 15 minutes, or while you are sauteing the cumin seeds & onions.
Heat oil in a medium pot for 1 minute on medium-high heat. Add cumin seeds, stir & allow to sizzle for about 30 seconds. Add onions & saute for 4 to 5 minutes, until just the edges are brown (for a sweeter onion flavour), or for 3 to 4 minutes more, until brown (for a stronger flavour.) Turn off the heat.
Drain the rice as much as possible. Add rice & the 3 & 3/4 cups of water to onions, & stir well to combine. Turn on the heat to high & bring to a boil. Once the pot is boiling vigorously, lower the heat to just a simmer, cover the pot & cook for 18 to 20 minutes (note: ours was done after 15...) Turn off the heat & allow the rice to sit, covered for 5 minutes. Take off the lid, fluff with a fork & serve.