Having gotten used to waiting in lines for restaurants without reservations in Vancouver our final meal of the visit would be at perhaps the city’s most well regarded dining destination, Vij’s, an Indian hot spot often sporting hour plus waits that just so happened to be returning from their New Years break on the last day of our stay. Admittedly a bit tired after a day including a long morning run, Jade Seafood dim sum for breakfast, a visit to the art museum, Phnom Pehn for lunch, and watching the Canucks drop a heartbreaker to the Sharks our trip to Vij’s actually almost didn’t happen but in retrospect I’m quite glad it did not because I was particularly hungry but instead because it was the first “ethnic” meal of the trip that my mother and aunt truly enjoyed.
Arriving just after 10:15pm and dropping the family off at the door due to the rain I managed to find free parking after circling the block and entering the restaurant myself at 10:30 I found, unsurprisingly, that the place was packed and the ladies were seated in the lounge with a quoted 45 minute wait for a table of four. Taking my seat next to the family and tasting a pair of cocktails and a nonalcoholic beverage ordered by my sister, aunt, and mother respectively I was admittedly quite uninspired by the overly minty Indian Mojito with Vodka, Lychee, Mango Liquer, Mint, and Star Anise but vastly more impressed by both the intriguingly savory Dark Army with Amber Rum, Ginger lemon, mango, and garam masala as well as the Virgin Ginger Lemonade.
With the room and the kitchen clearly fitting the Indian theme while the servers were all young Caucasian females dressed in traditional Indian clothing we sat for a while chatting amongst ourselves at the bar before the first in a trio of complimentary “bar snacks” would arrive in the form of spicy curried fries and free to enjoy as many or as few as we liked I largely passed on these in favor of the other two options – smoky and savory Fennel crisps and crunchy-gives-way-to-creamy chickpea toasts – which continued to be passed around until we were led to our seats approximately 30 minutes after walking in the door.
Now seated at a cozy four-top, myself with a good view of the kitchen and the room bustling but not “loud,” the young woman who had served us our bar bites would arrive transporting the ladies’ cocktails along with menus and explaining a couple of nightly specials we were left to make our decisions – mine already predetermined from browsing the menu in the bar while my mother and aunt debated which items would be the least spicy – a decision process that eventually led us to order one appetizer and a main course each, all confirmed to be “great choices” and “sharable portions” by our server.
With the time now just past 11pm and the restaurant taking no more walk-ins as both the dining room and the bar area were still packed our appetizer would not take long to arrive and having been impressed by the chickpea toast in the bar our Curried Chickpeas and Sweet Potato Ricotta Cookies arrived with high expectations – expectations that were certainly met in terms of flavor though the portion was certainly less than “sharable” for a part of four. Beginning first with the ‘cookies’, the four small half-circles were each slightly crisp on the exterior with a creamy cheese filling that melded nicely with the sweet potatoes while lending some balance to the heat of the curry. Moving next to the chickpeas – well cooked, well drained, and well seasoned but all things being equal nothing special and at just over a tablespoon per person the cost of $13 seemed quite excessive.
Sitting and taking in the scene of the slowly dwindling crowd as we waited our server would visit frequently to top off water or inquire if anyone would like another cocktail and approximately twenty minutes after our appetizer had arrived a plate of warm, pillowy Naan would arrive from the kitchen signifying that our main courses were soon to arrive. Served as four medium sized triangles each brimming with savory tones and plenty of heat I mentioned to our server that she’d might as well place an order for a second round just moments after my first bite and with a smile and “of course” it would not be long before the second plate, and then a third would arrive to compliment our dinner.
Moving on to our main plates, having frequently joked with my sister that she borders on being a vegetarian it was no surprise when she selected the “Shitake Mushrooms and Vegetables in lightly creamed curry with Mung bean, Rice Pilaf, Almonds” and it was also no surprise that this would be by far the most mild plate of the night with each of the multitude of nicely prepared vegetables forming a sort of earthy stew with the mushrooms as light notes of spice rose to the palate.
Moving next to my mother’s selection, a bit of a shocker to all of us since the waitress had denoted the dish as “pretty spicy,” BC Spot Prawns in coconut and fenugreek masala with wheat berry pilaf would prove to be the least texturally interesting plate of the evening, but at the same time perhaps the most interestingly flavored as the incredibly fresh and perfectly prepared shrimp were highlighted by notes of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, and bitter fenugreek all kept in check by the smooth coconut milk. Certainly hot but mitigated partially by both the toothsome pilaf and intermittent bites of Naan I really enjoyed the dish and so did my mother, a welcome surprise given out overall lack of familiarity with the ingredients utilized in such a potent combination.
Going with the most ‘familiar’ item of the night, my aunt’s Lemon ghee marinated and grilled organic chicken in tangy tomato curry with roasted garlic and cashews would prove to be rather well balanced despite the hefty dose of acid from the lemon and tomatoes yet although plenty flavorful and textural thanks to the crispy garlic and crunchy cashews I have to say the price seemed just a touch outlandish at $28.50given the lack of exotic ingredients and relatively small portion (in my estimate less than 6oz of chicken.)
For the final savory of the evening I simply could not pass up the restaurant’s “signature” dish and although I would generally opt for bird over beast the Wine marinated Lamb Popsicles with fenugreek cream curry and turmeric spinach potatoes would indeed turn out to be well worth signature status. Featuring five whole popsicles and easily 10oz of tender lamb teaming with notes of red wine, cinnamon, and tomatoes at its center and beautifully balanced by not only the mildly astringent curry but also by the earthy chunky potatoes this was definitely not the sort of dish you get at the small Indian place down the street but more so a well composed lamb dish that would not be out of place on any fine dining menu.
With empty plates collected and returned to the kitchen our server would return to inquire about desserts – a list of three recited from memory as no proper dessert menu is available – and on hearing the options we simply agreed to a “one of each” approach along with a couple small mugs of Chai as no coffee was available and within moments the trio would arrive – the first described as Pistachio mango kulfi with edible silver leaf; a decent attempt with ample notes of cardamom and pistachio but certainly nothing that registered as mango on my palate and by far the least exciting of the group.
Moving next to the other desserts, “Galub jamuns” was essentially two balls of fried dough dusted with crumbled pistachios in warm honey tinged with floral essences while the Warm Almond Milk Rice Pudding (again with edible silver) was my personal favorite of the evening with a great toothsome texture to the rice lightly accented with crumbled almonds and a creamy base that was slightly savory and plenty sweet. Like the savories (save for the lamb) dessert portions ran on the small side with a price tag ranging from $6-8 while the chai was compliments of the house and refilled without the need to ask.
Settling the bill just as the clock turned over to midnight and with the restaurant now less than 1/3 full as the kitchen had finally begun to wind down we thanked our servers and made our way to the door happy to see that the rain had finally stopped and after a quick jog to get the car I picked my family up and turned south for our Richmond hotel glad to have visited Vij’s not particularly because it was the best meal of the trip or because it was the most memorable, but mostly because everyone had enjoyed it – even if single entrees do cost more than our entire meal at Michigan Noodle and the final tab more than quadrupled that at Phnom Pehn for food that I found merely equally compelling though admittedly featuring higher end ingredients and a much nicer setting.