Last month, I went on a cross-Canada road trip with my best friend and girlfriend. While we were planning, we kept hearing about this restaurant that we just absolutely had to check out in Vancouver. It was called Vij's, the restaurant owned and operated by Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala. The main draw to Vij's was two fold, the first being that Vikram Vij was one of the Dragons on CBC's Dragon's Den, the show where entrepreneurs can go and pitch business ideas with the hope of getting investment seed money from the Dragons. The second draw is their non-traditional approach to their menu.
They view their restaurant and menu as something that can change. They describe it as having a fancy dinner that you've been cooking for all day. And really, that's where the draw to the restaurant ends. Beyond this interesting approach, the appeal quickly disappears.
Trying to find the restaurant is hard. Even with the location loaded up in Google Maps, we drove past it twice, not noticing the nondescript building. Aside from the name painted in a faint blue colouring, and a small chalk board outside, you'd have no idea that it was a restaurant and not an abandoned warehouse.
Inside is a different story. The staff was plentiful, and they were very friendly. While we waited for a table, they sat us in a lounge area and gave us water and small hors d'oeuvres (masala fries and chaat papri). You immediately get a sense that this is a high end place. The ceiling was decorated with tiny clay pots, that added to the Indian aesthetic. One thing I did find interesting was that the kitchen was completely open - no windows separating the cooks from everyone else. I thought that that alone was enough to separate them from everyone else.
What surprised me most however was the sheer volume. Not only was the music loud, but so were the conversations. You could hear everyone else around you, but not the person directly across from you. For a place that oozed class not even 10 feet away, it quickly devolved into a total cacophonous chaos. This is when we stopped knowing who was serving us, as we went from the podium hostess at the entrance, to two separate servers bringing us snacks, a third to take us to our table, one to tell us how their unnecessarily confusing menu worked, one to take our order, another to offer us drinks and two more to actually bring the dishes. All in all, from the moment we entered to the minute we left, we interacted with 10 different servers. Granted, the service was quick and efficient, but given that the servers did not have any uniforms or other identifying features, it was hard to tell who was serving and who was dining. Another odd thing we noticed was that all of the servers were Caucasian, and all of the cooks were of South Asian origin. That stood out to me, because you wouldn't find that at any other Indian restaurant. Perhaps it's all apart of their approach at trying to be different.
The food looks better than it tastes.
Going back to the menu for a second, it has an interesting approach, but is poorly executed. The restaurant is trying to go for a homey, handwritten approach, but it's barely legible and hard to read, especially in the dimly lit dining area. It's one page, and none of the three "sections" are separated. If it takes a server having to explain how the menu works - not even the food, but the menu itself - then it's poorly designed and the approach needs to be rethought. It's also not your typical menu in that you won't find any of your staples like butter chicken. This is part of the draw to Vij's - the menu is seasonal and the items listed change every so often, which is both beneficial and a drawback.
Vij's doesn't like present itself as a traditional Indian restaurant, but rather as a Fusion of tastes (Hakka, Indian, etc) but it doesn't come across that way, as the menu is heavily Indian oriented, with little culinary fusion.
The food, while presented well, was nothing special to write home about. I can safely say that I've had tastier Indian food elsewhere, but they weren't presented as nicely is all. We ordered the pork tenderloin, vegetable korma in tomato curry, and the lemon ghee grilled chicken, and out of the three, the vegetable korma was the tastiest. You can tell that the cooks take pride in how they prepare their food, as it tasted very clean with the most minimal use of oil. We definitely did not have the normal sense of feeling bloated and gross when we left, but overall the food was fairly bland. The servers told us that they use a blend of spices from all over India, but I honestly couldn't taste any difference. In fact, I could barely taste any of the spices - it wasn't subtle, but rather felt like it was outright missing from the meal. It's definitely a uniqueness that you won't confuse with any other Indian restaurant.
The fact that the menu is seasonal is interesting. It's great, because it's the only reason I'd want to go back, but not so great in that if you find a dish you really enjoy, there's a slim chance that it'll still be on their menu when you do go back. And that's the only reason to remember it - their different approach to their menu. If they didn't have that going for them, Vij's would be a restaurant you could go to once and then immediately forget about.
"I've had infinitely better cooked food in roadside inns for 50 cents." - Yelp Review
Vij's is interesting as an idea, but a place to visit only once, which is odd and rather sad to me given that his cookbooks tend to produce genuinely tasty meals. Realistically, I'd give it a 2 out of 5 stars, but if I were hard pressed, I'd give it a 3 out of 5, and for me, that's being very generous given the overall bland experience the restaurant provides as a whole - especially with the higher than normal prices. Vij's tries too hard to stand out, but in the end, results in being largely forgettable.
Update: I spoke with Vikram Vij on the phone for around half an hour, and we chatted about this review. I explained my experience to him in further detail, and he explained to me what I had missed.
The current location of Vij's was built in 1926, that he purchased for over $4 million dollars. He wanted to preserve the facade of the building, to keep it's integrity. Whatever his reasoning, from any angle other than head on facing the logo on the wall, the building looks nondescript - like a plain old building. However, while we both agreed on the fact that the interior was very nice, we disagreed on the noise level, which is meant to be very loud on purpose, "because this is an Indian restaurant, and if you've ever been to India, you'll know it's extremely loud."
What we disagreed on is the menu, in that what I perceived to be an unnecessary failure in basic design, he sees as something meant to be interactive. He doesn't want to make his menu self explanatory, because something that makes sense takes away from having conversations with his servers.
He also believes in total democracy, where everyone is equal. That's his rationale for not giving out reservations, or for giving any of his staff any identifying features. "Why should I make my mostly white staff wear Indian outfits when they're not Indian? When I was a Dragon, I refused to conform and lose my Indian-ness." That's all well and fine, but would a simple name-badge kill you? Would that take away from your principled stance on no uniforms?
The last thing he said was that the only reason he could think of as to why we thought the food was bland was because he had been experimenting with using less salt. He also listed off ingredients used in the dishes we ordered, but listing them off, from fresh yogurt to coconute water. The thing is that listing off the ingredients, no matter how amazing they may be, doesn't change your bland dish into tasty one.
In the end, we had differing opinions, and that's totally fine. Looking at reviews online, the reactions are a mixed bag from loving it to being thoroughly displeased. I would still say that you should check out Vij's at least once for yourself, if only to make up your own mind, but my review still stands at 2 stars out of 5.