From Bollywood-Bhangra dance nights to the ideal
spot for garlic pea shoots, Vancouver chefs Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala serve
up an insider’s view of their hometown
By Kate Zimmerman
(June 13, 2009 National Post)
VANCOUVER -- Kino Café seethes with romance, yet no tourist would suspect it. Off the beaten path, on eclectic Cambie Street, its humble exterior is enigmatic. But at night, the room is infused with the electrifying sensuality of Spanish flamenco. And as dancers stomp out their passion through swirling flounces, and fast-fingered guitar players lead them on, you’re apt to find Vikram Vij, his wife Meeru Dhalwala, and their daughters Shanik and Nanaki sitting in the audience, entranced.
“If you really want to get a flavour of this neighbourhood, the energy of the Spanish guitar and the dancing and the audience on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday, (Kino is) one of our favourite things to do,” Dhalwala advises visitors to the city. “It’s jam-packed. You’ve gotta get there early.”
The Vij-Dhalwalas themselves all like to dance; Shanik, 10, and Nanaki, 12, take tap and jazz classes. Their parents hit the floor at Gastown’s Modern Dance Club (604-647-0121, www.modern.ca) and Red Room (398 Richards, 604-687-5007, www.redroomonrichards.com), with Vij especially keen on Bollywood-Bhangra-electronic music nights. The performances at Kino (3456 Cambie, www.kinocafe.ca) are for watching, though; the family enjoys it so much they spend New Year’s Eves there.
This is one of their few excursions together that doesn’t revolve around food -- which makes sense, considering that Vij and Dhalwala are the chef-owners of the chic side-by-side Indian restaurants Vij and Rangoli. They also live in the tasty Main and Cambie Corridor, which features two eatery-stuffed parallel streets -- Cambie and Main -- seven blocks apart, and stretches from Broadway to King Edward. On any given weekend they, and you, may dine on garlic pea shoots, hot and sour soup, and noodles made in-house at Legendary Noodle House (4191 Main, www.legendarynoodle.ca) or lunch on panini or black bean soup with cilantro and lemon at Liberty Bakery (3699 Main). Dhalwala believes lazy afternoons call for beer and Greek mezes at The Main (4210 Main). When brunch is the meal of the day, Vij and Dhalwala recommend you travel west to Cambie’s Dutch Wooden Shoe Café (3292 Cambie). There, giant pancakes get wrapped around all manner of toppings, from Mexican beans to Indonesian nasi goreng.
Both Cambie and Main are fabulous sources of indie boutiques. Dhalwala advocates combing the racks at Hum (3623 Main, www.humclothing.com) and Eugene Choo (3683 Main, www.eugene choo.com); trying on shoes at Umeboshi (3638 Main, www.umeboshishoes.com), which features lines like Tashkent; and sussing out “amazing” consignment items at Front and Company (3772 Main, www.frontandcompany.ca). Meanwhile, on Cambie, she thinks any self-respecting shopper would be captivated by Cocoon (3345 Cambie, www.shopcocoon.com), a collective of local designers of everything from accessories to paper goods.
Fashion may occasionally rear its lovely head, but it’s food that dominates the lives of Vij and Dhalwala. “It doesn’t matter where Vikram and I travel. We can go to Capetown, and we will figure out the food issue — food and wine,” says Dhalwala. “That’s just what gets us going.”
This is clearly not a KD and Delissio family -- and they’re eager to advise visitors who are similarly inclined. Despite the tourist hordes, Granville Island Market (www.granvilleisland.com) remains one of their top stops. There, Shanik and Nanaki nosh on Oyama Sausage Company’s mild pepperoni while Vij orders up enough protein for a week, a carnivorous hurricane of sausages, kielbassa, salami, prosciutto, and patés (www.oyamasausage.ca). While on the island, Dhalwala and the girls sometimes nip into Railspur Alley, where, among the studios full of art, jewelry and hand-painted silk, they gravitate to the house-made leather bags and purses that are the specialty of Hartman Leather (1345 Railspur Alley).
The market’s mix of art, crafts, handmade items and local ingredients gets everybody in a good mood, especially when they’re building up to a picnic.
“We’re picnic people,” Dhalwala says.
Once the vittles are assembled, they’ll make their way to one of several scenic spots -- tranquil Third Beach, in downtown’s Stanley Park at Ferguson Point; landscaped, 53-acre Queen Elizabeth Park (Cambie at 29th to 33rd), with its thousands of trees, peaceful ponds and gardens and the highest peak in the city at 150 m. above sea level; or West Vancouver’s Lighthouse Park (Beacon Lane, about 30 km from downtown Vancouver), where a short hike takes them to a rocky promontory overlooking crashing waves, with arbutus trees stretching in the sun for company.
“We always try to combine exercise and fun,” says Dhalwala. The most dramatic example of this is when the family tackles Grouse Mountain’s Grouse Grind (www.grousemountain.com), North Vancouver’s notoriously grueling 2.9 km hike, developed by mountaineers. “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster,” as it’s been called, offers a 56 percent (30 degree) slope.
More than 100,000 people attempt the Grind every year, averaging 90 minutes to two hours to complete it. The Vij-Dhalwalas recommend rewarding the workout as they do, with treats from fourth generation German pastry chef Thomas Haas’s tiny, perfect North Vancouver shop (998 Harbourside, www.thomashaas.com).
But back to the picnic food, the gathering of which can provide an entire weekend’s entertainment. Vij and Dhalwala often spend a few hours at one of the local farmers’ markets, which run through mid- to late October. Dhalwala especially likes to poke through the jarred pickles and other homemade condiments, but in the summertime shoppers can find all manner of provenance there, from the exotic -- pale yellow lemon cucumbers -- to the splendiferous -- roasted Agassiz hazelnuts and intensely fragrant Fraser Valley berries. If it’s a Saturday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m., they’ll hit the Trout Lake Market (15th Ave. at Victoria Drive, www.eatlocal.org) in East Vancouver; Sunday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., the Kitsilano Market (10th Ave. and Larch, www.eatlocal.org) is a beacon. Elsewhere in the city, their picnic food suppliers include Terra Breads (2380 W. 4th Ave.; 53 West 5th Ave.; Granville Island Market; www.terrabreads.com), whose rustic loaves, including one flatbread dotted with pine nuts and baked grapes, are the gateway to naughty macaroons and bodacious brownies.
“I love the smell of that bakery,” Vij says wistfully, recalling the days when he worked at Bishop’s restaurant on W. 4th and ate lunch at Terra regularly.
To accompany those loaves, Vij and Dhalwala might make a stop at the international cheese emporium Les Amis du Fromage (1752 W. 2nd Ave.; 843 E. Hastings; #518 Park Royal South Mall, West Vancouver; www.buycheese.com), or Cambie’s Mount Pleasant Cheese (3432 Cambie, www.mountpleasantcheese.com), which offers hundreds of Canadian artisanal options. Dhalwala champions B.C. products like Salt Spring Island Cheese Company’s surface-ripened Camembert-style goat cheese, called Juliette. It’s available not just at Vancouver cheese shops but in the cheese sections of big supermarkets.
The Vij-Dhalwalas are devoted to regional ingredients, on and off the job -- especially those grown, raised and gathered sustainably. That’s why several times a year they visit 40-hectare, student-driven UBC Farm (6182 South Campus Rd., open Tuesdays-Saturdays in the summer, www.landfood.ubc.ca/ubcfarm). Not only is the site a peach, ripe for picnicking, the farm’s mandate is to explore the latest developments in sustainable agriculture, a subject dear to Dhalwala’s heart. Free-range chickens are one draw there, as is the farm’s market garden (Saturdays 9 a.m-1 p.m., June to October), where artichokes may lurk amongst the other vegetables and herbs. Its terraced medicinal garden is also worth a visit, as is its Cob Arch and Shed, a sand, clay and straw structure based on those commonly built in 15th-century England.
While the family is on the UBC campus, they sometimes drop by UBC’s spectacular Museum of Anthropology (6393 N.W. Marine Dr., www.moa.ubc.ca), one of B.C. architect Arthur Erickson’s gems. Dhalwala says she grew up near Washington, D.C. knowing nothing about North American Aboriginal people; she had her eyes opened at MOA. The museum specializes in the culture of indigenous peoples, especially those of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Among the better-known Canadians exhibited in the permanent collection is Haida artist Bill Reid, whose laminated yellow cedar sculpture, The Raven and the First Men, dominates the Rotunda. Dhalwala always checks in at MOA’s great shop, full of original art, baskets, masks and jewelry, as well as the museum’s own line of giftware, designed by Northwest Coast artists.
Once a year, the family heads north on the Sea to Sky Highway to Pemberton, 155 km (a 2-1/2 hour drive) from Vancouver, spending a night or two at Pemberton Valley Lodge (1490 Portage Valley Rd., www.pembertonvalleylodge.com). Weather permitting, they’ll take a detour to one of the many local swimming holes, but they’ll definitely spend a couple of hours per day at the 55-acre North Arm Farm (1888 Sea to Sky Highway 99, www.northarmfarm.com), admiring the scenery, prowling through its cooler for produce, or picking fruit like the strawberries and currants growing now, raspberries and gooseberries in July. Honey, preserves, pies and baked goods like butter tarts and cinnamon buns are always worth a look in the farm’s bakery.
Back home in Vancouver, Vij and Dhalwala’s evenings out without the kids also centre on food. For one thing, says Vij, “This city definitely offers one of the best dining values that you can ever get.”
Dhalwala thinks it’s a waste to spend hours glued to one seat, however, with the proliferation of great restaurants in Vancouver. Adding to the mass of talented local chefs in informal venues, international superstar Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened a much-ballyhooed restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel here recently, and Daniel Boulud has made his mark on tony Lumiere.
So she suggests that out-of-towners in particular “restaurant-hop.” Dive into a glass of wine and maybe a few raw oysters on the patio at, for example, English Bay’s Raincity Grill (1193 Denman, www.raincitygrill.com), chase those with cheese and charcuterie at Gastown’s buzzed-about Salt Tasting Room (Blood Alley, www.salttastingroom.com) or unpretentious Chill Winston (3 Alexander, chillwinston.com), and then hoist a pair of chopsticks at Cambie’s ultra-casual sushi joint, Shiro (3096 Cambie) or a glass of grappa and a vanilla, citrus, and hazelnut Panna Cotta at the Italian Campagnolo (1020 Main, www.campagnolorestaurant.com), in Chinatown.
“Vancouver is still so small, and the cab fares aren’t that much,” Dhalwala says. “If you’re only here for two nights, hop.”