I wish My Shanti were taller and shinier. Perhaps then I would have seen Vikram Vij's new restaurant from a distance and not gotten lost while driving to South Surrey.
That's a joke. I did get lost, but the shimmering building couldn't possibly be more eye-catching. Three walls have been erected atop the single-storey structure and covered with about 50,000 mirror discs. An installer spent 4 1/2 months attaching each sequin onto J hooks by hand.
The rippling mermaid-tail effect is enchanting, especially after sunset when hot-pink lighting makes the silver skin twinkle.
Not everyone agrees. The letters page of the Surrey Now newspaper has been awash with complaints about the "eyesore" restaurant that "resembles an unfinished or abandoned pre-'60s casino in the bad side of Reno, Nevada." Others worry that the glare could be a traffic hazard and insist that this "garish monstrosity" in Morgan Crossing is "absolutely an insult to the people in the surrounding complex," which include White Spot and Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria on the either side.
Whatever your opinion, there is no denying that My Shanti is a singular creation inside and out.
This is Mr. Vij's first solo outing. His Vancouver restaurants, the upscale Vij's and casual Rangoli, are co-owned with his wife, Meera Dhalwala, who also runs Shanik Restaurant in Seattle on her own.
My Shanti, which means "my peace" in Hindi, is a semi-upscale eatery that specializes in regional Indian cuisine inspired by the chef's annual sojourns throughout his native country and beyond.
The eclectic menu wanders from Mumbai to Goa and takes a couple odd detours (Peruvian ceviche, for example) in between. From Mumbai, we get incredibly tender chattpatti squid served on a spongy, rice-flour crepe and perfectly balanced with mouth-puckering tamarind, bitter curry leaves and sweet spikes of jaggery (cane) sugar.
Further south, in Goa, the chef fell for oyster pakoras that taste nothing like your typical greasy fritters. These chickpea-flour-coated snacks are gently fried so the batter stays soft and the oyster meat loose. They're served with a two-punch chili knockout – an Indian lemon-cilantro gremolata overtop and green chili crème fraîche on the side.
Because My Shanti's dishes are based on traditional Indian recipes, the spice quotient is much higher than at Vij's, where the contemporary cuisine is rooted in French technique. Order a not-so-sweet lassi to soothe the burn of a meltingly tender Banglore goat curry ratcheted up with whole red chillies. Many dishes, including the toothsome wild boar kebabs, come with fruit chutneys to leaven the heat.
There is one common element among the restaurants: no reservations.
Many decry this long-standing policy, which has forced mega-watt celebrities (Harrison Ford) and high-powered politicians (Pierre Trudeau) to wait for their tables just like ordinary folks.
But as at Vij's, the wait is part of the experience and hardly an inconvenience. After giving your name to the hostess, you are led to a cocktail holding-lounge in the back and promptly given a bowl of addictively salty tapioca-flour crisps. Behind the bar, cutely adorned with a paper canopy of Indian matchstick-box designs, craft cocktails are poured with precision. Try the gin and tonic with imported Fever Tree tonic and a slice of ginger. Or the cumin-spiced Bloody Mary mixed with Indian tomato soup. The wine list, all from B.C. and very fairly priced, includes many selections that pair expertly with piquant food.
When your table is ready, the beverage bill will automatically be transferred to the dining room – part of the seamless service that excels on all fronts, from tableside iPod order placements to swift cutlery changes between courses. One evening, I watched a server stand guard, arms outstretched, around shattered glass that a child had smashed to the floor while another scurried to get a broom. The wait staff was given two weeks of intensive training and seems to have every emergency protocol ticked.
In contrast to the restaurant's showy exterior, the interior is dark and cozy. Softly flowing purple silk saris hang from ceilings lined with gold-tinged paisley wallpaper. Pendant lights are fashioned from copper water jugs. A hand-painted mural depicting an Indian village blankets a long stretch of wall. Booths are enclosed with bamboo twigs. Other menu standouts include roasted baby eggplants dusted with peppery mango powder, a multitextured chaat combining rice puffs, chickpeas, deep-fried squash and three types of chutney, plus tamarind prawns in dark peppery soup.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
* *Very good, with some standout qualities
** *Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
*** *Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution