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Restaurant Reviews Vancouver’s Rangoli marks a return to modest beginnings

Diners familiar with the Vij’s brand will recognize this spice-encrusted variation of the popular lamb popsicles at the recently reopened Rangoli restaurant in Vancouver.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

3 out of 4 stars

Name
Rangoli
Location
1480 West 11th Avenue, Vancouver, British Columbia
Phone
604-736-5711
Website
vijsrangoli.ca
Cuisine
Indian
Additional Info
Open weekdays, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5 p.m. to midnight; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, bar open until 2 a.m. No reservations

Some folks get all the breaks. This is the third time in less than a year that I've reviewed a restaurant in the culinary empire owned by Meeru Dhalwala and Vikram Vij. Do they need more attention? Hardly. Especially not with Mr. Vij so busily cruising the celebrity circuit as he flogs a newly released memoir, another cookbook (their third) and a TEDx talk (his second).

But is the recent Rangoli reboot – with its cozy new location, cocktail bar, expanded menu, late-night snacks, longer hours and DoorDash delivery service – worth writing about? Absolutely. Of all the moving and shaking in the spicy kingdom of Vij, this is probably the one development that will ultimately please its fans the most.

In 2004, when Rangoli opened next door to the old Vij's Restaurant on West 11th Avenue, the 30-seat counter-service eatery was open only for lunch. Red-tiled and casual, it was primarily meant to be a market for selling the then-nascent Vij's At Home line of frozen foods and a gathering spot for moms with strollers. Within a few years, operations had expanded to late-night dinner service, largely to catch the spillover of people who didn't want to wait in the long lines at Vij's.

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Nowadays, those frozen foods are sold in grocery stores across the country, eliminating the need for a standalone market. And after Vij's moved to Cambie Street last winter, the original restaurant sat empty most nights, save for the odd private event. Instead of filling the space with a new concept, Rangoli put on its big-boy pants and moved in.

The new bar is the biggest surprise. While the old Vij's had a sexy little holding lounge in the back, it was more or less known as the infamous dark hole where people unavoidably got plastered while waiting for long stretches on empty stomachs. When the new Vij's opened, an expansive bar was built (along with a second on the rooftop patio), yet Mr. Vij stubbornly refused to put stools at either.

"Eventually, after 20 years in business, you have to start listening to the younger people on staff," Ms. Dhalwala explained this week by phone.

So now, Rangoli has a lovely long bar, lit up in a hazy yellow glow, where deeply smoky mezcal cocktails are garnished with flaming pods of star anise. The wine list is speckled with affordable gems (many of the markups are much lower than at Vij's). There are two happy hours (from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to midnight) featuring $9 negronis and $4 Parkside pilsners. And late-night specials that sometimes include a free samosa with your first beverage.

The metal bar stools, unfortunately, aren't very comfortable – for now. They'll be replaced, in time, when designer Marc Bricault finds something more suitable. Like a spring garden, the décor has been slowly filling in, one bloom at a time. Last month, the chartreuse walls were bare. Now, they're lined with shiny brass caps, which will one day emit tinkling beams of light though tiny holes.

The service is also smoothing out. A visit in early March was fumbled by mixed-up orders and nervous stutters. But last week, our waiter was so dialled in to his handheld point-of-sale device, our wine arrived at the table (in a very sleek concrete cooler) while we were still deciding upon food.

The menu includes several Rangoli favourites: the never-fail, lusciously creamy Portobello mushroom and paneer in red-bell-pepper curry; the terrific crunchy-veggie-packed lamb in light cumin curry; and the remarkably clean – never greasy – deep-fried cauliflower, spinach and potato pakoras.

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There are also some new snacking foods, such as mogo (cassava root) fries smothered in curried pulled pork and paneer, which Ms. Dhalwala calls her "Indian poutine." And truly sensational samosas, flash-fried in thick dough lined with a layer of paste so they can be stuffed with wet curries and not leak. Mark my words, these moist yet meaty pastry puffs (available in six flavours) are destined to become a cult classic on par with Vij's lamb popsicles.

Speaking of which, there is a new lamb popsicle in town. The Rangoli version, served as single chops with chutney or as an entrée in creamy coconut curry, are more aggressively spiced with cumin, cayenne, a little bit of coriander and garam masala. The coconut curry, slightly sweetened with lightly sautéed onions, isn't nearly as velvety as the fenugreek curry in the original recipe. But these lesser popsicles will earn their place in the pantheon.

As Ms. Dhalwala explains, Rangoli serves Tuesday night, home-style cooking, whereas Vij's is a Saturday night, special-occasion type of restaurant. The food here is more casual, with fewer steps and prep cooks in the kitchen. It's also less expensive.

To help keep costs down, there is some overlap. Whereas at Vij's, you'll find a different curry for every dish, at Rangoli, you'll find that same creamy coconut curry poured over several plates, including the densely meaty black-chickpea and onion cakes (vegan meatballs).

About half the menu is vegan, although meat eaters might not even notice. And for spice-averse diners – because some people still have the gall to go to an Indian restaurant and request items with no onion, garlic or heat – Ms. Dhalwala has created the darkly delicious beef short ribs in a thick kalonji-seed curry, which tastes a bit like toasted poppy seeds. Stir in a spoonful of cilantro chutney if you'd like to spice it up.

For a city such as Metro Vancouver, which has such a huge Indian population, it sometimes seems unfair that the Vij's restaurants hog all the attention. But they are popular for good reason – because they're simply the best. And for many, the new Rangoli, which offers some of the intimacy that was lost when Vij's moved to its fancy new digs, might almost feel like a return to the company's more modest beginnings.

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