When Meeru Dhalwala was a young girl she stank at school, she says — literally. The scent of spices permeated her hair and her clothes, the result of her mother’s habit of roasting the spices she used in her cooking.
Like mother, like daughter. Spices perfume the air at Shanik, the South Lake Union Indian restaurant Dhalwala debuted in December. Cumin. Coriander. Fenugreek. Cayenne. The intense aromas almost make your eyes sting. Just breathing whets the appetite.
Shanik (say Shah-nik) was one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in Seattle last year because its owners come from the much revered Vij’s and Rangoli in Vancouver, B.C. (Dhalwala is married to chef Vikram Vij, and Shanik is named after their daughter; her business partner, Oguz Istif, is the Canadian company’s COO.)
They were grateful for the buildup. “It was better than opening the doors and finding that no one was coming to the party,” Dhalwala says. But, as is her wont, she filled the kitchen with nonprofessional cooks whom she personally trains. They are hired for their “enthusiasm and willingness to learn,” but she admits it will take time to get everyone up to speed. “Our hands are moving slowly.”
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Some dishes don’t emerge just as they should — a nearly raw portobello mushroom, burnt garlic marring bitter greens and a soupy, cooked-down curry of kale, jackfruit, cauliflower and potatoes, for example. But others flaunt flavors so deeply integrated and complex they are almost impossible to parse.
Among the small plates that open the dinner menu, look for curried deviled eggs paired with ginger-spiked tomato chutney and sprout-studded quinoa salad. Potato batons sautéed with bacon, onion and tomato top a delicate crepe veined with pungent spices. Mustard seeds turn up the heat in a terrific mélange of Brussels sprouts, bell pepper, cashews and cubed paneer mounded over crisp, crumbled pakoras (cauliflower and potato fritters).
Even in the spiciest dishes, the heat is so well incorporated with other ingredients that the effect is never numbing — and if it is, you need only ask for a bowl of raita, a cucumber-yogurt sauce that instantly quells the fire.
Rice (basmati flecked with toasted cumin seed) and bread (sometimes tough, sometimes tender, always glistening with ghee) accompany entrees. Most are available in half portions. Vegetarian options abound. A standout among those was a sweet-hot mash of roasted eggplant and butternut squash laced with black chickpeas.
Meat dishes include a version of Vij’s famous spice-encrusted lamb Popsicles, long-handled rib chops bridging coconut curry and a near-puree of split pea and spinach. The Oregon lamb used here yields big, lush chops that could have been pinker inside and crustier outside, but still held plenty of allure.
On the milder side: Coconut and ginger mingled in a potato curry paired with wild sockeye salmon. The fish, blackened as if cooked in a tandoor (the restaurant doesn’t have one), was still moist, as were similarly charred boneless chunks of marinated chicken smothered in saffron curried rice.
On the wilder side: A buttery sauce infused with black cardamom and coriander seeds and bolstered with barley was a properly rich partner for pull-apart-tender braised-beef short ribs, while a tangy sea of tomato, fennel and kalonji tamed the musky taste of braised goat.
Your waiter will be able to tell you that kalonji are nigella seeds. The staff knows the menu well because they get to order from it for their own dinners each night.
Service is not only informative, it’s fastidious. Tables are set with knife and fork crisscrossed over snowy napkins; plates and flatware are replaced between courses, and tabletops are wiped of spills; copper water ewers are checked frequently for fullness. Credit Istif for this front-of-the-house decorum.
Other niceties: Dinner begins with a complimentary cup of chai and hot pakoras passed as hors d’oeuvres. Chairs are comfortable, tables are well-spaced and the soothing blue-and-gold dining room has just enough elegance to soften its corporate feel. While Dhalwala smoothes out the kinks in her kitchen, you can still eat well here, even memorably.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturday on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at email@example.com.