Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala expanded their empire with Shanik, but it failed after 2½ years, as their relationship was ending. Now, they’re business partners and friends.
MEERU DHALWALA faced plenty of highs and lows when she opened Shanik restaurant in Seattle in 2012. Expectations were extravagant for the restaurant, the first U.S. outpost from the owners of Vij’s Indian restaurant and its sister businesses in Vancouver, B.C.
Shanik was an early landmark in now-booming South Lake Union. Dhalwala learned the hard way that, among other issues, neighborhood tech workers wanted quick casual food rather than cooked-to-order creations. The restaurant stayed open for 2½ years, making a mark with Dhalwala’s vivacious presence, the cups of chai that greeted diners (a signature at the original Vij’s), and brilliantly flavored chutneys and curries, as well as a commitment to environmental sustainability.
Now, with two recent books, Dhalwala and Vikram Vij talk for the first time about the personal roller-coaster that accompanied the challenges of their restaurant realm. As Dhalwala made her weekly commute between B.C. and Seattle, she also was working through the breakup of the couple’s 17-year marriage. She and Vij had to navigate new partnerships in business and parenting, retaining bonds they say will always tie them together.
Their cookbooks — “Vij’s Indian” (Penguin, $28) is their third — are like journals for the major stages of their lives, Dhalwala says. Along with stories of their recent years, the recipes in their latest cookbook “blur the distinction between work and home,” offering dishes that can be cooked at both places — refreshing salads, intriguing curries and soothingly familiar favorites.
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In a separate memoir, “Vij” (Penguin, $32), Vij wrote about how the couple met, in a match suggested by their mothers. Dhalwala flew from Washington, D.C., to spend five days with him in Vancouver, hanging out at his first “dingy little diner” and taking in his ambitious plans for the future. Dhalwala headed back to the airport thinking they would try a long-distance relationship. Vij, struck by her confidence and passion, and eager to move forward with his career, told her instead, “I wanted to give her the rest of my life, right now, or end it.”
In the busy years that followed, Vij’s became a sensation, ranked as one of the world’s best Indian restaurants by The New York Times. Eventually, Vij focused his charm on interacting with diners while Dhalwala led the kitchen. They raised two daughters and took on new projects.
Dhalwala was satisfied with this, Vij wrote, wanting their lives to stay at that comfortable plateau. He wanted bigger endeavors, despite the accompanying risks and debts. The friction between them grew, with no respite between work and home. Ending the marriage did, at least, save their business partnership and their friendship.
At this point, they enjoy a standing date for Sunday dinners with their grown daughters, and say any new partners must join them at the table, or at least have no hard feelings about the tradition.
“It works. This is the happiest we’ve been in years,” Vij wrote. “It’s a modern relationship, I suppose.”
For her part, Dhalwala said in an email, “I still sigh that Shanik didn’t work out.” She marvels at the accomplishments of the “amazing” staff she trained, “all women and new immigrants” who had no restaurant experience before coming on board, half from India and the other half from Ethiopia.
For all the ups and downs of the Seattle venture, she said she enjoys visiting the friends she made through Shanik, and misses cooking Indian food here. It was “the best, yet most difficult, experience of my adult life.”
Makes 6 cups
5½ cups water
12 to 15 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
½ Tbsp. fennel seeds
5 orange pekoe tea bags
6 tsp. sugar (optional)
¾ cup whole milk (optional)
1. Set a small bowl and tea strainer/sieve beside the stove before you begin.
2. In a kettle or pot, combine the water, cardamom pods and fennel seeds, and bring to a vigorous boil on high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and allow to boil for another 2 minutes.
3. Add the tea bags and sugar, stir well and allow to boil for 1 to 1½ minutes more, or longer if you like a stronger tea.
4. Using the sieve or a large spoon, remove the tea bags and place in the bowl. Add the milk to the pot, and continue to heat through for 45 seconds to 1 minute (you don’t want the milk to boil over). Turn off the heat.
5. Place the tea strainer over the mouth of a teapot, and pour the chai into it. Or hold the strainer over individual cups before pouring. Serve immediately.
From “Vij’s Indian” by Meeru Dhalwala and Vikram Vij