Last spring, Seattle food nerds completely freaked out. The news: Vij's in Vancouver, BC—the revered upscale Indian restaurant, home of the mind-melting lamb popsicles (not actually frozen)—was going to open a restaurant in South Lake Union. One Stranger online commenter summarized the near-hysteria: "OMG! OMG! The best restaurant in the universe is coming to Seattle!"
Maybe—just maybe—some initial letdown was inevitable. When Shanik opened at the beginning of December, disappointment was rampant. The room was different, more corporate than Vij's. The waits were not as long as Vij's, but still definitely too long (neither take reservations). The sauces were not as rich as Vij's. The portions were small—maybe not smaller than Vij's, but... The prices were as high as Vij's. And there was no Vij (who, at Vij's, famously circles the room greeting everyone). Shanik was not as good as Vij's, and there was gnashing of teeth throughout the land.
Shanik's beginning was about as bumpy as it could get. Not only were there last-minute issues with vital equipment like the fridges, but, disastrously, some of the kitchen staff quit just before the scheduled opening. While Vikram Vij has been the name and the face of the operation, co-owner Meeru Dhalwala has been the guiding force behind the food, and Shanik is her solo project. She makes a practice of hiring all women who are home cooks, and three members of her new Seattle team realized that their commute from south of Seattle was too arduous. Then a resolutely cheerful-sounding tweet from Dhalwala on December 25 said she was seeking day cooks, line cooks, and a head chef (merry Christmas). There were setbacks.
I've never eaten at Vij's. I realize this is an unconscionable personal and professional deficit, but for one reason or another, it's just never happened. How could I possibly review Shanik? I was glad to give the place a while to sort itself out. When I finally went recently, it was at the behest of my friend Annie, who is one of those Vij's superfans. She's waited for an hour in the freezing Canadian cold for Vij's to open, so as to not have to wait even longer later. She'd heard the initial reports about Shanik, and she'd been biding her time, and she still had hope.
And so we went to Shanik. The room, Annie confirmed, is not the same as Vij's. (But then, even Vij's is not the same as Vij's; it started out with just 14 seats before it changed Vancouver locations, don't you know.) Shanik is in the ground floor of one of the shiny new windowed blocks of South Lake Union, and if the decor has the corporate feeling that this implies, it is also elegant, with a couple shimmery-gold pillars and an understated accent of a paisley-like pattern. It is comfortable, with upholstered banquettes, and when it is full, the noise level is indicative of a good time without making you have to shout.
But then here was a thing that was like Vij's: They brought us complimentary cups of chai, smooth and thick, tasting of anise and raisins, and when we finished them quickly (it was a cold night out there), they offered us more. And they brought us each a complimentary pakora—hot and crisp and tender and spicy, two of them freshly made for us, instead of a herd of them cooling on a tray.
Then we ordered more food than god, and it was good. We ate the sautéed onions and tomatoes on layers of paneer ($13). The paneer cheese was firm, almost bouncy, and thinly sliced; its lack of salt was the right foil for the stewy onions and chunks of tomatoes, which tasted eerily, richly meaty. It all had just a bit of slowly building, mouth-coating spicy heat. We also ate the saag paneer with Punjabi daal and chapati ($24). The spinach of the saag was highly pureed, and it had no cloying creaminess or oiliness; it had almost a citrusy brightness, and it was garlic-rich and made the mouth tingle. It was like food for a very adventurous baby. Annie especially liked the daal, made in a soupy style, with a mix of lentils and kidney beans that were whole instead of blended. It was comforting but with nuanced spice, tasting both good and good for you.
The naan at Shanik is not tandoor-cooked, so it lacks the light, puffy joy of the best of its kind, but Vij's doesn't use a tandoor either (so there). We liked the chapati better: It had the nutty flavor of legume flour as well as whole wheat, and an almost al dente firmness to its middle, with a good exterior grease factor.
We ate the spicy Indian crepe (or pura) with bacon, onion, and tomatoes ($12); the crepe, with its chickpea flour, was delicate in texture and lacy-browned, yet not greasy; the topping was like an Indian-spiced breakfast hash, the smoky taste a vivid complement to the earthy crepe. With it was a little salad of nearly raw beets, for color and crunch.
We ate the demerara-sugar-and-tamarind-marinated beef tenderloin with blackened cumin curry ($25), which was a big,inch-thick slab of grill-marked meat resting in a toasty, piney-tasting curry—it was a little sweet and a little sour, and assertive with a taste that nudged right up to almost acrid. The meat was tender, though it did have a bit of gnarly connective tissue (which, at these prices, you'd very much hope would be trimmed). The sauce had barley in it, and we asked for extra spoons; they should always give you spoons here.
And we ate the lamb popsicles with split-pea-and-spinach mash and coconut curry ($27). There is a geek-out treasure trove of information about the lamb popsicles to be found online, both concerning the original recipe at Vij's and the somewhat different treatment at Shanik; eating the Shanik ones, the memory of the others was pushed out of Annie's mind enough that she was able to just be happy, for they are marvelous. "Popsicle" refers to the long-stemmed, lollipop-style cut, and they are fully spice-encrusted (coriander, sumac, turmeric, and more), and so tender, and so smoky... Their saffron-colored curry was creamy, piquant, glorious; the mash of vegetables almost submerged in the sauce was salty but nuanced, itself surprisingly great.
There were a ton of leftovers, the kind that get even better overnight. We went on a Monday, and we didn't have to wait at all. When I went back on a Thursday (and ate a lot more—the samosas and their trio of chutneys were outstanding, and so was a portobello mushroom green curry), the restaurant was full, but still, no wait. This will change as people realize Shanik is finding its footing, but the wait will probably never be as bad as at Vij's (and there's a lounge for a drink, or there's always Monday, or weekday lunch). The service is team-style, but generally smooth; when you want that spoon, someone will be there before you know it. Is it too expensive? The portions are medium to large, with three dishes probably enough for two people—and everything's made with high-quality local and seasonal ingredients (unlike at your neighborhood Indian place, and just like at Vij's). The rice alone—delicate, dainty, cloudlike grains with a basmati scent so restrained, it's like a whisper—is just fantastic.
So, now, is Shanik as good as Vij's? Or is it just the most refined, well-sourced, and delicious Indian food in Seattle? Which is a better question?