Such is the buzz around Shanik that at 15 minutes to opening one recent weeknight, the line had already formed.
I stood amid the high-tech high-rises and restaurants on Terry Avenue, marveling at that street’s new thoroughfare status in a neighborhood that wasn’t even a neighborhood five years ago, shaking rain off my hood, and counting the crowd. “Well this part’s exactly like Vij’s,” one guy smirked, and all 11 of us smiled knowingly. Everyone here knew Shanik’s famous sister restaurant in Vancouver; its freewheeling world-class artistry with Indian fusion is why folks willingly wait an hour for a table there, and why we were standing on a South Lake Union sidewalk in the rain.
One young Indian woman in the group delivered the verdict everyone had come for. “Vij’s is better,” she pronounced, as her Indian companion stood behind her, impishly shaking his head. “No way!” he countered. “This’ll be my second meal here today.”
It’s the debate that’s divided a city. From the moment food aficionados got word Vikram Vij’s wife and co-owner, Meeru Dhalwala, would open a similar property in South Lake Union, Shanik (pronounced “SHAWN-uk”) stood poised to both please—being the only Indian restaurant of any pedigree in the Seattle metro area—and disappoint.
The wooden door at last swung open and a fleet of hostesses flurried out to greet us—seemingly one for each party. Right away the room reinforced ambivalence: Flawlessly refined—all upholstery and soft carpeting and comfortable chairs, classy wood slats and delicate filigree ironwork, soft Himalayan blues and champagne browns—the midcentury elegance nevertheless struck a generic note. Where Vij’s offers underlit intimacy and a wink of hole-in-the-wall exoticism, Shanik is a creamy destination in a corporate building. A bar at the far end, with stylish low tables and backless stools, furthers the swank. I expected Don Draper to stroll out of the private dining room.
Instead a smiling waiter came around bearing a tray of the plump black-chickpea-flour dumplings called pakoras, here stuffed with spinach, onions, and potatoes. When another offered gratis cups of steaming chai, the lovely tone was set: Here lies hospitality. The chai on every visit was subtle and smooth; the pakoras hit and miss, sometimes overcooked. But that hospitality was always in play, from the respect the waiters showed their customers (writing orders down!) to the comfortably distanced tables.
The menu roams India, its fusion mainly taking the form of classic northern preparations—the thick, complexly spiced curries, many with meat, that Americans are most used to—made with Southern ingredients, like jackfruit and coconut, or Pacific Northwest ingredients, like salmon and locally sourced pork. Beef short ribs show up in a mild lunchtime curry with black chickpeas and fenugreek; salmon, marinated and smoky, in a coconut curry bright with ginger and prettily nuanced. At any given time Shanik’s kitchen must have a dozen sauces on the fire: a layered Punjabi curry—dark and potent as mole—starring chunks of overdone lamb and served at lunch over soggy rice; a braise of fall-apart-tender goat meat exotically perfumed with fennel and kalonji (black cumin); another curry,
of kale, potato, and chunks of jackfruit, whose chewy consistency might’ve lent itself better to a mash.
Unquestionably there are execution problems at Shanik; more on that later. More deflating was the sameness of a menu whose fusion experiments registered more academic than thrilling: curries on rice, curries with flatbreads, repeat—a far cry from the varied stylings that enliven Vij’s. Among my dining companions were an Indian one night, a vegan another—and tellingly, the Indian was the only one who clearly saw the experimentation. Dhalwala sighs that she’s forever informing Indian diners that there’s no tikka masala, no tandoor oven—one apocryphal tale even has Vikram Vij, down from Vancouver to work the door for his wife, gently persuading a traditional Indian family they’d best take their traditional expectations elsewhere for dinner.
If Indians bring hopes of classic subcontinental cuisine, Vij’s disciples demand dazzling innovation. Take the lamb Popsicles: The signature popularity of the trio of rack chops at Vij’s compelled Dhalwala to include them, reinvented, at Shanik. Dhalwala tells the story of this dish’s genesis a dozen years ago at Vij’s. Vij asked his new bride—untrained as a chef but a natural in the kitchen—to embellish a dish of lamb rack chops rubbed in white wine and Dijon. Deciding it wasn’t nearly Indian enough, she finished it with a curry. Vij balked, so the feisty Dhalwala went back to the kitchen and threw together a concoction of whipping cream, garlic, and turmeric. As she remembers, “He came running around the corner yelling, ‘This is it! This is fantastic!’ And I was like, ‘Vikram, I was kidding!’
That’s the way they’re still making them at Vij’s—but at Shanik, Dhalwala gets her curry. Shanik’s Popsicles are seasoned in a subtler, more traditionally Indian blend of cumin, cayenne, and her own garam masala, then presented atop a split pea–and–spinach mash in coconut curry. They’re a triumph, featuring pristine grass-fed meat, fiber-rich textures, sumptuous richness, flavor to the bone. And less of the thrill they deliver at Vij’s.
The difference between the dishes represents the difference between the restaurants—even, perhaps, the difference between their operators. “He’s robust,” Dhalwala says of her husband. “I’m thoughtful.”
Occasionally a dish will recall the kitchen where Dhalwala learned her chops. A spicy Indian crepe, or pura, arrived topped with potatoes, bacon, and onions in a light tomato base, alongside a dice of crunchy beets with daikon. Here was the color vibrancy and sparkling innovation of Vij’s. Likewise sparked with that old gonzo spirit is a milky Indian custard for dessert, served drizzled with the herbal-fruity rosewater syrup Rooh Afza alongside a dish of fennel-candied almonds and cashews. Original and inevitable, both—and miles apart from the bland rice pudding beside it on the menu.
These days, perhaps the best way to enjoy Shanik is to expect neither traditional Indian nor mind-blowing fusion—but superlative vegetable dishes. If Indians and foodies are troubled here, vegetarians are in hog heaven—over farm-to-table preparations like Brussels sprouts with cashews, peppers, and paneer, or grilled eggplant slices over green lentil pilaf piqued with unexpected nuances from citrus to sneeze-inducing black cumin.
I say “these days” because the place is so obviously a work in progress. Shanik will be almost
certainly be exponentially better a year from now. The vivacious Dhalwala and her business partner, Vij’s COO Oğuz Istif, micromanage in all the right ways, table-hopping nightly, asking questions of their diners—“Is that lamb too fatty for you?”—that another restaurateur might consider too intrusive to ask. The original, beautiful table dressings have already evolved to include elegantly dimpled drinking glasses and honeycomb votives; white overhead lights will soon be replaced with sexier amber fixtures.
As for the kitchen, one can hope that execution errors will diminish as Dhalwala’s kitchen staff—untrained Indian women, whom she hires in homage to her own immigrant mother—absorb her way of doing things. (Hopefully some of that unfailingly polite front-of-the-house staff will absorb something back there, too. For a foodie destination, waiters are consistently underinformed about preparations and ingredients.)
At the moment, however, the thing at the top of Dhalwala’s mind is the naan. “I’m having a hell of a time with it,” she admits, explaining that the same recipe responsible for the soft, fluffy flatbread in Vancouver produces too dense and heavy a product here.
Nothing wrong with two different naans for two different restaurants, right? Well…right. Unless one’s just better.
Published: May 2013