This Saturday Stratus is hosting the first of a series of dinners entitled Coast to Coast @ Stratus with chef Vikram Vij of his eponymous Vancouver restaurant and sister restaurant Rangoli.
The thought process behind the series is to bring in talented chefs from abroad who are friends of the winery and share that relationship, their food, and wine with Stratus' customers over an intimate winemaker's dinner.
"It will go beyond your average winemaker's dinner beginning with an Indian spice tasting", says Stratus Director of Hospitality and Retail Suzanne Janke. Along with chef Vij cooking, Stratus winemaker J-L Groux will be in attendance. Epicurean and proprietor of Yorkville's famed Cookbook Store Alison Fryer will be hosting and curating a discussion with chef Vij as well.
Tickets are sold out for this intimate dinner but Stratus is planing at least more Coast to Coast dinner later in the fall with chef Jeremy Charles of top Canadian restaurant Raymonds located in St. John's.
I was able to speak with chef Vij about his cooking philosophy, his love of wine and dinner in anticipation of the event itself.
Michael Di Caro: Your approach to Indian cuisine is a little different than what most people think of when they think of Indian food. What would you tell people who have never had a Vij's meal to expect?
Vikram Vij: What to expect out of a Vij's meal is that they should feel the passion, the love, the attention to detail on the menu and the dishes themselves. Every small detail has been thought out on the plate. Forget about anything that you've ever had before. It's another world. A different experience. Do not compare my food to any other Indian restaurant or any other Indian person's food because it's my baby. We've created it ourselves at the restaurant.
MD: Indian cuisine is very regional with flavours that can vary greatly from one part of the country to another. Your philosophy is to keep the flavours, spicing and techniques Indian, but use local ingredients. How do you reconcile trying to bring some of those traditional flavours to non-traditional local ingredients?
VV: There's a little bit of a myth. India is the largest democracy of food and India does fusion cooking all the time. Yes, there are regional specialties like north India does butter chicken and south India does dosas and idlis. But the whole thing has been kind of amalgamated. South Indians make northern indian food and north Indians make southern Indian food. So that fusion aspect of learning from each other rather doing the same thing over and over again is part of our culture. So, yes, there are regional specialities, but there is no one way to do things. What I do, is the kind of food I cook and the kinds of flavours that I think are tasty on the plate. That's it. I don't sit there and worry about it. I will never be able to get those authentic flavours from India anyway. If I was to use milk I wouldn't be using Indian milk. If I was to use eggplant I wouldn't be using Indian eggplant. So you'd never get those flavours anyway. What we must be proud of is our own regional style of cooking that we do.
MD: Wine has always been a very big part of your drinks menu. You're a sommelier and you have a wine director which is unusual in many Indian restaurants in North America. How do you approach pairing wine with a cuisine that doesn't have an entrenched culture of pairing dishes with local wine?
VV: Good question Michael. I must say this though. Yes, Indians have never had wine.
MD: We haven't really in North America either.
VV: Exactly. But we live in North America and we enjoy a glass of wine. So my philosophy has been to find something I enjoy rather than trying to find nuances and choose a wine that goes really well with the cinnamon and cloves in a dish. There are way too many spices in Indian cooking. There's not a single sommelier in the this world, after having Indian food, that could tell me they are tasting a 1968 Silver Oak Cab and not a 1967, just because the flavours are so strong. What I can suggest is that you should take a sip of your wine and it should be tasty. You should take a bite of your food and it should be tasty. Don't expect this match made in heaven. It ain't going to happen. If you actually go back to India, which I was last year, India is a huge wine country now. Sula is producing brilliant wines. Good Earth Winery is producing great wines. So if you actually go there, you'll find a huge culture of wines and wineries popping-up. It's not just that it's popping-up. The time has come that we should enjoy good wine and not just drink whiskey, gin and beer with Indian food. It complements the cuisine. There are some younger quality wines like Mourvèdre, Shiraz or a younger Syrah. They're brilliant. They go so well with the food.
MD: Perhaps as chefs from other traditional wine producing countries like France begin to incorporate flavours from India, Asia and abroad you may see an amalgamation and the cuisines blend a little.
VV: I think that slow amalgamation of the cuisines will start to happen. It's suppose to happen. That's the most beautiful part about cuisine. It's like water, it flows wherever it wants. It takes the path of least resistance. Cooking is suppose to be enjoyed that way. Cuisines are like water they should flow.
MD: There are many wineries in Niagara doing interesting things. What in particular about Stratus stood out for you and made you want to work with them for this dinner?
VV: I've always enjoyed Charles Baker's philosophy, his Rieslings and the wine making style at Stratus. So when Charles asked me if I wanted to cook a dinner, I knew he was one of those people who works for a really good winery that does a great job. But don't get me wrong I'm not saying others don't. He asked me first and I really wanted to do a dinner in Niagara. So when he asked I said I would love to do it. It was a great match.
MD: You have a philosophy of cooking with seasonal ingredients. What are some of the seasonal items and flavours on the menu for the Stratus dinner?
VV: I told them we should use local vegetables. There's a lot of asparagus available. So whatever local vegetables are available bring those out, I'll bring my spices and we'll cook-up a storm. So when I get there on Friday I'll see the bounty of local vegetables and that's what I will cook.
MD: So it's essentially like visiting the market the day before and cooking your menu accordingly based on what's fresh and in season.
VV: That's exactly what my thought process was. So when I get there I'm not going to stress out about exact ingredients. I've given them a little guidance saying I want to use local vegetables, lamb and chicken. But other than that it's going to be impromptu and go with the flow.
MD: If someone is still thinking of getting a ticket but is still a little unsure what would you tell them to entice them to grab one?
VV: I would say come hang out and taste some flavours that you've never had before. The chances are you probably never will because I never cook with a recipe. So you will never find the flavours that you will taste that day and you will never be able to copy them anywhere else because they will be impromptu. It's like music it's not like I will play the same tones again. I don't know when will I come back again. If I do, it's not like it will be the same.
MD: That's fantastic. Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. I look forward to seeing you Saturday.
VV: That's lovely. Thank you so much, Michael. Good bye.
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.