People are either storytellers or doers that inspire stories. If you're blessed with a skill, like a special gift in the kitchen, you don't often possess the talent to dazzle with your words as well. After all how fair would that be? But Vikram Vij is one of the few chefs that's as captivating a raconteur as he is a chef—and he's a very talented chef.
It was both his skills as a chef and a storyteller that brought 68 food and wine lovers from Toronto and Niagara to Stratus earlier this summer for the chance to eat his food and spend an evening with the highly acclaimed chef. The dinner was the first of Stratus' Coast to Coast series. Drawing on some of country's most talented chefs, who are friends of the winery. The intimate dinner series aims to share their food and that relationship with Stratus' customers over a series of special winemaker's dinners.
As a chef and entrepreneur Vij has built his eponymous restaurant in Vancouver into a culinary destination. As head of marketing at Stratus Charles Baker, borrowing from Bonnie Stern, remarked in his introduction “If you don't eat at Vij's when you go to Vancouver you didn't go to Vancouver.”
That level of praise and success didn't come immediately though. When he opened Vij's in 1994 the market for high-end Indian cuisine was non-existent. So Vij immediately recognised the key to survival was to both educate the public about Indian flavours and most importantly build relationships by engaging customers. When he was approached by Baker about Coast to Coast what really appealed was the chance to do both those things with a new audience. Another aspect that excited him was the opportunity to cook an Indian meal in wine country. It's something he has never done before despite being a sommelier himself and featuring wine prominently at his restaurants. Judging by the full house, which raved when the meal was complete, it's an idea whose time has come. Vij even believes that an Indian restaurant in the heart of Niagara wine country will happen sooner rather than later and half wonders if one of the guests might be behind it.
In typical Vij's fashion, dinner began with servers offering small tastes like Indian bruschetta. He considers this a more “civilized approach” to dining and just like entertaining at home allows you to catch-up over a drink and small bite while the meal is being prepared. Vij's restaurant has a famous no-reservation policy as he believes no guest is more of a VIP than another. So it's a nice touch of hospitality to be offered small bites while waiting for your table.
After guests had settled in Vij guided attendees through the building blocks of the Indian kitchen: spices. They were invited to touch, smell and feel the fragrant curry leaves, seductive black cardamon, citrusy coriander seed and perfumed ceylon cinnamon. Spices form the basis of curries, a Tamil word for sauce, and are something people shouldn't be intimidated by or inherently dislike. “If people tell you they are allergic to curry they are bullshiting you. It's like being allergic to music,” he said.
For Vij spices are the artist's palette of Indian cuisine and the key to creating something beautiful is to buy whole, good-quality spices and roast them to bring out their flavour and fragrance. Having quality spices, (the ones you can get in your supermarket are actually likely better than in India because only top-quality ones are exported according to Vij) and treating them like this will make a big difference in your cooking. For people who only cook Indian occasionally it might not be practical to stock a dozen spices and roast and grind them to order, so he offers his own line of spices at Rangoli. After you have your spices ready the difference between good Indian food and truly great Indian food is timing. Continuing the artist's metaphor, Vij explained that the layering of those spices in the right quantities and at the right time creates a gentle spiciness that builds on the palate and helps gives Indian food its distinct flavours and aroma.
But Vij's most passionate words were saved for his belief that Canadian cuisine is on the cusp of something truly special. Rather than focusing on the small differences between provinces and chefs, he said now is the time for Canadians to come together and showcase our great wine, fantastic ingredients and the diverse culinary influences to the world. That was demonstrated at the dinner with Vij working alongside a team that included Toronto based chef Joshna Maharaj, Niagara chef Ryan Crawford, a small team from Toronto restaurant Amaya and the culinary program of Niagara College where Vij and his team prepped that morning for the evening dinner. Bringing together Canada's diverse culinary flavours and talents is also a theme at the heart of Coast to Coast @ Stratus.
That theme was carried through every detail, even down to the seating. Guests sat at a single long table dressed in Indian inspired decor and set-up amongst the winemaking equipment, which Status dubs press ally. Even though many guests, who had traveled from throughout Niagara and Toronto, didn't know each other before, they quickly made friends as they exchanged travel trips and talked about the local restaurant scene.
The highlight of the evening was a coconut masala spot prawn dish. Drawing on southern Indian flavours, the dish provided a layered and not too spicy combination of chili and earthy cumin, which was balanced by the nutty-creamy flavour of coconut. Served whole, with the heads intact, the shrimp were perfectly cooked allowing their beautifully tender texture and naturally sweet flavour to shine through. Guest were so enamoured with the result that many could be seen putting down their forks and knives and picking-up the shrimp in an attempt not a waste one drop of rich, sweet juice from the heads. Stratus' 2011 Riesling provided a great foil. With a bright and aromatic pithy lemon-lime core and a bit of luscious white peach, this wine had a great combination of just enough residual sweetness to match the shrimp and coconut, while having the right acidity to balance the richness.
The rustic Vij's family chicken curry and the 2011 Wildass Rosé combined for my favourite combination of the evening. Winemaker J-L Giroux likens this wine to 18th century Bordeaux clairets (a term used to describe the dark rosés exported then). Barrel aged six months and with a dark raspberry hue that almost rivals a light Pinot Noir or Gamay, it's a rosé that a red wine drinker would gravitate to. The wine is full of: black cherry, raspberry, red plum and red currant along with an interesting menthol and spice undertone. There's a bit more texture to this rosé, which has the feel of a barrel fermented Chardonnay, while retaining some slight residual sweetness and crisp acidity— aspects that make it a great partner for spicier foods. The slight barrel spice and touch of sweetness in the wine played beautifully with the black cardamon, lime, chili and fenugreek in the chicken. The fruit and naturally high acidity seems to enhance the chicken's flavour and juiciness much like the classic Burgundian combination of a local Pinot Noir with a simple roasted chicken. This rosé would also work brilliantly with a Thanksgiving turkey.
The meal closed with a milky rice pudding paired with Stratus' 2008 White Icewine. The nutty perfumed flavour of the pistachios and basmati rice, as well its milky and light honey flavours, enhanced the wine's apricot, peach, candied citrus and honey notes. Stratus' lighter style of Icewine, which feels closer to half-and-half than the mouth-coating milkshake-like texture of many Icewines, was a spot on match for a lighter dessert like this one.
Post-meal guests moved to Stratus' patio and enjoyed some time under the stars of a beautiful Niagara summer evening. They mingled with each other and Vij talking about cooking, the wines and the great meal they had shared. That seems like an apt end to a very special evening.
Stratus has one more Coast to Coast dinner planned for this year with chef Jeremy Charles of the critically acclaimed St. John's Restaurant Raymonds. Charles asked for an autumn date so he could be sure some of his favourite east coast treats would be in season to share with guests. The dinner will be held on Saturday November 3rd and tickets are available now. If it's anything like this first Coast to Coast dinner it promises to be a very special evening that you won't want to miss.
2011 Stratus Riesling
2011 Stratus Wildass Rosé
Availability: LCBO Vintages 71712
2008 Stratus White Icewine
Price: $40 for 200 mL
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.