Suddenly, Vikram Vij makes sense. Well, let's hope the impish restaurateur (who recently relocated Vij's to Cambie Street) always retains some of his alluring mystique. But after visiting Apna Chaat House in Surrey, I can appreciate many of the dishes that he and his partner Meeru Dhalwala have made famous in a whole new light.
Take their lamb popsicles, for instance. Everyone loves the wine-marinated French chops served with fenugreek curry cream for dipping. And most people understand (theoretically, at least) that it is a gourmet version of a traditional Indian dish. But until you have actually tasted said Indian dish, well, it is somewhat like trying to wrap your head around Daniel Boulud's foie-gras-stuffed db Burger without ever having eaten a Big Mac.
The moment of culinary clarity occurred last week on an afternoon sojourn to Surrey. In a nondescript strip mall on the southern reaches of Scott Road (Note to reader: Scott Road is the more commonly known name for 120th Street), there is a small, fast-food restaurant unlike any other Indian restaurant in the Lower Mainland.
The walls are painted bright marigold yellow and plastered with labelled photographs of the signature dishes. You place your order at a till by the doorway and pay upfront before taking a seat at wooden tables covered in laminated menus. The food comes out piping hot on metal trays, having been cooked to order in a small open kitchen festooned with flower garlands and set behind a tin drum to make it look like a roadside stand.
In Hindi, chaat is a verb that means "to snack." The literal translation is "to lick" (with your fingers). Chaat is also the noun for savoury snacks made from broken pieces of fried flat bread with various toppings such as chutney, yogurt, tamarind sauce, fried onions, chickpeas, salty spices, fresh herbs and fried noodles. It's almost like the Indian version of nachos.
Apna Chaat offers several types of the latter nacho-style chaat. But the menu also encompasses all the different types of snack foods, or chaat, sold at roadside stalls across India.
Confused? So was I. Just order a bunch of dishes and dig in. Start with chicken lollipops. Yes, these are the inspiration for Vij's lamb popsicles and they're not just for kids. The deep-fried chicken drumettes and French-cut wings are marinated in chili-ginger-garlic paste, coated in a light cornstarch batter and served with their bone ends wrapped in aluminum foil.
The lollipops are an Indian-Chinese dish hailing from Calcutta. And there is a whole Indian-Chinese section on the Apna Chaat menu, including Szechuan noodles and veggie chow mein, if you care to explore.
To be honest, I'd take Vij's delectable lamb popsicles over these rather dry chicken lollipops in a heartbeat. But it is one of those dishes that you just have to try to better understand its gourmet iteration.
Bikram Singh, who owns Apna Chaat with his brothers Jogi and Raunaq, is a professionally trained chef from Bombay. He worked for the Taj Group of Hotels in India before moving to Vancouver in 2001. The three brothers have been in the restaurant business for a while. They owned Cafe Bombay in Kitsilano and the Bollywood-themed Bombay Se in Surrey.
Apna Chaat, which they opened in 2006, became so popular with the local Indian community, they ended up closing Bombay Se in 2010. Mr. Singh says they serve 300 to 400 people every day.
"If you ask our customers, they will tell you that this is the closest you can get to street food in India," he later explains by phone. "It's a very unique style of cooking. The tastes and flavours are authentic. But it's a little more hygienic."
Do try pav bhaji, a mashed vegetable curry served with toasted, buttered dinner rolls. (Apna Chaat doesn't offer naan bread.) Or the light and crispy fish pakora battered in tangy mustard oil and chickpea flour.
Baidi roti is a folded wrap filled with chopped onions, tomatoes and mint chutney. Similar to French toast, it's dipped in egg and griddled to order.
You can't really go wrong. The flavours are all bold and punchy. But whatever you order, don't leave without trying golgappa (available in six or 24 pieces). It's basically cold tamarind soup served in bite-sized edible bowls called puri. You crack the top of the crispy, hollow semolina puff pastry, spoon in some potatoes and chickpeas, fill it with tamarind water and swallow in a single bite. (In India, it would be served ready-made and eaten on the go, not as a sit-down dish.)
At My Shanti, Mr. Vij's restaurant in Surrey, the puri puffs are served over shot glasses of Peruvian ceviche. You are supposed to pour the soupy ceviche into the pastry and eat in a single bite. I always thought Mr. Vij's dish was kind of weird (and messy), albeit tasty. Now it makes total sense.