Two years ago today, Meeru Dhalwala opened her high-end Indian restaurant Shanik (SHAW-nick) in South Lake Union to a swarm of questions and rumors: Would this new offspring (named for Dhalwala’s daughter) compare to the world revered Vij’s (VIDG-es) restaurant and next door Rangoli market-cafe that she runs with her husband in Vancouver? And—wait—did Dhalwala really tweet just before opening that all her Shanik cooks quit and she’s looking for new ones?
With so much hype, Shanik was destined for scrutiny from the get-go, and it got it: Several months in, various publications reported that Shanik’s food was mostly good but unpredictable, and our own Allison Austin Scheff noted that our corner of Dhalwala's empire was still “getting its sealegs” in May 2013. Now at the restaurant's biennial anniversary, we wanted to check in with the chef to better understand Shanik's first few months, learn what has changed and hear what Dhalwala is cooking up now.
Shanik in the making: chef-owner Meeru Dhalwala and business partner Oguz Istif plot the new dining destination; photo credit: Hayley Young
Two Decembers back, the restaurant's early days were rocky--it almost opened, then Dhalwala reported that she lost her cooks, then it did open--and mired in gossip: Was the original staff in place when Shanik opened? Or if the staff was new, was it still an all-women band of home cooks with little restaurant experience?
Yes, and yes: All three of Dhalwala’s restaurants function on female kitchen crews that have altered very little since the restaurants opened—including Vij’s, now 20 years old. At Shanik, Dhalwala says there were just some initial transportation kinks to work out with the cooks, which took several days and thus fueled the premature media spectacle. Today she has the exact staff she started with.
Opening night at Shanik: Meeru Dhalwala (second from left) guides kitchen staff on their first shift with the public. From left: Ravinder Kaur, evening manager; Bindu Kaur, staff member from Vancouver's Rangoli who came to help opening night; Meeru Dhalwala; Dejiytnu (Tutu) Getachew, assistant manager; photo credit: Sarah Flotard
As for why Dhalwala's kitchens rely on non-professional women cooks, when her family immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1969, she watched her mother struggle with isolation and declining confidence. She now hires immigrant women as cooks (her whole Shanik kitchen staff of 15 is currently Ethiopian or Indian) because “I see these women [become] empowered. If someone had given my mom a job to cook back then, she wouldn’t have lost that dignity.”
Before Dhalwala moved to Seattle, she spent six months visiting local 7-Elevens, gas stations and Walmarts in search of her first Shanik cooks. Prior restaurant experience was not required because “I’m the cooking school,” Dhalwala says. “I’m not a spice school—you must know spices, you must know how to cook a basic curry and you must love cooking.” If you have these qualities, Dhalwala can train you confidently, since she also learned to cook in a restaurant as an adult.
After completing field work in Indian slums as part of her master’s degree in economic development, Dhalwala moved to Vancouver when she was 30 and found two loves: her husband, Vikram Vij (who had recently started Vij’s), and restaurant work. At Vij’s Restaurant, she started washing dishes, then moved on to chai—trying to recall her mom’s recipe from childhood. The chai took off at Vij's (which it still offers gratis, as does Shanik) and within a month, Dhalwala had suggestions to change the menu. Once she taught herself to make a few dishes, she taught the rest of the staff, and three restaurants, ultimately, have flowed from there.
“It’s a very front end heavy risk [hiring immigrant women], but it lasts forever,” Dhalwala says. It takes her about four months to train them and really build a rhythm in her kitchens—hence the aforementioned sealeg-less period—but once it’s there, it has seemed to endure and deliver, both in Vancouver and, as of yet, here.
Now that Shanik has presumably had the time to settle and adjust, one might ask—has Shanik finally become Vij’s?
No, Dhalwala is the first to say, but turns out it was never meant to be.
“I wanted Shanik to have its own personality," she says. Dhalwala feels that if she had tried to make Shanik into a "Vij's 2.0" it wouldn't respect the dreams and potential she saw for this new space. Now after two years, Dhalwala's feels her restaurant has definitely come into its own as a Seattle eatery--and has hopes of growing it into even more than that.
Amarjeet Gill, overall manager of the 66 women who work at the Shanik, Vij's and Rangoli kitchens, on Shanik's first night. Gill started in 1995, same as Dhalwala, as a part-time dishwasher; photo credit: Sarah Flotard
In the last two years, she and her business partner Oquz Istif have worked to absorb local culture and shaped the new restaurant to suit.
Unlike Vij’s and Rangoli, Shanik takes reservations now, it has a weekday happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m. and it offers a more casual lunch menu for Amazon and other nearby workplaces. Furthermore, while many have touted Shanik for offering Vij’s famous lamb popsicles, they are different recipes and have been from the start. (Vij’s are wine-marinated and come with fenugreek cream curry; Shanik’s are spice-encrusted, accompanied by coconut curry.)
Dhalwala and Istif also started Shanik Market Express a year ago, a takeout counter and market that offers four to five hot options each weekday (and can have lunchgoers in and out in 5 minutes, according to Dhalwala), as well as freezer and fridge fare for later. The market is open Monday through Friday from 11:30 to 5 p.m.; hot meal service stops at 3 p.m.
Finally, they introduced roasted, ground cricket paranta (flatbread) as an appetizer in January. (Dhalwala calls the crickets a one-year-anniversary good luck gift to herself; her two-year anniversary dish, just released, is an ode to the Monarch butterfly, but fully vegetarian. Both are on the current dinner menu.) Back to the crickets, Dhalwala cooks with them not only because they’re high in protein, iron and omega 3 oils, but because they’re environmentally sustainable and delicious. As a chef, she considers her big pleasures to be “the environment, body and health, and taste” and says nothing excites her more than the ability to combine them all in a dish.
“To make something taste good and look good is not hard—but to make it not damaging [to the earth] adds one more step, and to make it actually healthy adds another step,” she says. (This attitude may also explain why none of her three restaurants use a tandoor oven. “It’s too easy to make food taste good with it. I can’t let myself get lazy.”)
Within the last six months, Shanik has also hosted conversations in the bar area (three so far) about valuable local work. In the first gathering this summer, three University of Washington physics professors discussed nuclear fusion (a potential clean energy replacement for oil), and in the second, three movie directors from the Northwest Film Forum showed movie clips and conversed about their work. The most recent gathering last month honored API Chaya, a Seattle organization opposing violence against women in the South Asian community.
At all events, Dhalwala has served “hearty Indian snacks,” and she is open to ideas for future events, especially environmentally related ones. “I like things [issues/organizations] that have discussion points. My thing is not to preach to people my politics, but we need more discussion. We need to feel alive.”
So far the gatherings have been by invitation only either from the group featured or from Dhalwala, but interested parties can ask the Shanik staff to be added to the mailing list to learn about future events. A larger space than either Vij’s or Rangoli, Shanik is the only site Dhalwala has for forums like these currently—another score for our side of the border.
Shanik's own spice-encrusted lamb popsicles, different from Vij's, served with split pea and spinach mash and coconut curry; photo credit: Hayley Young
Since the initial wave of critiques in the restaurant's first six months, Shanik's reviews in the past year (from the Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly and Zagat) have focused (enthusiastically) on the cricket paranta. Otherwise, local writers have mainly opted for interview-style features with Dhalwala--but if numbers speak, Shanik seems to be doing very well. Lunches, most dinners and the restaurant's takeout market are packed--Dhalwala would just like to see Monday and Tuesday evenings fill up more.
“Now I just want to joke, 'Come on Monday and Tuesday, do me the favor!'” she says. “It’s the same food and same staff!”
Moving forward, Dhalwala says she’s excited to grow the same kind of faith and trust here that she has with her Vancouver community. And coming full circle, it seems her cuisine may be just the thing to nurture that connection.
“Generosity breeds generosity,” Dhalwala says, when asked if Shanik offers diners free naan, like Vij’s. “Complimentary chai, naan, rice for dinner [at Shanik, Vij’s, and Rangoli all]… Dinner is that relaxed time. It’s just cheap not to.”