“Twenty years ago, who would ever have thought,” said Vancouver chef Vikram Vij to the full house at Ottawa’s Coconut Lagoon, “…that a Canadian crowd would pay more than a hundred bucks each to eat Indian food prepared by a couple of Indian guys.”
That got a laugh. Probably because it’s pretty accurate: Indian food typically falls in the “Cheap & Cheerful” category of any city’s dining guide, burdened by its steam-table buffets of all-you-can-eat brown curries and dessicated chicken tikka masala. Woe betide the Indian restaurant that dares to charge more than $15 for the pleasure! But here we were, on a Wednesday night in Ottawa, at a $120 per person dinner party feasting on regional Indian dishes as refined as they were fragrant. Was it a tough sell? Well, three days after host chef Joe Thottungal announced the event — a wine-paired North-meets-South Indian dinner centred around the Hindu spring Festival of Holi — it was sold out. So no, apparently not.
This was a collaborative project of Vikram Vij, the (north) Indian-born Vancouver chef, celebrated restaurateur and cookbook author, and the (south) Indian-born Ottawa chef Joe Thottungal (owner of Coconut Lagoon; gold medallist, 2016 Gold Medal Plates; silver medallist, 2017 Canadian Culinary Championships; and soon-to-be-published cookbook author).
The two had met before: last August, as members of the chefs’ brigade at Canada’s Table, and again at a delicious fall dinner hosted by the Indian High Commission. This time, though, it was at Thottungal’s Coconut Lagoon, his 14-year-old restaurant where he serves the cuisine of his home state of Kerala. The six-course dinner celebrated the “Colours of Curry.” The dishes were indeed colourful, and bursting with flavours both subtle and bold, all elegantly layered, complexly spiced, and beautifully plated.
The meal began with a colour-charged splatter of sauces and chutneys served with a basket of Indian breads and pappadum. This was followed by roasted baby eggplant, marinated in tamarind sauce, stuffed with an eggplant curry and served with sundal – a spicy salad of black chickpeas and green chilies fragrant of curry leaves, lime juice and cilantro, and garnished with ribbons of fried plantain.
Next course, seafood, Kerala-style — prawns in a coconut masala, and scallops with a smoky chili sear. Next came Ahi tuna, crusted with Kerala’s famous Thekken pepper, served with a sweet mango curry and with an aviyal, made with baby beets and mildly spiced vegetables with grated coconut and curry leaves. Meat courses began with Mariposa duck marinated in garam masala, ginger and garlic, sided with a curried yogurt and a cauliflower thoran; and continued with Vij’s signature lamb ‘popsicles’ that are nothing short of sensational. For dessert, chai caramel pudding and dates halwa and a sesame tuile scented with orange.
Each dish was paired with beer or wine: two Dominion City brews (its blonde ale, then the funkier Northfield Saison), and wines from Huff Estates (the 2015 Cuvée Janine and the 2016 Pinot Noir Reserve), Meyer (the 2015 Gewurztraminer), Malivoire (2016 Gamay) and from Richmond, Ontario, the 2011 Jeripigo fortified wine from Jabulani Vineyard, served with dessert.
Jabulani is a Zulu word, I learned, that means ‘happiness’ It was a fitting ending for a night that delivered that, and then some.