Indian restaurants in this city are known mostly for their all-you-can-mound-on-a-plate buffets – fairly affordable, unquestionably filling, and overwhelmingly northern India-inspired. A la carte, their menus are pages long, sealed in plastic, and organized either by the sauce or the protein. You chose the style of curry and apply the meat, with a separate section for vegetarian dishes. Other than tweaks to prices, the bill of fare rarely changes. Nor does the look of these restaurants – carpets, burgundy tablecloths, elephant art.
I’m not necessarily knocking what we have, only longing for what we don’t. Or at least what we haven’t had until very recently: a more contemporary Indian restaurant, with good looks and regional vibrancy, counted among a city’s finest places to eat. Like Vij’s in Vancouver or Amaya in Toronto (to name the two I know best).
But what must happen before a curry house becomes a destination restaurant is for curry lovers to be willing to pay bigger bucks for well made, innovative Indian food.
Which brings me back to Coconut Lagoon, chapter two. The little St. Laurent south Indian restaurant has always shone in the kitchen, its many laurels well deserved. It’s just never been more than what you might call ‘cosy and comfortable’ in its dining room. But Coconut Lagoon has just emerged – in time for its 13th birthday – from a pretty big reno. What was a poky little house has been transformed, with help from Project1 Studio, into a slightly bigger, and certainly more modern building of brick, wood, and glass. The outside spruced up first, the restaurant then shut down over the Easter week to complete an interior renovation. Gone the carpet, the busy walls, the stipled ceiling, the elephant art. That same modish colour palette – grey, white, brown – carries through, the ceiling now covered in handsome wooden slats.
The time was ripe for chef-owner Joe Thottungal to take the plunge and grow a bit. Though his place has a deep and loyal fan base of neighbours, and those in the Indian community (particularly from the south) longing for the uplifting flavours of home, more and more folk were flocking in to taste the food of the winner of last year’s regional Gold Medal Plates. And with Thottungal’s follow-up silver medal at the Canadian Culinary Championships last February, his little suburban restaurant has gained national attention.
Most of the signature dishes remain on the menu (travancore fish curry, lamb chettinad, ‘kovalam’ lobster), others have been tweaked or reimagined. The plating, particularly of the appetizers, has been taken up a notch, with more attention paid to colour, texture, garnish, and saucing. The menu remains overwhelmingly south Indian in focus – Thottungal is from Kerala, as is long time sous chef Rajesh Gopi – and the few dishes that reflect the North (butter chicken and dal Makhani, say) have been given southern aromas. The wine and beer lists (local craft and Asian imports) have grown since my last visit. The front of house is run, as ever, with grace and warmth by Joe’s brother Majoe.
Highlights from the appetizers include the tandoori-spiced lamb chops, grilled and served with the house mint chutney and a small slaw; the onion bhaji with three varieties of onion all tangled and crunchy in their spiced chickpea batter; crab cakes spiked with cilantro and curry leaves; and the tamarind-tomato soup called Rasam, perked with Kerala pepper.
Vegetable dishes shine. A mushroom curry called Ooty is perfumed with cumin and curry leaves, cardamom, cinnamon and fennel seeds, its red chili heat tempered with coconut milk. A dal curry unites black gram and moon dal, with mung beans, cowpeas and black chickpeas in a stunningly fragrant, mild masala. Julienne strips of ginger and sour green mango perk up the classic shrimp moilee. The richness of lobster, in a thick, punchy sauce aromatic with curry leaves and garam masala, is cut through with lemon. You’ll want to use the flaky, crispy parathas as mops for the last drips and drabs.
The accompanying Basmati rice is heady with lemon, curry leaves and black mustard seed, studded with dal and lightly yellowed with turmeric.
Soft little rasmalai cakes for dessert, gentle with cardamom, in a coconut sauce with raspberry and mango coulis. Then a mug of steamed turmeric milk that takes a little getting used to. But we’re converted by sip four.
There’s a renewed vibrancy at Coconut Lagoon that’s lovely to see. It was always a restaurant where the prowess in the kitchen warranted a prettier room. It’s a better match now.
You’ll need a reservation. More than ever.