I have no memory of any butter chicken on the Coconut Lagoon menu four years ago, back when this south Indian restaurant was quite new. But it’s there now, at this late 2008 visit, and I ask co-owner Joe Thottungal about it, as he brings me a Cobra beer.
“Best in the city,” he tells me. “Not so sweet. Spicier, more complex.”
“Yes, fine, but why,” I ask him, “do you have it on your menu? I thought yours was strictly a south Indian restaurant?”
Short answer is that Joe got tired of explaining to the masses that butter chicken is not a Kerala dish, and that this was a Kerala restaurant, specializing in food from the southern regions of India. People stopped coming, he told me. “So we put on a butter chicken, and now they come back.”
It was a sighing moment for both of us. It had been my ardent wish for this new year that Ottawa get what other Canadian cities already have. We are due – nay, overdue – for a high end, contemporary Indian restaurant in the style of Vancouver’s Vij’s, or Toronto’s Amaya. (There are other examples, but these are the two I know best and covet most.) Pulling Indian restaurants out of the mire of cheap and cheerful and creating destination gems counted among a city’s very finest, is a trend I am watching develop in other places with a mixture of interest and envy. And it seems to me, if there’s a kitchen in Ottawa able to take Indian dining to the next level, it would be Coconut Lagoon; it has the best Indian food in the city.
That said, there’s a trio of challenges keeping Coconut Lagoon from achieving Vij-class. First, it’s a real Plain Jane, not the stuff of a destination restaurant. Two, the money that pumps blood into high-end restaurants has a pretty feeble pulse these days. And third, restaurants like this one are forced to struggle with a fan base that expects butter chicken on any Indian menu (and perhaps an all you can eat lunch buffet for a tenner.)
But you can’t blame a girl for dreaming; Coconut Lagoon inspires restaurant fantasies.
So for now, I must travel to a Speedy on St Laurent Boulevard (a muffler shop is my landmark) for this very good south-Indian restaurant. Painted pale mauve (or is it cornflower blue?) above a rim of rec-room panelling, with forest green tablecloths, full blast lights, and Arctic air announcing each new arrival, Coconut Lagoon is someway from being a signature restaurant. But this plain little place still manages considerable warmth, with the plaintive strains of Indian music, and delivers some panache by the Thottungal brothers, who, donned in the black and white uniform of the professional server of yesteryear, bring fragrant dishes in polished copper pots, packed with satisfying flavours.
A spicy tomato and tamarind soup to start, and then a killing round of delicious appetizers. Potato and spinach croquettes imbued with Indian spices are served with a punchy lime sauce; vada, those funny little lentil doughnuts, I douse in the house coconut chutney; a half dozen triangular samosas, stuffed with fragrant vegetables, and served with mint chutney; pillowy crab cakes served with a kuchumber salad (cucumber, peppers, carrot, onion); ginger scallops with lime pickle, perched on small disks of onion pappadum; and fuchsia pink shrimp, tails on, cooked right, strewn with crispy shredded onion.
Main dishes give us as much pleasure. Nilgiri chicken is juicy, spicy, smeared with a coriander and mint sauce. Chunks of lamb are tender and perfumed with star anise, while beef is buried in a dark brown gravy dotted with coriander seed, and the meaty King Fish is fiery hot in a red curry sauce. The humble potato is elevated with Kerala spices, including black mustard seed, and wrapped in a pizza size crepe called a dosa.
There is beer with this food, including Cobra and Kingfisher, and a bit of wine. Gulab jamun for dessert, served warm, or kid pleasing caramelized bananas with ice cream are among the desserts. To close, there is cardamom tea, good Madras coffee and a bill that’s fair.
The cooking standard of the Coconut Lagoon is very high, high enough to heighten my hopes for it. But “destination” restaurant or not, it’s worth the trek.