I was writing a short piece to celebrate Joe Thottungal’s cookbook making the ‘long list’ for the Taste Canada Awards when the awful news hit that his restaurant was on fire. After sixteen years of operations Coconut Lagoon has now closed for the foreseeable future.
I’m acquainted with a great number of restaurants in this city, but perhaps none as well as Joe’s. I wrote Coconut Lagoon’s first review in 2004, and for the next dozen years, as the little restaurant gained confidence and clients, wrote a number more. I watched it grow from a staff of three to a team of 17 (and I had the pleasure of witnessing the over-the-top joy of that team when they won Ottawa’s Gold Medal Plates culinary contest in 2016).
Most recently, I’d spent a good many hours in the CL dining room. I’d typically show up between services and interview Joe, his brothers Majoe and Thomas, his long serving chef de cuisine Rajesh, his baker Yassein, (who taught me how to make parathas!), his star front-of-house man Malkit… and others, for the Coconut Lagoon cookbook project — the one that has now caught the attention of the prestigious Taste Canada Awards.
It’s had a life, this poor scorched place! 853 St Laurent Blvd was a sports bar in 2004 when the Thottungal brothers bought the turnkey operation with pooled savings and a bank loan. They scrubbed and painted and put up posters of their home province of Kerala… But for a chef who’d worked at the Saudi Arabian Oasis Resort, the Royal York, the Park Hyatt, the Windsor Casino, and the Crown Plaza, it was a pretty plain place on a busy suburban street. Still, for Joe, this restaurant was an opportunity to realize a dream. For the length of his career in commercial kitchens, he was a chef who had cooked the food of other places. It felt time, he told me, “to be an Indian chef again,” to offer the food of his childhood, to reconnect with that spice heritage so imbedded in his taste buds. There was no shortage of Indian restaurants serving the more familiar food of the north back then. Coconut Lagoon would be the first to bring the southern coastal cuisine of Kerala to Ottawa.
It was a dream with a rocky start. For the first few months Joe, Rajesh and Majoe averaged six diners a day, most of them Kerala expats looking for the flavours of home. Others would walk in to try this new ‘Indian’ restaurant, notice no butter chicken, no naan, no tikka masala on the menu (what the heck??) and leave without trying. But then came some positive press, and word got around this was a good place to eat. Tables began to fill. The walls did as well, with more glowing reviews, and framed letters of thanks for the team’s many charitable works. Joe was named Chef of the Year in 2008 by the Canadian Culinary Federation, so that plaque went up. As did recognition for the three podium finishes at Gold Medal Plates, including a silver medal at the Canadian Culinary Championships.
Coconut Lagoon needed more seats to accommodate its growing fan base and to stretch its ability to offer more events — collaborative dinners with guest chefs (including one from the UK with a Michelin star), wine and beer paired tasting menus, fun pop-ups, more charity events. The restaurant also needed a spiffing up.
It got that in 2017, with help from Project1 Studio. When Coconut Lagoon reopened from its renos in time for its 13th birthday, it was a much more contemporary building of brick, wood and glass, and with renewed vigour in the kitchen and on the floor. And now, in its 17th year, that building, that vigour is badly hurt.
So many restaurants are waiting for the day they can welcome us back. Coconut Lagoon, I suppose, will just have to wait a little longer.
But when that day comes, I hope to be first in line. With a great many, I imagine, lined up behind me.
During this pandemic, Joe Thottungal and a core group of chefs and volunteers have been cooking at Coconut Lagoon’s sister restaurant, Thali, on O’Connor Street. To date, they’ve put out 20,000 free meals for the hungry, the homeless, the vulnerable, through a program called Food for Thought. Joe has announced this initiative will carry on. It needs our support. If you are able to help out: https://www.ocf-fco.ca/funds/food-for-thought-meals-fund/