Coconut Lagoon’s expertly spiced dishes now served in sleek, modern setting
853 St. Laurent Blvd., 613-742-4444, coconutlagoon.ca
Open: Sunday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m.
Prices: entrées $20 to $27
Access: no steps to front door, washrooms
After a recent, too-lengthy run of restaurant dinners that were woefully short on bold, impressive flavours, I was in need of a sure thing. And with that, a friend and I went to Coconut Lagoon on St. Laurent Boulevard.
True confession: In the 13 years since it opened, I’d not previously had dinner at chef-owner Joe Thottungal’s restaurant. But I did sample his entries at Ottawa’s Gold Medal Plates competitions in 2015 and 2016, and their spicy, mouth-filling satisfactions, which represent well the South Indian state of Kerala where Thottungal is from, instilled confidence. Oh — Thottungal even won Gold Medal Plates last fall, qualifying for this year’s Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna, B.C., where he finished second in a field of 11 chefs.
Food aside, we had another reason to visit Coconut Lagoon. Since last fall, Thottungal has made considerable and much-needed renovations, inside and out. When the Citizen last reviewed the restaurant in 2009, my predecessor lauded Thottungal’s food but said Coconut Lagoon, which previously had been a humble sports bar, was “a real Plain Jane, not the stuff of a destination restaurant.”
That’s changed. Thanks to Ottawa architectural firm Project1 Studio, Coconut Lagoon’s exterior is now sleek and modern, with a separate lobby decorated with press coverage. The main dining area, in front of Coconut Lagoon’s buffet and cash, has been enlarged and modernized, but it still seats about 55 or so, surrounded by dark wood walls and matching tables. On the walls are the Thottungal’s competition medals and trophies. In all, the updated dining space is classier but neutral, all the better to allow the sights and tastes of Thottungal’s food to pop.
This week, Thottungal told me his extensive menu is a mix of favourites that have been listed since he opened, plus somewhat tweaked dishes that rotate onto the menu every few months.
At two dinners, I’ve been thoroughly pleased by almost everything I’ve eaten at Coconut Lagoon, thanks to dishes that left me wanting to sop up every bit of their complex and well-crafted flavours.
Among the appetizers, there were plump, meaty crab cakes ($12 for two) that thrummed with the peppery excitement of Keralite spices and were offset by a perkily dressed slaw. Aloo tikki potato croquettes ($7) were nice bites with molten interiors, bolstered by a bright chili lime aioli.
Tandoori lamb chops ($12 for two) were tender and slathered with intense flavour. Thottungal told me he’d recently served 1,000 of these treats at 24 Sussex Dr., and the proof can be found on Twitter, where the chef tweeted a photo of him, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and those chops.
Of the entrees (each served with rice or bread), Kovalam lobster masala ($27) was an opulent choice, with properly cooked tail meat in a thick, vibrant sauce. Lamb Chettinad ($22) provided no end of spicy enjoyment, although not every piece of lamb was as tender as promised. Kuttanadu duck ($23), a relatively new addition to Thottungal’s menu, featured a slow-cooked, skin-on breast — texturally, it felt a bit like a confit-cooked leg — in a savoury coconut gravy spiked with green chillies. Milder was the shrimp “moilee” ($23), with its seafood nestled with pieces of mango in a bright yellow ginger-coconut curry.
Vegans have almost a dozen options and entrées and side dishes, including Ooty mushroom curry ($20), which was creamy and comforting, the Madras eggplant masala ($14), which was dark and almost chocolate-y in its unctuousness. Chunky pumpkin and red peas erussery ($14), while gingery and peppery, struck us as less interesting.
Vegetable biryani rice ($17) was fresh, unstintingly flavoured with cardamom, cloves and turmeric, and littered with curry leaves. It easily outshone similar dishes I’ve had elsewhere.
From a good selection of desserts, I’ve preferred the forthright caramelized pineapple with house-made coconut ice cream (7) to a more pedestrian crepe stuffed with coconut and jaggery ($7), which could have been more coconutty and more tidily presented.
After speaking to Thottungal this week, I tried Coconut Lagoon’s lunch buffet ($18). While the dinner menu’s most refined and premium dishes were absent at lunch, Trichur-style salmon curry, butter chicken and the mushroom curry were hearty and tasty, and apparently were little worse for wear for their time on the buffet table. Pepper lamb, no longer on the dinner menu, delivered the biggest flavour punch on our plates.
Yes, the food at Coconut Lagoon is pricier than at other Indian restaurants. But as the medals, plaques and my overdue visits attest, Thottungal’s dishes are winners worth the splurge.