Sarath Mohan, 27, has been a tech worker, a food blogger and a member of the kitchen team at an Indian restaurant in downtown Ottawa. But he has come into his own as the chef at Flavours of Kerala, a 30-seat eatery that opened in late August in a Kanata North mall.
Mohan is not from the South Indian province of Kerala, which is renowned for its distinctive and potently spiced fare. He’s from the city of Hyderabad, 1,000 km to the north. But his sous-chef Benny Vadakkan and Anil Nair, the restaurant’s owner, are Kerala natives, and between the three of them, they are turning some exceptional and well-crafted dishes that should please fellow South Indian expats and lovers of bold, complex flavours that sets taste buds thrumming.
Keralite food has a discerning following in Ottawa, thanks to the pioneering efforts and successes of chef Joe Thottungal, who 13 years ago opened Coconut Lagoon on St. Laurent Boulevard. Thottungal began modestly, but his achievements, including a win at last year’s Gold Medal Plates competition in Ottawa and second place at this year’s Canadian Culinary Championships, place him in the top tier of Ottawa chefs.
Nair, previously a co-owner at Kochin Kitchen, a not-quite-three-year-old Keralite restaurant in the ByWard Market, said that he opened Flavours of Kerala in Ottawa’s west end in part because he didn’t want to be too close to Coconut Lagoon. (He also wants to woo Kanata’s tech workers at lunch-time.)
My take, after several visits this month to Flavours of Kerala, is that Ottawa is definitely big enough for several high-calibre Keralite restaurants. Indeed, the quality of Mohan’s food is such that east-enders would be justified in making the trip across town to try it.
Flavours of Kerala is small and simply decorated, its grey walls adorned with evocative paintings and curios. Nair takes the lead in the dining room, providing friendly and knowledgeable service. Both he and Mohan, who likes to visit the dining room and solicit feedback, can speak passionately about the eatery’s food, the preparations, the ingredients, and more.
Our first meal at Flavours of Kerala began very well, with onion pakoras (fritters made with chickpea flour) that were crisp, but not oily, loosely clustered and brightly flavoured with a gingery pop. Chili chicken — moist white-meat nuggets that had been breaded, fried and tossed with a sambal-like sauce — was irresistible. Salt and pepper calamari were spice-perked, cleanly fried and tasty. “Southern scallops” was a successful fusion effort, with properly seared seafood playing nicely with with Keralite spices and coconut-milk sauce.