Coconut Lagoon – Where Food is the Love Language
Part of the joy of being a sommelier and food lover is the sense of discovery. Recently I noticed an announcement for a wine dinner featuring the cuisine of south India, accompanied by French wines, with guided tastings led by wine experts. My wine antennae went up, and my taste buds perked up immediately. Wine dinners are a catalyst for learning, both about the wines and, in this case, about the gastronomy of a southern coastal region in India called Kerala. Indian cuisine is extremely regional and is affected by the seasons, which influence the availability of ingredients and the style of food.
Founder Joe Thottungal is the visionary behind his two Ottawa restaurants, Coconut Lagoon and Thali. As a chef, he cooks the way his family has always eaten, a style passed down in Kerala from generation to generation. Joe cooks with love and passion for his culinary traditions, which he now shares generously with visitors to his restaurants. He sources local or Canadian ingredients whenever possible and fuses contemporary techniques with the classic flavours and textures of Kerala. He has written two books. The first, “Coconut Lagoon”, was a tribute to his home state of Kerala, written as an introduction to its cuisine and traditional dishes. In the second book, My Thali, co-authored with Anne DesBrisay, he further shares the recipes, ingredients and cooking style of Kerala and the tradition of thali, a meal composed of many elements.
Joe Thottungal is a highly regarded, award-winning philanthropist in Ottawa. During the Covid lockdown, he partnered with Food for Thought Ottawa, a volunteer-run community kitchen, where he served as culinary director. Since then, the nonprofit has served more than 200,000 meals to less fortunate Ottawa residents. He had a central role in serving low-income residents through the community kitchen. Thottungal also helped run a children’s cooking camp, Junior Foodie Kitchen, with Vinod Rajasekaran, CEO of Food for Thought, which was a great success. “He’s a gift to our community,” Treasury Board President Mona Fortier said of Thottungal. He was the recipient of the 2022 Newsmaker of the Year Award from OBJ and the Ottawa Board of Trade. That year he also received the Order of Ottawa, honouring his work addressing food insecurity.
Our wine dinner was a leisurely and luxurious six-course meal, with every artistically presented dish a joyful expression of South Indian cuisine.
We started with CHILLED PINEAPPLE RASAM, a delightful soup made with pineapple juice, coconut juice and broth, enhanced by spices that included coriander, curry leaves, cumin, red chili and pepper. The fruit flavour was refreshing on a sizzling hot day and the spicing of the soup made the taste buds wake up—an ideal first dish. Our wine was OLIVIER COSTE CARIGNAN BLANC RARE 2022, which was beautifully lush and floral, showing pear blossom, tangerine, white peach and melon, with slight anise. Absolutely perfect paired with the Pineapple Rasam. I had never tasted a Carignan Blanc, but it was an immediate hit, and I will definitely look for it again.
Our next dish was SAUTEED LOBSTER IN MANGO CURRY SAUCE, accompanied by steamed asparagus. Wow! I grew up in lobster country on Canada’s East Coast, so I was excited to see lobster on the menu. This was the first time I had it with a curry sauce. The mango tempered the curry, so it did not overpower the lobster. Our wine was DOMAINE MONTROSE SOLIS LUMEN ROSE 2021. This Rosé is an organic project from Domaine Montrose, packaged in recyclable cans. It’s pale pink, with summery notes of strawberries, raspberries, orange rind and citrus blossoms. Not only are the cans environmentally responsible, but because they weigh less than a glass bottle, they are very practical when packing for a picnic or taking to the cottage or boat.
KERALA FRIED CHICKEN was next. We were encouraged to eat the crispy chunks of chicken with our fingers and to dip it in the accompanying aioli, made very flavourful with green curry leaves. The chicken had been marinated for several hours and the spices included ginger, garlic, green chili and curry leaves. It was served with plantain chips and lime wedges. That was a big hit with all of us, and I think we scooped up every drop of that aioli! DOMAINE MONTROSE CHARDONNAY 2022 was paired with the chicken. This is an unoaked Chardonnay that was aged in stainless steel vats to preserve and optimize the fresh fruit flavours. It shows fragrant white blossoms, along with crisp notes of pear, lemon curd and a lingering minerality. It was an excellent match for the chicken, with the fruit flavours complementing the spices in the chicken and the acidity matching both the chicken and the aioli.
Fragrant DUCK BIRYANI arrived. This is a rice dish with layers of flavours and textures, again made delicious with the expert use of spices; cloves, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon and fennel, along with a ginger-garlic paste. There were generous chunks of duck meat sourced from Mariposa Farms. This was one of my favourite dishes of the meal, and I highly recommend it. Our wine with the Biryani was OLIVIER COSTE CINSAULT IGP 2021. It was an absolutely perfect pairing. The dark fruit and berry flavours of plums, boysenberries and wild blueberries, together with fresh rosemary, complemented the Duck Biryani, and there’s a slight pink peppercorn note on the finish, which keeps your taste buds happy with every sip. This red wine was fermented in concrete. Unoaked wines were expertly chosen throughout our meal so that the oak flavours would not compete with the spices used in the food.
At this point, we were feeling quite full; however, there was more food to come. I was definitely in my happy place, surrounded by fellow food and wine lovers, exquisite food, gracious service and excellent French wines.
When the BRAISED LAMB SHANK in MAPPAS SAUCE arrived, I wondered how I could possibly eat much more, but the first bite convinced me to continue. Mappas sauce is a typical Kerala preparation. It’s mildly spicy with a thick, creamy coconut milk gravy. OLIVIER COSTE OLD STAR CARIGNAN 2021 was our excellent wine pairing. This wine gives flavours of dark stewed fruit and spice, with a touch of pepper and a lively acidity, which complemented the lamb beautifully.
Dessert was VATTALAPPAM, a delicious pudding made with coconut milk, cashew nuts, eggs and various spices that include cardamom, cloves, and nutmeg. It was a lovely counterpoint to the dessert wine, SOUTHBROOK ANNIVERSARY. If you like madeira and sherry, this is a Canadian wine to remember. It’s a semi-sweet, full-bodied dessert wine that gives rich flavours of ripe pears, orange marmalade, figs and nuts, with a delicious lingering finish. It was fabulous finish to our meal.
A meal shared together with family or friends is one of life’s great pleasures. There’s nothing like that human connection with each other over a good meal. It was a great pleasure to discover the food of Kerala at Coconut Lagoon. What did I learn? The beauty of this cuisine lies in the skillful use of spices. I also discovered several wonderful French wines. If you’re now curious to order some of these fabulous wines, contact email@example.com
I left with a full stomach and a grateful heart for the opportunity to experience the flavours of Kerala. The new Coconut Lagoon is a wonderful addition to Ottawa’s culinary scene and one visit is simply not enough. It’s on my must-return list!
For more wine and food discovery from Jane Staples, visit www.bellovinoj.com