When Coconut Lagoon officially reopens Wednesday, one of Ottawa’s most celebrated Indian restaurants, which is finally welcoming customers again after a devastating May 2020 fire, will show off much more than cosmetic renovations.
Chef-owner Joe Thottungal, who finished second in the 2017 Canadian Culinary Championships, says his flagship restaurant on St. Laurent Boulevard will strive to serve even more refined food as it operates according to post-pandemic, sustainable practices.
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“When the fire happened, it put an opportunity in front of me,” Thottungal said in an interview. “When I get a new slate, a blank paper, I should draw nicely. Now, I think I can do it.”
The new Coconut Lagoon is brighter and airier, with white, black, grey and blue banquettes replacing the dark wood walls and tables that came with its extensive pre-fire renovation in 2017.
Thottungal, who owns the building that was previously a convenience store and then a humble sports bar, did away with two second-storey apartments during the most recent, year-long renovation. There are now high ceilings and two upper-level rooms, named Cinnamon and Cardamom, respectively, for private dining.
Since Thottungal first opened Coconut Lagoon in 2004, Thottungal has been a culinary trailblazer in Ottawa, popularizing the vibrant food and flavours of Kerala, his home state on India’s southwestern Malabar Coast.
He said that the reopened restaurant will do away with lunch service, takeout food and buffets to focus on a more refined, constantly changing dinner menu that will offer more small plates and use locally sourced ingredients. A six-course tasting menu for $80 per person will also be available.
“I am sure now Ottawa is ready to have elevated Kerala cuisine,” said Thottungal.
“Butter chicken has come off the menu,” he noted.
Coconut Lagoon’s website spells out two reasons for the demise of the lunch buffet, which Thottungal admitted was popular. For one, COVID-19 has made restaurants and customers warier of the potential health risks posed by buffets. The website also says buffets produce “untold food loss.
“In a world (and in this city) where there is so much food insecurity, eliminating as much waste as possible became a top priority for us,” the website states. The restaurant will also require reservations “to ensure we buy and cook only enough for the day’s needs,” the website adds.
Thottungal has played a crucial role in the Food For Thought non-profit organization that launched in 2019 to combat food insecurity and provide meals for Ottawans in need.
The reopening of Coconut Lagoon is the latest big accomplishment of one of Ottawa’s leading culinary achievers.
A frequent participant in fundraisers and cooking events, Thottungal won Ottawa’s 2016 Gold Medal Plates competition, qualifying for the 2017 Canadian Culinary Championships where he finished second in a field of 11 chefs.
Thottungal’s 2019 cookbook, naturally called Coconut Lagoon, won a gold medal in 2020 at the Taste Canada Awards. That year, Thottungal also received the Order of Ottawa.
At the same time, Thottungal has been outspoken about the hardships that restaurateurs in Ottawa have faced in recent years. While he pivoted after the fire to focus on his second restaurant, Thali, that business, which Thottungal opened in December 2018, has had its own challenges.
That O’Connor Street restaurant had to deal with the prolonged abandonment of downtown by teleworking employees, as well as the occupation of downtown streets in February by the so-called “Freedom Convoy” protest.
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