Chicken tikka, onion bahji, rogan josh, korma, vindaloo – they’re the standards of Indian restaurant menus in the UK.
Fine in their way, but when you long for something new, different original, regional – the regular Indian too rarely cuts it for me these days. Surprise me.
I may not be alone in wanting something more than the regular omni-curry. The other Saturday night a new Indian restaurant in York was sending out steaming dishes of avial, varutharacha kozhi and chole bhatooray, and a dozen more unfamiliar names – and the place was packed.
Coconut Lagoon is a smart little place in the middle of a row of shops a few hundred yards outside the city walls on Clarence Street. It was opened late last year by three taxi drivers originally from south India who were constantly being told by their fares that they couldn’t find the sort of south Indian food they’d had on holiday in Kerala. So with no restaurant experience but a hunch there was a market out there, they chucked in their jobs on the taxi rank, hired a chef and opened Coconut Lagoon.
When we arrived on Saturday night for our 8pm booking we couldn’t see a spare seat in the house and nobody was anywhere near ready to leave. It was beginning to look tricky. But with a bit of judicious table moving they found us a table at the farthest end of the restaurant with a view of kitchen and toilet doors and alongside the service table piled with napkins, cutlery trays and water jugs. It felt a long way from the coconut lagoons of Kerala so enticingly depicted on the wall. The staff though were so charming, so unfailingly polite, so apologetic for our wait, for our table, for anything, that we wouldn’t have dreamed of suggesting it was anything other than perfect.
After a little complimentary glass of lemonade we got to grips with the menu. It’s long: 20 starters, 50 mains, then all the bits and bobs and breads and side dishes. I’d have been happy with half a dozen choices for each course concentrating on what was typically south Indian, but a long menu seems to be obligatory for all Indian restaurants.
Starters were mostly variations of deep fried patties of meat, lentils or fish. Beef cutlets – no sacred cows here, pork is OK in south west India, too – were a mixture of minced beef and spiced potato, deep fried with a pleasant crisp coating and mildly spiced with a chilli sauce to give them some oomph. Uzhunnu Vada were deep fried doughnuts made from lentils; again well crisped on the outside, neutral inside but sharpened up by sambar – a gentle south Indian stew – and “chutney” which was more a paste made, I guess, principally from coconut.
We went big on the mains, aiming at what were trumpeted as the most authentic dishes. Kadala curry, I later discovered, is a typical Keralan breakfast dish made with chick peas, onions, spices, fennel seeds. It was deliciously deep flavoured, nutty and aromatic and came with rice and coconut steamed in a special cylindrical puttu-maker and then pushed out onto the plate. This curry and rice are apparently a perfect match though I’m ashamed to say I didn’t make much inroad into the rice. Now I’ve learned about the work involved in puttu I’ll come back to it and appreciate it more.
Fish was plentiful on the menu and without any intimidating “Market Price” tags, even for lobster. There was salmon in coconut milk; prawns with ginger, squid with green chillies; crab masala and, most enticing, meen pollicathu: pearl spots, pomfret or sea bream, cooked in a spicy sauce and wrapped in fresh banana leaves then steamed. Pearl spot was off, sea bream too familiar, so pomfret it was and it was fabulous. Chilli, ginger, garlic, tomato, coconut milk smothered a perfectly steamed whole fish. With a banana leaf wrapping, it looked a full value £12.95 when brought to the table.
We’d over-ordered. Of course. There was coconut rice with curry leaves and cashew nuts. There were stringhoppers – rice noodles – which I remembered from a long ago trip to Sri Lanka. And our request for regional greens brought avidal, a typical dish of Keralan vegetables, another high spot of the evening, for being both unusual and tasty. It contained yam, pumpkin, aubergine, plantains and drumsticks – long tough beans looking a bit like celery. The outside was inedible but scrape away at the soft inside and it was all cooked in their soothing, ubiquitous spices and coconut milk.
Our young waiter, kept apologising for our wait. Service was marginally slow but nothing too troublesome and staff were informed, efficient and friendly. Sanjal Joseph, told us how much more job satisfaction he got here than a nightshift on the taxis. “But the pay’s not as good,” he added with a laugh.
I’m sure it will be before long. They’ve dared to be different just as Hansa’s in Leeds and Prashad in Bradford have and it’s paid off for them. In Saji Kurian they’ve found an excellent south Indian chef to show them the ropes. They in turn seem to be enjoying their new career. Better you imagine than picking up the pieces from the Saturday night party-goers. Just so long as they don’t head for Clarence Street and demand a pint and a vindaloo.
Coconut Lagoon, 56 Clarence Street, York YO31 7EW. 01904 652828, www.coconutlagoonuk.com.
Open: Monday to Saturday 5-10.30pm, Sunday 5-10pm.
Price: £20 plus wine and coffee.