the UK based Restaurant and Hotel Review
Shelagh Davies stayed at the idyllic
Coconut Lagoon in Kerala, with its two restaurants
The Coconut Lagoon resort hotel is an exclusive haven with a unique cultural heritage, located in the backwaters of Kerala near Kumarakom. It can only be reached by boat and the accommodation is in "tarawad" cottages. Our charming cottage overlooked a backwater and from our verandah we sat and watched the occasional wooden canoe punt by and listened to the birds singing. We were there during the busiest season for tourists, but in spite of that, the staff were calm and efficient. Our days were spent either relaxing by the swimming pool or lying in a hammock gazing over the vast Vembanad Lake with its fringe of coconut trees, and, in the evenings, we enjoyed dining in the two restaurants within the resort.
Chef Raju has a staff of sixteen who cater for the guests who can number over 200 people in the main restaurant and up to 50 in the smaller seafood restaurant. Both restaurants are open on three sides while the cooking takes place on the fourth side. Ceiling fans rotate gently, enough to keep the air pleasantly cool. Meals are served by women wearing charming saris and there are attentive hostesses who ensure that their guests have everything they need.
On the first evening we went to the Seafood Restaurant. One must sample seafood when in Kerala, and we were not disappointed. The menu is quite simple and perfect.
We chose seafood platters which consisted of a succulent fillet of Kingfish, spread with a deliciously spiced massala with just enough zest to make it taste of Kerala but still allowing us to enjoy the freshness of the fish. Alongside this were a couple of well-named jumbo prawns. They were huge! With lots of fresh lime squeezed liberally over them, they were sweet and delicious. A generous number of smaller but equally good tiger prawns accompanied them. The seafood content was completed with the addition of a little pile of surprisingly tender little rings of calamari, also coated with massala. A few well-chosen vegetables were added to the platter - perfectly complementing the seafood.
This was one occasion while we were in Kerala when we perhaps should have sampled the Indian wine which was on offer, but we had become very fond of Kingfisher beer and so that was our choice once again. It's an extremely good beer to accompany the Keralan food as it has a good flavour which isn't lost amongst all the deliciously spiced dishes.
On the second evening we chose the Main Restaurant, where the meal is in the form of a buffet...
To help us to make choices, the name of the dish is clearly written on a card placed in front of the vessel containing it. Staff stand behind the buffet to help at any time and the bowls are continually refilled as we returned again and again. The choice was stunning and as we wanted to try as many dishes as possible, we simply took a small amount of almost everything.
We began with fish - first a fillet of grilled fish, cooked to order, which was wrapped in banana leaf having been spread with an onion based curry mix. Then we tried fish in a massala suace where instead of adding lime to the massala, the tempering agent was a fruit called a cocum (similar to mangosteen). Both managed to be wonderfully spiced but at the same time we could taste the freshness of each.
Next a chicken dish - Green Hara Kebab. The chicken had been marinated in mint chutney and, though a little chewy, it was surprisingly good. On the same plate we tried some of the rather prosaically named Mutton Fry. Chef Raju told us this is very specific to the backwaters - it was mouth-wateringly delicious - although quite dry, but since many of the other dishes were not, it made a pleasant change.
Another chicken dish came next - the meat was coated with a sauce made from onion and tomatoes, to which Chef Raju added his own special massala mix. Next to it was a prawn curry - cooked with cocum and added coconut milk. Both of these were delicious but a complete revelation was Kalan - a sweet banana curry made with ground coconut and yoghurt. Any heat experienced in the other dishes was immediately dispelled with a mouthful of Kalan.
The buffet continued with a lentil dish - Green Gram, sautéed local vegetables (including raw banana, (thinly sliced, skin included), snake gourd, bitter gourd, okra, pumpkin, curry leaves and carrot), vegetables in a sauce of ground cashew nuts and tomatoes (which has Northern Indian influences) and finally a superb potato dish which was an exotic version of pommes dauphinoise as the potatoes had a wonderful almost melted consistency having been cooked in coconut cream with mustard seed.
Chef Raju offered his own, freshly made, chutneys and pickles. We tried three of them - "Gooseberry" (not the same as the fruit of the same name with which we are familiar), Sour Gourd and Date. The latter was supremely sticky and sweet. A little spoonful went a long way, but it was a happy discovery, as were the other two that we tried. Other offerings were Beetroot chutney and lime and lemon pickles.
We only just had room to finish off our meal with the classic dessert Goulab Jamum, made by reducing milk to a thick cream, adding just a touch of flour and frying the resulting sweet dumpling to create a surprisingly light, intensely sweet ball. It's finally steeped in sugar syrup and cooled - it made a perfect ending to our feast.
Again, as with their sister hotel, The Brunton Boatyard in Kochi, we were delighted by our experiences at the Coconut Lagoon. Though quite different, both hotels offer typical friendly and efficient Keralan hospitality, supreme cuisine which has been lovingly and thoroughly researched and which is continually evolving, and attention to detail in the décor of each.
Shelagh Davies, January 2004 Click here for her introduction to the Kerala experience
Our trip to Kerala was seamlessly organised by Kerala Connections - www.keralaconnect.co.uk
Read Shelagh's review of the excellent food at The Brunton Boatyard at Cochin
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