9494 Black Mountain Road
My first taste of Indian food came when I was 14, on a family trip to London. We ate at a place called Khan's, where we were served bright orange curry that was the spiciest thing I'd ever tasted, and peppercorn-spiked naan that did little to cool the fire. While it was too hot for me, the complex flavors made an indelible impression, and Indian food became one of my favorite cuisines.
I related my Khan's experience to an Indian friend, while lamenting the lack of that same kind of spiciness in the Indian food I've had in the United States. If heat was what I was after, she said, I should try South Indian food. At the time, San Diego had no South Indian restaurants-but that has changed, and there are now a few of these havens for spicy food in town.
One such place is Coconut Grove, situated just off Miramar Road, in a shopping center filled with Indian restaurants and grocery stores. The décor includes a wooden boat that's been converted into a bar, and a banyan tree-shaped platform in the center of the restaurant, used for buffet service. The lively music, tile floor, colorful murals and spaciousness create a pleasant change of pace from the typical soporific Indian restaurant atmosphere.
While Coconut Grove's menu lists familiar appetizers like samosas, there were also several I'd never seen before-such as fried chicken patties, fish balls, egg pakoras and chicken puffs. Not one to pass on the exotic, I ordered the egg pakoras. Fearing they might be a little weird, I also ordered the safe-sounding chicken puffs.
My fears turned out to be unfounded; the egg pakoras were delicious. Hard-boiled egg halves, lightly battered in spicy chickpea flour and fried, they tasted just like-well, spicy fried hard-boiled eggs. As my date said after her first bite, "Mmm, fried does go with everything." The egg pakoras were served with a ramekin of red dipping sauce that looked and smelled just like ketchup. The waiter confirmed that it was indeed ketchup, explaining, "Southern Indian people are just used to that." The egg pakoras were good with the ketchup, but on some level it just felt wrong.
The chicken puffs were served with ketchup, too, and also came with coconut-mint chutney. Flaky and tender, the puffs were filled with spicy curried chicken and lightly fried. They were good, if a little boring after the novelty of the egg pakoras.
Like the appetizers, Coconut Grove's entrées were both familiar and unfamiliar. Having had enough biryani for one lifetime, I again opted for the unfamiliar, ordering Kochi Masala Dosa and Lamb Veraval.
Dosa is a dish unique to South Indian cooking, a crisp-around-the-edges rice-flour pancake (which may have other ingredients added, such as lentils) folded over a savory filling of meat or vegetables, in this case a spicy chicken curry. The spiciness here doesn't hit you over the head. Instead, it's a slow burn. And the giant pancake offers an interesting alternative to rice. The dish was served with coconut chutney, seasoned with mustard seeds, cumin and curry leaves. The Kochi Masala Dosa was good, though the chicken was a little dry-one of the hazards of using white meat only.
The Lamb Veraval was another unusual dish, with heavily seasoned chopped lamb meat, sautéed and served dry with basmati rice, papadam and lime pickle. The lamb was quite rich, with a fair amount of fat, and very spicy from the curry seasoning. The remaining fat on the meat gave it an interesting chew, and made it rather filling. Its accompaniments were good, as well. The basmati rice was perfectly cooked, and the papadam was quite a bit thicker than usual, with, consequently, a less cracker-like texture. Meant as a post-meal digestive aid, the lime pickle is one of those Fear Factor-esque tests of fortitude: it's best to find out how it's made after you eat it.
We wrapped up our meal with vermicelli pudding. Akin to the rice pudding found in North Indian restaurants, it was warm, creamy and sweet, rich with rice noodles, raisins and nuts. A great dessert, and a nice wrap-up to our meal.
Overall, my experience at Coconut Grove was rewarding, and I would, without a doubt, eat there again. The service was friendly, the atmosphere pleasant and the food reasonably priced and abundant. We took home half of our entrées after eating all we could. Just be advised that the food is spicy-for real.