The most fun restaurant in Oxford?
A party atmosphere, sexy Sri Lankan street food and killer cocktails - The Coconut Tree in Oxford has got it all going on.
I delegated this one to Oxon novelist and super-scribe Clover Stroud. More fool me – she had oodles of fun and managed to plough her way through the entire menu and cocktail list. That’s my girl!
The history of The Coconut Tree is as big-hearted and authentic as the restaurant itself: it’s the second in a small (or should that be short?) chain which started in Cheltenham in 2016 after a group Sri Lankan mates, sharing a house in London, moved to Cheltenham to exercise their mutual passion – and evident talent – for cooking by starting a restaurant. They ran it from a building that’d been a pub, living in a flat upstairs. The restaurant did so well they quickly hit the elusive No 1 spot on Cheltenham TripAdvisor.
The Oxford branch followed last year and is packed every night. Further outposts have sprung up in Bristol, but that original gang of friends, who still run and cook in all the restaurants, have not lost their home-sprung ethos, which was to cook fantastic Sri Lankan street food as authentic as the recipes they grew up on at home. The question is how these quirky flavours and unusual ingredients will translate for colder climes. I volunteered to investigate (I’m good like that).
Arriving at 8.30pm on a wet Friday evening in late November was a bit like bursting into a speakeasy. People crammed the bar, knocking back potent cocktails as the music was cranked up. The bar overflowed into the small restaurant, where every table was laden with plates and platters of delicious looking, colourful food, and big gangs of friends leant across tables, sharing dishes and laughing.
Whatever the food was like, it was immediately obvious that The Coconut Tree has an intensely good vibe. The atmosphere is definitely very r-e-l-a-x-e-d so expect a roll of paper towels rather than linen napkins, coconut shells for candle sticks and smiley, well informed staff who are more than happy to recommend their top dishes.
SCOFF & QUAFF
This is an exciting menu, full of surprises, and I felt like I was definitely in unknown territory. It’s also a menu designed for sharing, so expect to order lots of small plates. We started with chickpeas stir-fried with mustard seeds and chilli,house speciality deep fried cuttle-fish, and okra and fried cheese balls, which were all delicious.
Perhaps surprisingly, the humble chickpeas – spicy and crunchy, with just enough chilli to make them incredibly moreish – was my favourite dish of the entire evening. I also went for crispy vegetable rolls because I was both hungry and greedy. Before we’d finished, our main courses arrived, somehow finding a place on our crammed table top, and this sense of abundance and generosity characterises everything about The Coconut Tree.
Next up where a Sri Lankan speciality called hoppers, also known as a coconut milk pancake shaped into a bowl with a soft fried egg in the middle, which you mix up with caramelised onions and traditional Lunu Miris salsa. It was crunchy, tasty and completely new, and tasted delicious in contrast to the rich notes of a slow cooked goat curry and black pork cooked in spices.
Did I mention how hungry (greedy) I was? Because purely in the name of research I also ordered kotthu, a classic Sri Lankan dish of finely sliced flat bread mixed with vegetables and egg. And we also tried a red lentil dhal, because, well, it would be rude not too, really, wouldn’t it? These are big, generous, colourful portions, with lots of the spices imported from Sri Lanka. Afterwards, we shared a treacle hopper with coconut ice cream which was the sweet, sticky pudding of dreams.
All this was accompanied by potent cocktails, including the appropriately named Drunken Sri Lankans, mixing Ceylon Arrack, ginger beer, Cointreau and turmeric, served in veritable vats. Afterwards, Shamil Fernando, the charming, convivial joint owner and head chef came out to chat. His enthusiasm for his cooking, his staff, his country was infectious, and it’s credit to quite how authentic this food is that, when his grandmother visited, she said it was better than home cooking. You can’t get higher praise than that.
OUT & ABOUT
The Coconut Tree is in St Clements so just a short stagger from Cowley Road and its nocturnal delights such as Cafe CoCo and Kasbar. Or if you’re looking for a quieter night, you can catch a movie at the Ultimate Picture Palace, a lo-fi, groovy, indie antidote to your local souless multiplex. For something a bit different, the Jaqueline du Pré Music Building in St Hilda’s College is a five minute walk – it’s a cool building that hosts concerts for kids and adults alike. The Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum (the oldest in the UK, dating from 1621) is just over Magdalen Bridge or stroll on another few minutes and you’re on Oxford High Street.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: This is a great place to take a big gang of mates for a relaxed, noisy, fun evening, and would be a brilliant venue for a post-work get-together.
Not for: With such a relaxed and communal vibe, it might not be the best place for a deeply romantic, quiet dinner à deux, or to take anyone who likes starched tablecloth formality.
The damage: Our bill, for a huge meal and cocktails, came in at £64, but I did want to try everything, so you could get away with a lot less than this. Starters start as little as £3 and mains £7, so it’s not expensive. Cocktails are more pricey – from £7 upwards but still reasonable.
The Coconut Tree, 76 St Clement’s St, Oxford OX4 1AH; thecoconut-tree.com
Words: Clover Stroud