When it comes to food, my friend Ruby is hard to please. I don’t mean that in a nasty way, but she would be the first to admit that when it comes to culinary matters, she sets her standards high.

Ruby doesn’t just love food, she lives it. She’s a great cook and committed vegetarian. And because Ruby hails from Bihar in eastern India, she is very partial to a curry – but it has to be right.

Not many places in Oxford, or anywhere else, pride themselves on authentic food from the Subcontinent, most adapting their cuisines for western tastes. But I had head of a new arrival to the city’s restaurant scene which not only served authentic dishes with the correct ingredients, but was rumoured to be good – and fun too.

So, it was that a group of us, with Ruby in the lead, made our way from town to the far end of St Clement’s to new Sri Lankan restaurant, the Coconut Tree – to see if it met her approval.

The restaurant occupies what used to be one of my favourite watering holes, The Duke – the scene of many a lively late night, and more recently the less successful, frequently quiet, beer and hotdog purveyor Joe Perks.

It was great to see the place restored to its glory as go-to destination for both town and gown. Even on a Wednesday it was full, its narrow bar area and broad backroom alive with chat and laughter, couples sharing cocktails and small dishes, tapas-style.

We were greeted by one of the place’s founders, the impressive Rodrigo Rashinthe, who talked us through the menu – encouraging us to have three dishes each, but insisting on a handful of signature plates which we should, on no account, miss out on.

He spoke with reverence, and missionary zeal, for the dishes he has enjoyed since childhood and was now faithfully reproducing for a new audience.

And it is new. Ceylonese restaurants are thin on the ground, but ‘Rodge’ is sure they are the next big thing, insisting this blend of tropical flavours, exotic spices and new and unfamiliar recipes inspired by India and South East Asia, is just what we are waiting for. He predicts Sri Lankan will be the new Nepalese – and he and his friends at the Coconut Tree are the ones to make it happen.

It was inspiring talk, and we nodded sagely as we piled into the drinks he had recommended – a pair of sharing cocktails: Coco Passion – an all-too refreshing punch of passion fruit liquor, coconut rum and arrack served in a mock coconut shell; and Cina Colada – a fruity and dangerously drinkable mix of tequila, rum and cinnamon served in a real pineapple. Armed with a straw each, we made swift work. The problem is they taste like they should be doing you good, which, in a sociable kind of way, they probably are.

Keen to try as much from the extensive menu as possible, while making sure there were enough veggie and gluten-free (which practically all of it is) options to keep everyone happy, made for some protracted discussion – and even then we ordered too much. Two dishes each with rice or a bread is probably enough. We weren’t complaining though.

The food was quite simply delicious – and unlike anything we were expecting, least of all ruby, who revelled in dishes which reminded her of home and were perfectly cooked and authentic. She demanded to know where Rodge did his shopping.

We started with hoppers: bowl-shaped coconut milk pancakes served with a whole baked egg and topped with little sprinkles of coconut sambal, seeni sambal (caramelised onions with cinnamon) and a Sri Lankan salsa called luna miris (£3.50). They were light, mild, sweet and tasty, the coconut flavour coming through strongly.

We then dug into an array of enamel dishes containing unfamiliar items – a real culinary voyage of discovery.

Good were spicy devilled mushrooms (£5), fried okra in coconut cream (£3.50), black pork – diced belly in roasted spices (£7), Jaffna goat curry with potato (£7.50), hot battered spicy cuttlefish (£7), a chilli green bean fry called Boncha Baduma (£3.50) and a dish revelling in the name Fat Sister – a pumpkin and coconut milk curry (£4).

You choose your level of spice, though we went for the hotter end of the spectrum - which is really only for the fireproof or foolhardy.

And while unfamiliar and less obviously ‘tropical’ than we expected, it was all very comforting.

A Kotthu dish of chopped rotti and vegetables (£5) - a poplar South Asian street food which is rarely seen on British menus - went down particularly well.

We mopped it all up with Sri Lankan fried rice with beef and chicken and parota rottis, rolling out onto St Clement’s full, satisfied, enlightened, and with a very happy Ruby.

The future, it would seem is Sri Lankan. It certainly is for us.


  • 76 St Clement’s St, Oxford OX4 1AW
  • 01865 421865 or email oxford@thecoconut-tree.com
  • HOURS: Open Sunday-Thursday: noon-midnight, Friday & Saturday: noon-1am
  • MENU: thecoconut-tree.com
  • PARKING: You might be lucky, but could be in with a long walk
  • DO TRY: The hoppers are practically compulsory. Also good is the goat curry, which has a Jamaican kick, and the kotthu. Be careful not to over-order though. Don't miss the cocktails, they are among the best in town.