WHILE most restaurants welcomed the opportunity to get back to something approaching normality with quiet relief, Oxford’s only Sri Lankan restaurant greeted it with a party – albeit a restrained, socially distant one.

The Coconut Tree is not like most restaurants.

A long, sliver of a place occupying the premises of seminal late bar The Duke – and the less fondly remembered, short-lived hotdog bar which followed – this lively bolthole at the South Park end of St Clement’s, has the atmosphere of a hip, though sophisticated, cocktail bar but the culinary confidence that comes from being at the peak of one’s craft.

It’s fun, sparky and bursting with life, but also serious about food – the zest and cheer of its bar and waiting staff matched by the extraordinary skill of its kitchen team who have succeeded in introducing the little-known pleasures of Sri Lankan cuisine to the broad-minded but discerning denizens of our fine town.

In short, the food is unparalleled and cooked by geniuses, but it is served in a venue which has the relaxed, artfully dressed-down ambience of the town’s hottest late bar.

The party vibe hit us as soon as we fell through the door, rushing to escape yet another downpour. The restaurant – one of a small out-of-London chain centred on Bristol and Cheltenham – is a favourite with students and younger diners, attracted by its exciting and unfamiliar food, and fun, if unusual, cocktails. And its decent prices.

As food is ordered tapas-style in small (though still hearty) portions costing between £4 and £7, a meal can be as cheap as you like. Even if you push the boat out and make a night of it (which we may have done), there are no gasps, sharp intakes of breath or grimaces when the bill arrives.

Oxford Mail:

Time it right, in fact, and you are laughing. A promotion rejoicing in the name Intro Your Crew, involves a 50 per cent discount on all eat-in food from Monday to Wednesday. We were there on a Monday – and it was gently buzzing - with staff as relieved as customers to be back eating good food inside a proper restaurant.

I have been a fan of the place since it opened, and found myself craving its rich, spicy, fabulously flavoured fare over lockdown, so was eager to get back.

To the uninitiated, Sri Lankan food is not at all what you might expect.

While anchored off the south east coast of India, the cuisine of old Ceylon is quite unlike that of its giant neighbour. While some dishes will be familiar to lovers of genuine Indian food – roti, dhal, some curries and kotthu (a satisfyingly textured mish-mash of chopped roti, egg, vegetables and meat) – much of it is new territory with more in common with Malay or Burmese cooking.

This is very definitely not about ‘going for a curry’. It’s more like a mini sharing banquet - order two or three (if you’re hungry) dishes each, a bowl of rice, a couple of rotis, and dig in.

We took a steer from the fun-loving Anna Garrod, who is a part-owner and undoubtedly its best customer too – so definitely the best person to ask for advice when narrowing down your wish list from the more than 20 choices on the menu.

The best were pineapple curry – fresh chunks of fruit cooked in creamy coconut milk and fennel; Jaffna goat curry – a rich, flavoursome and modestly spiced stew of slow cooked goat (the chef’s dad’s recipe, apparently); chicken curry – a lighter dish of on-the-bone chicken in more-ish sauce; and the obligatory hopper – a bowl shaped coconut milk pancake topped with an egg, and dollops of coconut sambol, seeni sambol (caramelised onions with a hint of cinnamon) and a salsa-type condiment called lunu miris (very hearty and a steal at £3.50).

My favourite though was black pork – a dark, earthy, richly spiced dish of slow-cooked pork belly, reminiscent of the rich, fatty pork curries served up for festivals and special occasions by hill tribe folk and indigenous tribes people everywhere from Burma to Borneo. Hearty, delicious. finely spiced and very more-ish, this is the best thing on the menu.

It's also great drinking food, which is just as well.

Oxford Mail:

The Cocotails (get it?) are a big part of the place’s appeal, and it’s not hard to see why. Where else could you tuck into a Drunken Sri Lankan, for example? This long, heady blend of Ceylon arrack, turmeric infused Cointreau, fresh lime and spicy ginger beer comes served in an elephant shaped cup and is just £8.

Or if you’re sharing, you can get stuck into a super-sized version, topped up with fizz and topped with sparklers, called a Wild Bling Thing which feeds five (£55), or a punch called Coco-Passion (£15), the recipe for which changes depending on whether you come in the day or night – veering between Sav Blanc, anise herbsaint, apple juice, coconut and lime while the sun’s up, to a potent blend of Shiraz, Sri Lankan tea, bitters, pineapple and lime when the party people come out.

It’s dizzyingly inventive and infused with fun – just like the Coconut Tree and it’s team. This is sure to be your new favourite place. Everywhere else is, well... a bit boring.


Go: The Coconut Tree

76 St Clelement’s, Oxford

Book: 01865 421865 or email reservations@thecoconut-tree.com

Prices: Dishes cost from £3.50 for a hopper, £4 for a pineapple curry, up to £7.50 for a Jaffna goat curry.

Do try: The black pork and goat curry.

Deal: The Intro Your Crew promotion gives diners a 50 per cent discount on eat-in food from Monday to Wednesday, for the rest f the year.

Parking: You’re joking! Get a bus and try a cocktail