Oxford’s Cowley has always had a rich seam of culinary outposts and oddities, thanks to the enthusiasm of its student population for experimental (and regular) eating out. Once grimy and grungy, parts of Cowley are beginning to be positively boho and cool, thanks in no small part to establishments like The Coconut Tree. It sits with relative discretion on Saint Clement’s, just over from the gastro epicentre, Cowley Road, and a good distance from Oxford’s touristy centre. Having started out in Cheltenham, the passion project of a bunch of Sri Lankan mates, our Oxford branch was the second ever Coconut Tree in a family that now stretches to nine branches, all the way to the wilds of Cardiff.
Young and buzzy, with bubbly staff and a fun, the scene is set by the dance-y playlist that gets you bopping in your seat (and getting carried away with the two-for-£10 cocktail offer). The space is small and relatively simple: bare-brick walls and low-hanging, cosy lights, plus a dinky little garden where on warm days you could squint and pretend you’re in Sri Lanka. (This would have been a tall order on a January evening, so we were firmly ensconced inside with the central heating and warm glowing lights).
SCOFF & QUAFF
The USP here is Sri Lankan street food done as small plates — a sort of South Asian tapas, as our waitress put it. She recommended three small dishes per person, but this dedicated reviewer believes that a small plates restaurant is an excuse to eat as much as humanly possible, so we waved her concerns away and kept ordering.
Starting with the cocktails (or, “cocotails”), the drinks here are fun and generous. Big holiday vibes. We opted for Beach Boys, featuring fat wedges of pineapple, which is a mix of rum, coconut syrup, and pineapple soda — a little sweet for me, but gleefully glugged down all the same. (If you want a show, go for the Sriki-Tiki, which is set on fire.)
Smooshing sambols in the egg hopper
Soon, delicious dishes were arriving to the table. First was the obligatory hopper, a kind of Sri Lankan bowl-shaped pancake that’s eaten for practically every meal, and filled with rich sambols (chutneys) and an optional egg. This hopper was thicker than hoppers I’ve had elsewhere, almost reminding me of a pikelet, but no less delicious for it — even if I personally could have gone for a bit more heat in the sambols. It’s a joyous thing to eat: a tactile, tearing experience with runny yolk and blobs of sauce to chase.
Of the myriad other dishes that arrived, thick with fragrant scent, standouts were the “cheesy colombo” (a pile of fried mild cheese in a sticky, sweet-sour sauce) and the polenta-battered mushrooms, which are served with a tangle of caramelised onions and are nigh on impossible to stop eating. The lentil dhal was thick and full-flavoured – a great middle ground between the other dishes – and the kotthu (shredded roti fried with egg and vegetables) was a real, carby delight: perfect street food.
Clockwise: Battered mushrooms, kothu, dhal, cheesy colombo
If there’s room for improvement, it’s in the “five c’s salad” which is a quiet world away from “zesty”, and the devilled chicken wings, which my plus one found to be rather sweet: not as [explosive head emoji] as indicated. But these were just little things, and as we rolled like barrels out at the end of the meal, it was in a state of well-fed bliss.
OUT AND ABOUT
Just a short stagger away are the delights of the Cowley Road, notably Kazbar and Arbequina. Then, of course, Central Oxford and its many attractions (bars, theatres, cinemas) are also within walking distance. Check out our Insider Guide for the full what’s what.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Parties, date nights, boozy suppers. It’s groovy enough for a night out (open till 1am on Fridays and Saturdays), but also casual (and delicious) enough for a weekday meal out.
Not for: People who don’t like to share, or those after a real wallop of spice (some of the flavours have been toned down a bit for the Western palate).
The damage: Amazingly reasonable! Cocktails are two for £10 or £12, small plates start at £2.70, with the most you’ll pay for any single dish being £9.70 for the substantial chicken and cheese kotthu.
The Coconut Tree, 76 Saint Clement’s Street, Oxford, OX4 1AH. Tel: 01865 421865.