Coconut Tree Sri Lankan Street Food
Coconut Tree in One Paragraph:
Coconut Tree hit Cheltenham like a breath of fresh air – the formula is tasty street food, fast service and quick turnover. It has never been less than lively on our visits and there’s a good mix of punters. Book ahead.
The Longer Read:
The Coconut Tree looks like a bit like a typical community pub from the outside. Step inside, however, and immediately there’s that buzzy atmosphere that a popular restaurant generates.
The dining space is made up of two or three knocked-though rooms with a decor that is fairly hipster-standard. Therefore exposed concrete bits, industrial lighting, Edison bulbs, lever taps in the loo, etc. Fair enough, it’s smart and modern – and I like that the owners are confident enough not to cover every surface with Buddhas, Shivas and elephants.
Punters are a nice mix. Beards ‘n’ tats, suits, the sockless, people WHO’VE COME ALL THE WAY FROM MONTPELLIER, students, and me.
Service and Ordering at Coconut Tree
We booked (you need to). Our table was a shelf thing with two high chairs facing the wall. There was a small blackboard with our name and booking time (7.30pm) on it. The name of the next booking and their time (9pm) is also written on it. So, they like to turn tables here. It’s paradoxical though, this business of booking ahead for street food, isn’t it? Things worked out OK though – the style here is to crank the food out pretty fast and, in fact, we were in and out in under an hour. This is not a restaurant to come to for a long and lingering romantic dinner. On the other hand, it’s a cracking, fun and lively place for a date.
Service is friendly and very competent. The waiter/waitress has a bit of a mantra ready for first timers; “order six items for two people/this is what a ‘hopper’ is. If you like spicy food try the devilled dishes.” Fair enough, Sri Lankan food is a tasty cuisine, but not that well-known here. Invaded by Portugal, Britain and the Dutch over the years, Sir Lankan food reflects all of these influences. Expect spice, curry, rice and coconut flavours. Having said that, this cuisine is more than just coconut-tinged Indian, it really does have its own thing going on.
A Good Menu
One of the great aspects of Coconut Tree is that the menu is short enough to keep your head from spinning. The menu is one of the best-sounding menus I’ve read for a while, albeit with one too many knob gags. It does a good job of explaining and inspiring – which is what a menu should do, right? We, probably accidentally, seemed to order well. On a subsequent visit we hit a few slightly less lovely things (see below). But the kitchen team here clearly know what they’re doing. The table next to ours simply asked the waiter to order six dishes for them.
Hopper (side elevation and drone style views)
Coconut Tree’s USP is probably the hopper. This lacy, bowl-shaped savoury coconut milk pancake comes with a dab of cinnamon-caramelised onions, some luna miris (a smashed together chilli and red onion salsa (with a bit of lime juice?)), and a coconut sambal. At £3 you have to try it (and chef will love the mark-up). However, it’s not the most interesting item on the menu.
Hoppers were a bit of a thing in East London a while back. Seems like they tick all the boxes of: cheapness, street cred and, most importantly, they look great on Instagram. By the way, speaking of camera pics, ours are pretty dreadful. It’s something to with a) the lighting and b) the fact that we were more interested in eating everything.
We also ordered devilled prawns (£7), chickpeas (£3.50), Sri Lankan mixed fried rice (£7), Sinhalese pickles (£3.50) and crispy vegetable rolls (£4).
Prawns were huge and delicious, fried in a sweet pepper and spice blend (I’d guess chilli, ginger and garlic with lime), really good. The rice dish was tasty too – with egg and shreds of beef and chicken involved. Pickles (red onion chillies, carrot) have a lovely lingering flavour. They worked well with all the other dishes, especially the rice. The chickpeas were relatively subdued in flavour, simply cooked in a little coconut oil and garlic. As a result they complemented all the other, spicier dishes. Vegetables rolls got top prize. These were really most beautifully spiced, if not quite as crispy as advertised.
A vegetarian would have a very good time at Coconut Tree.
Heat (spice heat) is offered at mild, spicy and ‘Sri Lankan’ levels. The ‘Spicy’ setting was good for me and we walked away from Coconut Tree with that great, warm spicy goodwill glowing feeling.
I’d go back and try a kotthu (chopped rotti (flatbread), eggs and veg), sometimes served with meat. This is the national go-to comfort food in Sri Lanka. Actually, who am I kidding? I want to basically try all of the rest of the menu*.
Prices and Drinks
Dinner for two, with a couple of Lion beers (£4 – the best selling beer in Sri Lanka and the Maldives), glass of Merlot (£5) and a tip, was £45. For kids, there’s a cocktail menu (each at £7.95, e.g. mojitos) including some arrack-based ones.
Arrack is one of the more exotic drinks, the best is distilled from hand-collected coconut flower sap and aged in oak casks (By the way, don’t confuse it with arak, the anise-flavoured grape-based spirit from the Middle-East, which is another story). I tried an Arrak Lemon Sour which was pretty great.
Coconut Tree’s wine list is short and eclectic. Seems like wines are fairly priced but, to me, food like this calls for beer.
Puddings are £4-5 with a strong mango, coconut, banana theme.
Did We Like It?
We really liked this place, food atmosphere and staff. Most of all because its the complete opposite of some of Cheltenham’s you-can-hear-a-pin-drop fine dining restaurants. But equally worthy of respect – the local restaurant scene should be very proud of Coconut Tree.
Pleasingly, Coconut Tree has opened a new operation in Oxford. I also like that this restaurant is in the St Paul’s area of Cheltenham. The very good Schoolhouse Cafe is nearby and it all adds to the appeal of an area that can be sometimes wrongly dismissed as ‘student town’. In conclusion: you’ll love it.
*On a return visit we have another great night – although I wouldn’t order Black Pork (fatty, spicing neither here or there, IMHO) again. ‘Dirty Balls’ (£3.50) – soya balls in a curry sauce, were loved by the veggies on our table. Parippu (£2.50 (a red lentil dhal)) and the Rotti were outstanding. There was a cheese cube dish (Cheesy Columbo, £5) which seemed to be a bit of a Marmite thing on our table – people loved it or hated it. Think of sweet and sour cheese, if you can. I loved it.
Again, service was friendly and fast.