Arguably one of the most famous cities in the world, Oxford was the last place I expected to find surprises.
Everybody has heard of Balliol College, the Bodleian Library and Christ Church Cathedral, but what about The Coconut Tree?
Tucked away in St Clement’s Street in a less busy part of town, The Coconut Tree is a pub-cum-Sri Lankan restaurant, but in a good way – a hybrid of the two, preserving the best elements from both, not a restaurant tacked onto a pub, looking out of place.
I visited one Saturday afternoon, when it was recognisably a restaurant, with only diners in. It was a bit early for drinkers.
The passion shines through from every staff member.
Every single one had an intimate knowledge of the menu and couldn’t wait to share this with me.
The Coconut Tree styles itself as a Sri Lankan street food experience.
The menu is clever enough to add twists to classics, while remaining authentic.
We ordered a couple of cocktails – a rum-tastic Sriki Tiki, served in a tiki jug, and a coconut-powered Not So Cosmo – a steal at £6 and £7.50 respectively.
All dishes were in the £5-£7 range. The Coconut Tree does not insist on a service charge because there’s no service charge on the side of the street, which is a nice touch.
There were all sorts of deals going on; under-10s eat for free for example – a shame that for once we were two adults and no children in our party.
A must have for first timers was the hopper, a Sri Lankan favourite that is essentially a pancake with Sri Lankan salsa, coconut sambal and seeni sambal (caramelised onions with a hint of cinnamon). We were keen to get stuck into the more powerful flavours.
Not knowing Sri Lankan cuisine as well as, say, Bengali, I ordered a hotchpotch of things, not quite knowing what we would get.
A couple of starters – the cheesy Colombo (fried Paneer cheese cubes with a sticky sauce) and the devilled prawns were spicy and sticky, right up my street.
The idea of this place is to order about five or six dishes between two people, plenty to sample a diverse selection. For two people, five dishes plus a sweet and drink is an excellent £20 per person.
The chef’s dad’s recipe, Jaffna goat curry with potato, added a depth of flavour, and the right amount of spice. But the highlight was the chicken kotthu. A straightforward mix of finely chopped roti, stir fried with vegetables and spices.
Well received by both of us, it lived long in the memory and even led to an attempt to recreate it at home weeks later.
However, as simple as it looked, there was some magic going on in that Sri Lankan kitchen that was missing from mine. A superb dish that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
After a great lunch, I wasn’t feeling in a particularly scholarly mood, so I bypassed the university and went to the pub. Brewdog in Cowley Road, round the corner from The Coconut Tree, was a great place to start.
A special mention must be made of Tap Social Movement, a craft beer social enterprise located on the Curtis Industrial Estate, and another hidden gem. http://www.tapsocialmovement.com/
Where to stay:
The Travelodge in Abingdon Road offers comfortable accommodation at sensible prices. It’s far enough to be away from the hustle and bustle, and near enough to be in walking distance of the city centre.
Rooms start at around £90 per night. Stay here and you’re just a short bus ride from the centre of historic Oxford, or the lively buzz of Cowley Road. It’s close enough to visit Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford Castle and the Ashmolean Museum.
Forget the train. The Oxford Tube is the best way to reach the city; a coach that runs from Victoria in less than two hours. https://www.oxfordtube.com/