Sri Lankan street food: The Coconut Tree

There was sunshine on a rainy day at this Sri Lankan restaurant serving up colourful small plates to share

Storm Miguel: Spanish by name, fiery by nature, but nothing of the ’del Sol about it. That was the storm that lashed our country mid-June, taking us from sun to glum in a matter of hours.

Most of us rode out our evenings indoors, heating on, while those looking for warmth of a different kind headed towards Stokes Croft, where there’s now a plethora of eateries offering a guaranteed sunny experience, whatever the weather. There’s a Mexican fiesta to be had at Masa and Mezcal, and lots of fresh Asian tastes a stone’s throw further up at Suncraft. And, since last October, The Coconut Tree has been offering its own far-flung flavours nearby on Cheltenham Road, too. This restaurant is one of a pair in Bristol (the other nestled on the Triangle) serving up Sri Lankan-style street food and cocktails. With the original restaurantbar now an established and popular hangout in Cheltenham, and another set to open soon in Cardiff, it seems the concept is properly taking off.

The branding is strong – you won’t miss the dark teal paint and bold white typeface on the facade as you stroll just north of the arches. “But it looked a bit, er, unfinished inside,” said my colleague, “so I didn’t go in.”

True, it’s pared back to the point of sparse – planed wooden tables and benches without even a potted succulent for decor. There’s exposed brick, cutlery comes in a tin can, and there’s kitchen roll to wipe your mitts on. Still, since when did street food call for a fancy backdrop?

The menu’s understated too – a printed sheet of A4 – but full of intrigue. The five Sri Lankan founders are bringing us food we’ve not been very privy to in Bristol before now.

I’m keen for an egg hopper (£3.50) to start – apparently a must-have for first-timers. The light and fluffy coconut-milk rice-flour pancake is a beauteous pale shade with toasted hues, like a perfectly fired marshmallow. It’s named after the rounded hopper pan it’s cooked in, which forces the pancake into a bowl shape. In the centre sits a perfectly cooked egg, the yolk still runny, ready to be smashed and mixed in with the chutneys – grated coconut with lime and onion, caramelised onion with a hint of cinnamon and a special Sri Lankan salsa. The dish is fun, light, spicy. Shame the place doesn’t open until lunchtime, really, as I reckon one of these would go down rather nicely for breakfast.

Also coming highly recommended is the battered cuttlefish (£7). It’s a ’grammable dish – a pile of intriguingly shaped strands of mollusc, battered and glistening in a sweet and sticky sauce with a vivid red hue. There’s spice here, but the chilli sauce is sweet and moreish, too. With a bigger crunch from the batter, this would have been a standout dish.

At the other end of the flavour spectrum is the Jaffna goat curry (£7.50) – a dark and rich coconut sauce harbouring tender, flavoursome chunks of goat. Hunks of potato round off the earthy dish, whose flavours of cinnamon and clove can’t linger long enough. Team this with a bowl of red rice (£2.50) and a side and you’ve got a good meal in itself, right there.

The pumpkin curry (£4) is a lighter version of what’s gone before, similarly thick and creamy with aromatic undertones of turmeric. As with all the vegetarian and vegan dishes on the menu, it’s great value. 

No doubt the students and the just-grads will be popping in regularly for the kotthu (£5 for the veg option) – essentially a big stir fry made up of crunchy veg that’s fried with egg and finely chopped rotti (a traditional flatbread). It’s given a huge flavour boost by lashings of garlic, ginger and chilli.

The menu clearly states, “Don’t expect a massive food bill… but do expect to spoil yourself with drinks,” and it must indeed be in the cocktails that the profit margins are to be found. They are novel for the city, showcasing traditional arrack – a Sri Lankan spirit distilled from coconut flower sap – and serving them up in the likes of ceramic elephants and fresh pineapples, making this a place to head to for a rollicking party, not an intimate digestif. Bring your festive humour and leave your brolly at the door.

The Coconut Tree, 237 -239 Cheltenham Rd, Bristol BS6 5QP