Food: 7.5 Drink: 9 Atmosphere: 9 Overall: 8
The Coconut Tree has stormed onto the Triangle in effortlessly cool fashion, boasting some of the best atmosphere in Bristol – and that’s no mean feat. While I’ve got nothing against Taka Taka’s falafel wraps, this Sri Lankan street food restaurant has injected a much-needed upscaling into the row of post-Rocca chippies on Byron Place.
The story of The Coconut Tree’s origins are like their ‘Ruby’s Mum’ cocktail: sweet and strong, with a dose of passion. After relocating to Cheltenham in 2016, five Sri Lankan mates had a dream to start a new life on the other, rainier, side of the seas. Unfortunately – and unsurprisingly - that dream was abruptly put on hold by extortionate rental rates, and the guys were in desperate need of a roof to put over their heads. Whilst hunting for a home, as fate would have it, a Fosters-stained pub had recently popped onto the market. With a flat above the tavern and a fully-fledged kitchen (you can see where this is going…), the first Coconut Tree was born, bringing Sri Lanka’s palm-fronded, bubbling street-food scene to a quiet, English town.
The Coconut’s success sent spirits soaring – to rainy Oxford and rainier Bristol - and having set up shop on the Gloucester Road, the gang opened the doors of their second on the Triangle in November of last year. Since then, it’s been nothing but blue skies, and with a pretty ideal location, this restaurant is charming, vibrant, and has some of the nicest staff I’ve come across in the city. Candles in coconut husks light up the wooden tables, loud and proud graffiti streaks across the room and upbeat tunes bounce off the walls. Impressed at their business on a random Wednesday evening, I was pleased to hear that this is a regular occurrence – clearly a testimony to the work these guys are doing. Couples making eyes and bunches of mates alike contribute to the buzz of the space, whilst a myriad of bowls, plates and hoppers fly out from the pass, leaving bolshy, aromatic smells in their wake. Starting off with a couple of ‘cocotails’, we dutifully played up to our inner(ish) basic blondes, squealing over the selection of fun(!) glasses and vessels on offer (who are you if you DON’T squeal over a pina colada in a pineapple…). While it took brute strength to restrain from ordering the giant version of ‘Ruby the elephant’, a ceramic animal replete with eight different shots and sparklers and glitter and limes and fruit and – at the risk of forgetting anything about the actual meal, we took the sensible route… and had three cocktails each instead.
Thanks to The Coconut Tree’s pricelist, there’s no room for food-ordering angst; with plates coming in at £2.50 - £9, sharing four or five of these beauties won’t leave your wallet wincing. Tapas is, in my book, one of the best ways to eat out. Putting a ‘sharing’ ethos into dining is perhaps not everyone’s cuppa, but if you’re anywhere near as greedy (or indecisive) as I am, you’ll appreciate that small plates are a pretty good way to go. The food here is super fuss free, and you really feel like part of the family (a strangely charming addition is the roll of paper towel that is perched on each table in lieu of napkins). As a newbie to Sri Lankan dining, discovering the up-and-coming ‘hopper’ was a revelation. At the risk of patronising any of you well-versed travellers - I know Bristol has a few… - hoppers are bowl-shaped pancakes made with a dash of coconut milk, cradling a perfectly runny egg and dotted with coconut sambal, sweetly caramelised onions and zingy salsa. Roll it up and cram it in, basically.
Some other stand-out faves of ours came on our lovely waiter Henry’s recommendation: the spicy cuttlefish (£7) was eye-pricking and mouth-watering, zinging with flavour and doused in a squeeze of lemon - this was food you’d burn your mouth for. The slow-cooked goat curry (£7.50) offered a rich, deeply-flavoured contrast, packed with comfort and melting meat. Sadly for us, they were all out of the intriguing jackfruit and coconut ‘Grumpy J’, and the ‘secret ingredient’ belly pork, but I respect their limited quantities in favour of minimising waste. The ‘Cheesy Colombo’ (cubes of fried paneer rolled in a sticky, sweet chilli sauce, £5) is Sri Lanka’s answer to China’s sweet and sour; adored by sweet-toothed Brits, although a touch over the line for me. For a dish that will cool those fires, get the cashews in coconut cream (£6), and scoop it all up with some buttery, flaky rotti (£2.50). Having mastered the hopper-roll-cram fiasco, we were onto another Sri Lankan delicacy: kotthu. Made from sliced up rotti and stir-fried with your choice of vegetables, chicken or mutton, this plate was piled high with salty, lip-smacking flavour of the kind that wouldn’t go amiss on a bit of a hangover – think pad Thai with attitude. It may, rightly, have crossed your mind that our table was looking a little heavy on the protein, and no, we’re not bulking for the Fighter. A few veggies did manage to squeeze their way onto our plates, the ‘Five Cs’ (£3.50) of carrots, cucumber, coriander, coconut & chillies got us our five-a-day in one mouthful, and the coconut sambal (£4) was a welcome fresh side – if a tad dry.
Having snacked and chatted and merrily sipped on coconuts for a good few hours, all that was left was to get the bil— order another cocktail. First up, the ‘Sri-presso martini’ (£8), complete with a signature imported coconut spirit called arrack, cardamom, and coffee liqueur (basic blondes strike again). As I’ve been through a whole four years of uni and am therefore a whole grown adult, I opted for the ‘TCT Chocolate Fashioned’ (£8), with Bourbon, chocolate bitters, and a coconut ice ball; classy, I know. Moving onto the puds – you thought we were finished? - after this street food marathon, the drunken banana caught my eye (and not the one sitting opposite me). Advertised as caramelised golden bananas (£3), these were dipping a sad toe in the mushy side of soft, screaming out for a good dollop of something unctuous to cut through their beer batter. Having said that, I’m surely not alone in saying that a Sri Lankan tapas/ cocktail bar isn’t top of my list for exceeding pudding-expectations… and hey, with cocktail-filled elephants, does anyone really care?
The Coconut Tree is an upbeat bundle of spicy, sizzling fun, with bloody good cocktails. It’s already made its mark on the Clifton Triangle, recently adding its repertoire to Wriggle (get on those lunch deals!) and drawing in hordes of students and locals alike. With seriously competitive food prices and cracking vibes, it’s a restaurant that would start any night off with a bang… albeit one that will probably end up with you at one of their lesser-civilised neighbours, at a lesser-civilised hour.