Back in December, when Cheltenham was all cold and dull, The Coconut Tree opened up and brought a ray of sunshine all the way from Sri Lanka. Fast forward a few months when we popped in for lunch, and although it was raining and miserable outside, inside we got a taste of warmer climes.
Right in the heart of the St Paul’s area of Cheltenham, this place is an obvious choice for students, but also a popular spot for many others. They often have live music, always cocktails (the Coco Loco sounded particularly good with vodka, coconut milk, condensed milk and nutmeg) and soft drinks of course (like coconut water and cream soda); they serve Sri Lankan street food (with spice levels varying from mild to proper Sri Lankan – great for spice fiends like us) and as the name of the food suggests, it’s a relaxed and casual place to eat.
The menu boasts lots of small plates (ranging from £2.50-£7) which are perfect for sharing (other than the hoppers – which you are categorically not allowed to share), so I’d recommend going with a good appetite or a few friends, that way you can order loads of dishes from all over the menu and grapple for a taste of everything. Food will come out the kitchen as and when it’s ready, so just dig in - making sure you have kitchen roll to hand - and enjoy.
So, the hoppers…
These are bowl-shaped pancakes made with fermented rice and coconut milk. On top of each hopper is an egg (or you can choose to go without), caramelised onions, Sri Lankan salsa and coconut sambal. It’s served open, you then roll it up and eat it like a wrap. You cannot go to The Coconut Tree without trying a hopper for two reasons 1) they are truly scrumptious 2) they are so different to anything you’ve probably tried before.
Alongside the hoppers we also feasted on chickpeas which are stir-fried in coconut oil, onions, garlic, mustard seeds and crushed chillies. Who’d have thought chickpeas could taste so damn good?! We had spiced mutton stuffed into a flour dough roll, fried and served with a tomato salsa and Sri Lankan mixed fried rice which we ordered thinking it would be great as a side to all our other dishes but in actual fact, it would be a good stand-alone dish too. The Black Pork was the only dish that didn’t really do much for us; it’s diced pork cooked in roasted spices. It was very mild so good for those that aren’t keen on the spice but for us it just seemed to lack the flavour that the other dishes packed. But there were two plates that really stood out for us: Devilled Chicken Wings and Chicken Kotthu.
The devilled dishes (of which there are many to choose including pork, beef, mushrooms, squid and prawns) have a wonderful sweet and sour flavour but with a load of heat packed in there too. This is a great one to order as it sits so well alongside all the other items on the menu, providing that hint of sweetness and a wonderful sauce to mop up too.
Kotthu is another traditional Sri Lankan food and it reminded us of pad thai, but rather than using noodles, it’s made with finely chopped parota bread, mixed with egg, vegetables and meat or tofu. Having tried parota bread twice in the last few weeks, it’s now something we are going to re-create at home – it is amazing stuff! If you do happen to be on your own, or with people who you don’t fancy sharing with, this dish or the mixed fried rice are my recommendations.
With all that spice, we had to end on something sweet. All of the desserts are very light, with lots of fruit, ice cream and sorbets on offer. We decided to share the papaya with coconut ice cream and a drop of treacle (£4.50). I’d never had coconut ice cream before and I loved it! I’d have been quite happy with a tub of the stuff all to myself. The coconut gives it a very fine grainy texture, but still maintaining the creaminess that makes ice cream taste so good.
I’ll be returning to The Coconut Tree later this year when I can try one of those Coco Loco cocktails and of course, I’ll be taking a tableful of friends with me so we can sample the menu once again, and with it all being so reasonably priced, that won’t be out of the question.
Have you ever tried a hopper?