Mill Lane is the hub of Cardiff for me. When the sun shines each bar and restaurant is awash with crowds. Cold glasses of white wine and lager lining the tables, Hoards of people gathered into Peppermints outdoor seating area until it’s standing room only, couples and friends sat on the patio tables lining Wyndham Arcade enjoying colourful dishes from Bills or Ask. In the Winter you won’t find much difference. We are Welsh, after all, there is nothing that a jumper and an outdoor heater won’t solve. It doesn’t matter what time of year you walk this avenue, Mill Lane is always awash with Cardiff life.
In comes, The Coconut Tree, a Sri Lankan bar and restaurant started up by a group of friends that met just outside Colombo. They specialise in serving up Sri Lankan Street Food, but not only that, they also specialise in bringing the Sri Lankan ethos and zest for life to their restaurants.
The Coconut Tree sits between the infamous 10 Mill Lane bar and the equally infamous and mysteriously named, Private Shop. I guess you could say they are in good company. Inside you would be mistaken to think you were in a cool bar in Colombo or Seminyak. Dim lighting, bright exposed street art, those low wooden tables with the tiny chairs that make you feel like you are at a children’s party, patterned cushions that remind me of *those* trousers that your friend comes back with from their “Gap Yarr” in Thailand and Bali, along with their new found love for yoga and a nasty case of VD. The ceiling is papered with assorted pages from Sri Lankan newspapers, great if you are a cricket fan, it doesn’t take long to find a few stories featuring their national team. My favourite part? The bar. Two pence pieces lined up perfectly and set in place with a glittery resin. If I could pull this off in my kitchen, I would. The barware is an assortment of copper cocktail accessories and brightly coloured ceramic glasses, including the beautiful elephant, Ruby.
The venue isn’t designed to be your quiet, romantic, secluded spot for date night. It’s loud, the music is masterpiece after masterpiece, the dishes are made to be shared and you are meant to get your hands dirty. They haven’t put rolls of kitchen paper on the tables for you to get precious about cutting your chicken wings with knives and forks.
We started with a few cocktails, sorry, I should say Cocotails, much like everything else on the menu they are extremely reasonably priced. When you consider that you are paying around the £13/£14 mark at the likes of The Alchemist these are an absolute delight at between £6-£8! There may be no sight of smoke or bubbles but these handcrafted cocktails are just as impressive and pack a punch. We tried the Drunken Sri Lankan and the Sri-presso Martini to start us off. The first is a showstopper in appearance, taste, and concept. Ceylon Arrack – a traditional Sri Lankan spirit, Ginger Beer, Cointreau, Turmeric and Fresh Lime all served up in the cutest jade green ceramic glass in the shape of Ruby the Elephant. It’s very reminiscent of a Dark and Stormy but with a tiny hint of fire at the end from that added turmeric. If you’ve seen my Instagram post already about this cocktail then you already know why this drink is a winner in my eyes. Every drink that The Coconut Tree serves with Ceylon Arrack contributes to the care of real-life Ruby the Elephant and her band of buddies all being cared for by The Elephant Transit Home. The second, the Sri-presso Martini, which by the way is near impossible to say sober let alone after 2 or 3, is perhaps the best take on an Espresso Martini that I have ever had. Coffee-infused Arrack, Cardamom Syrup, and Coffee Liqueur. Creamy, fragrant, far too easy to drink, these are totally lethal because there is no way you will only have one. In fact, of all the Cocotails we tried, that statement is probably true of all of them, even ‘Ruby’s Mum’ which serves five. No judgment here. So let me just summarise:
Reasons why you should relocate your next cocktail hour to The Coconut Tree:
- They won’t break the bank. Cocktails start at £6 and even the sharing cocktails start at just £15. Your bank manager will thank you.
- They are going to look super cute on your Instagram feed. After all, if it’s not on Instagram, Did it even happen?
- Most of the cocktails contain some sort of spice or fresh fruit which we all know is good for you. Turmeric is a super food, coconut is good for your heart, Ceylon is packed of antioxidants, Mint even helps with stress. This isn’t a cocktail bar, it’s essentially a health retreat.
- Elephants are adorable, they also need a lot of looking after, Order a few ‘Ruby’s’ and sit back and daydream of her frolicking with all of her little elephant mates thanks to your kind contribution.
Everything you order in The Coconut Tree follows a trend. It would be an insult to say it is ‘cheap and cheerful’ because whilst it is both those things, it is so much more. The food is designed to be luxury Sri Lankan street food. Reading the menu, it promises an explosion of colour and flavour and Boy… does it deliver just that.
I am a huge fan of spicy food. When Joe first met my parents the poor lad had never really eaten anything spicier than a tikka dish, then my mum serves up the infamous Jerk Pork that she makes with fresh scotch bonnet chilies. I didn’t know whether he was crying, sweating or a mixture of the two. Meanwhile, I’m sat there scrapping the marinade off the bottom of the pan with a piece of leftover bread. When I come across a restaurant in the UK like The Coconut Tree that promises to serve up cuisine notorious for spice and heat, on most occasions I’m left feeling a little disappointed. We were lucky enough to try quite a range of dishes, small dishes designed so that you can share them and try a bigger range. Once the first few dishes arrived my spice seeking cynicism took all of 2 seconds to dissipate. Each dish was punchier than the last. A side of chickpeas would normally sound like a bit of a take it or leave it dish, these were more like try it or regret it. Chickpeas stir-fried in coconut oil, onions, garlic, mustard seeds & chilies and topped with shredded coconut they were full of flavour and carried a good whack of heat, even for me.
An assortment of dishes quickly followed. Devilled chicken wings, Black Pork, Jaffna Goat Curry. All served up in white enamel bowls, all steaming hot, packed full of flavour and creating the most wonderful aroma in the air. The Kotthu, a fusion street food, is by no means a looker, it looks really like a pack of stir-fried veg you’ve just picked up from Tesco Express. Nope, this deserves more than a Tesco label, this deserves a sexy M&S Ad with that weirdly erotic voiceover. Shredded roti, mixed vegetables and eggs running through it, you can opt to add in chicken or cheese but this dish is perfect just as it is, incredibly moreish and yet again, full of flavour.
Other standouts? Hot Battered Spicy Cuttlefish, covered in a stocky, spicy glaze, piping hot and wonderfully crisp and the tradiitional Hopper, a bowl-shaped coconut milk pancake served with a runny fried egg, coconut sambal, caramelised onions with a hint of cinnamon & Sri Lankan salsa. Mix up the filling and then roll this into a pancake to enjoy. This definitely had a taste reminiscent of Caribbean jerk seasoning, lots of herbs, spices, and a slightly smokey finish.
This is going to sound so unbelievably corny but The Coconut Tree feels like so much more than a restaurant and bar. It feels authentic, the focus isn’t on creating Sri Lankan inspired dishes with a hefty price tag and suited to a more Western palette, the focus is on serving real Sri Lankan dishes and flavours just like you would find them on the island. The staff are warm and many of them themselves hail from Sri Lanka, they’ve even brought over some of their Grandma’s in order to get inspiration on the menu, it doesn’t get more authentic than that does it!?
Where? 10 Mill Lane, Cardiff
Price? Cheap!! Dishes range between £2.50-£8.
*I was invited to the opening of The Coconut Tree and all dishes were complimentary, however, thoughts are all my own and there was no obligation to post.