Of all of Reading’s new restaurants, The Coconut Tree might be the one most people have asked me to review as soon as possible. Which is in itself interesting, because The Coconut Tree has already had more write-ups online than most of Reading’s new places – but the thing is, they’re all on Instagram. Remember all that talk last year about how hospitality was on its knees and taking free shit was plain immoral? Nature is definitely healing, because The Coconut Tree’s plan for its launch was very much as they used to be in the before times – find some local Instagrammers with over five thousand followers, bung them some PR copy to include in the social media coverage, sit back and watch.
And I don’t know about you, but I learned a lot. Admittedly, nearly all of it I could have learned just from reading their menu, but it’s dead useful to discover that the food is “fresh, tasty and full of flavour” (it would be a brave restaurant that said “you know what? Lots of our stuff is stale and bland”). And to discover, from multiple Instagram posts, that one of the cocktails is set on fire in front of you: the drinks in general, allegedly, are “banging”. Did I mention the “proper good vibes”, or the fact that it’s “cool” and “trendy”? Perhaps the best summary was that “the cuisine is insane”. Sri Lankan food: utter madness!
Of course, what none of those posts covered in much detail was that their food was all free. Their booze, too. “There wasn’t a cocktail I didn’t like” said another influencer. I bet. “Nothing too specific, we’re quite happy for you to construct the post!” said one writeup, showing that the influencer had copied and pasted all the text from the PR company without reading it first. That one was a “paid partnership”: not only did they get free food but, presumably, they were also paid to do the copying and pasting. I can’t compete with those levels of polish, sadly, so instead you get my impressions of the place after I turned up on a weekday with my friend Jerry, two Sancho Panzas in search of a Don Quixote.
“The service is wonderful!” Jerry enthused as I met him outside the restaurant. “I went inside to see if you were there already and the lady who greeted me was absolutely lovely.”
I never went to Zizzi, so I don’t know what it used to look like, but the Coconut Tree is pretty bright and lively with an open kitchen straight ahead and the rest of it broken up into zones (along with a bizarre waiting room area at the front which looks, in the nicest sense, like a waste of space). There was a mixture of low tables and high tables with stools – in an ideal world I’d have chosen the former, but the staff led us to the latter where we sat, somewhat incongruously, under a wicker canopy. The place was fuller than I was comfortable with, but we’d deliberately chosen to eat a late lunch, so the place thinned out pretty quickly.
The lady serving us, who was every bit as friendly and engaging as the one who had greeted Jerry, talked us through the concept – because, yes, The Coconut Tree is one of those places with a concept. I imagine that one day we’ll reach the stage where the concept is “you order a starter, a main and a dessert and we bring them to you in that order, spaced at reasonable intervals”, but for the time being “concept” often refers to places like The Coconut Tree where dishes are smaller, tapas-style for sharing and they turn up in whatever order the kitchen feels like sending them.
I know this sounds crotchety – and as an aside I’ve never understood how restaurants think smaller plates are perfect for sharing – but we gladly threw ourselves into it, ordering a selection of dishes and a couple of beers. It’s a pretty big menu with plenty of small plates, a handful of larger ones and of course hoppers, coconut milk pancakes which might be Sri Lanka’s best-known dish. Much of the menu is suitable for vegans, and nearly all of it is gluten free. Most of the small dishes range between four and seven pounds, a couple of the larger ones cost slightly more and they recommend you aim for three per person, so that’s exactly what we did.
Our beer arrived first. I reckon Jerry could have been persuaded to have a cocktail – or as they put it, cocotail (sic) – but I was being well behaved. Lion is a Sri Lankan lager which they’ve apparently been making in Sri Lanka since the 1880s. Despite that, and the fact that the brewery who make it are yet to be absorbed into AB InBev like so many others, it tasted pretty generic, and I thought it was an odd decision by the staff to pour it at the bar rather than bring the can to the table. It wasn’t quite cold enough – maybe the glass hadn’t been long out of a dishwasher.
From this point onwards, unfortunately, it gets harder to be positive. Some of that, in fairness, was our fault: we arguably could have ordered a wider variety of dishes. Some is just one of those things: the staff got part of our order wrong and brought something we didn’t want. These things happen. But a lot of the problems were down to the kitchen.
Take the devil pork with pineapple, Jerry’s first choice from the menu. According to the menu it was spicy, sweet, tangy and sour. If only that were true: in reality it was acrid, blasting heat unsuccessfully lightened by huge chunks of pineapple, by far the predominant ingredient. The pork belly, supposedly “juicy”, was a few tough cubes here and there. This dish cost seven pounds, and I couldn’t help but think of the pork belly starter at Clay’s, where you get exponentially more pork belly, fantastically tender, fiery with ginger and sweet with jaggery and tamarind, for eight pounds fifty.
Even though I’ve only eaten Sri Lankan food a couple of times before, other dishes also came up short by comparison with other Reading places. The “Cheesy Colombo” was essentially like a paneer Manchurian, with plenty of sticky, chewy cubes of cheese. But again there wasn’t much subtlety, and an over-reliance on sweet, caramelised onions: for the same money, either one of the paneer dishes at Bhel Puri House is significantly better. The Coconut Tree’s menu describes this as “An off scale FAV!”, but given that it gives its hoppers the label “legendary” it’s maybe not one for self-deprecation: mind you, it also describes its Malay pickle as “a tropical pallet cleanser”, which makes it sound like Cillit Bang.
Speaking of the hopper, it was the one dish we ordered that I didn’t get to try. Jerry wanted one, and it did look pretty decent: relatively thin, with a just-cooked egg in the middle and clusters of sambol and more of that caramelised onion to mix together before you roll the whole thing up and eat it like a crêpe. Jerry enjoyed it: to be fair, I should point out that Jerry enjoyed our meal far more than I did.
The rest was meh. As I said, we ordered two dishes that were dangerously similar – my mistake for not paying attention – namely battered mushrooms and battered cuttlefish. The latter was the better of the two – the cuttlefish was fresh and tender, but the dish still lacked any crisp or crunch from the polenta batter. Instead the contents had steamed away inside the coating, and just for good measure they’d dumped some more caramelised onions on top.
The cuttlefish was meant to be spicy, but instead was more cloying from those ever-present onions. The mushrooms were like that but less interesting, another enamel dish of disappointment, like something you’d get from the ready meal aisle in a supermarket. Or Iceland. Underwhelming as these dishes were, they still deserve a better photo than this fuzzy one I managed to get of them: I can only apologise.
We ordered some yellow rice to go with our dishes, but none were saucy enough to need it. And given the spiel about dishes coming out as and when, it’s odd that everything came practically at once, very soon after we placed our order.
Well, everything apart from one dish. I’d really wanted to try the chicken kotthu because it’s always been one of my favourite South Indian dishes, that comforting mix of meat and carbs. But instead, the staff brought out a different kotthu dish from the one we’d ordered. They were nice as pie about taking it back, but we waited and waited for its replacement to arrive, to no avail. By the time we had finished all of our food and pretty much drained our beer we were ready to leave, so we asked for the bill. “Don’t you want your chicken kotthu?” said the waitress, and we had to say no. God knows what had happened to it – like I said, they were busy when we got there, but they got a lot quieter soon after.
I get no joy from saying all this, because all the staff were lovely, lively, friendly and seemed to be huge fans of the restaurant. At the moment, when hospitality staff are hard to get hold of, I think The Coconut Tree should do its utmost to hang on to the ones they have, but they deserve better food to bring to the table. Our bill came to twenty five pounds, including an optional ten per cent tip – and if that seems on the low side, that’s because The Coconut Tree is offering its own version of Eat Out To Help Out for the rest of this year, with fifty per cent off all food Monday to Wednesday. It seems harsh that The Coconut Tree is effectively halving its staff’s tips on those days, so our tip was based on the full amount: if you go there, you should consider doing that too.
“It’s very busy Monday to Wednesday” said our server. “Although it’s also packed Fridays and Saturdays to be honest, so Thursday’s the only quiet day. At weekends” – she pointed to the bizarre waiting area at the front, low stools and no tables – “we even have customers eating there, because we’re that full.”
Having eaten at The Coconut Tree, I’m afraid I don’t understand why. I guess it’s a combination of all that money off and the fascination of the new. It would be easy to chalk this up as another example of a chain that jumped the shark shortly before opening in Reading, but I’ve been to the original branch in Cheltenham, a couple of years ago, and although my meal there was better than this one, it didn’t blow me away either. And this isn’t about Sri Lankan cuisine – I’ve eaten at Hoppers in Covent Garden and adored my meal there – which meant that when it came to The Coconut Tree I expected more all round: more inventiveness, more complexity.
But everything at the Coconut Tree, in terms of flavour, is very much in primary colours – and bright ones at that, because I didn’t get any subtlety or nuance. Maybe that’s what all those influencers meant by “banging” and “insane”. Perhaps it will find its feet, but if you’re hoping this adds an exciting new dimension to Reading’s dining scene I reckon you may need to think again. I’ll probably give it another chance, to see if other dishes have the wow factor I missed – the goat curry’s meant to be the best thing I didn’t try – but I do wonder how it will fare once the novelty, and that fifty per cent discount, wear off.
I ought to point out, as I did earlier, that Jerry enjoyed the meal far more than I did. But what does Jerry know? He likes me, after all.
The Coconut Tree – 6.6
64 Kings Road, Reading, RG1 3BJ