76 St Clement’s Street has been a number of incarnations over recent years – the Duke of Edinburgh, Joe Perks the hot dog bar, Joe Perks the smokehouse, Joe Perks the *insert next menu theme here*, The Globe – still Joe Perks but as a pub – and now a Sri Lankan restaurant called The Coconut Tree.
The decor from The Globe remains – scrubbed wood, open brick and navy blue – with the addition of coconuts, street food art, a ‘penny bar’ and traditional Sri Lankan masks. The menu is vastly different, however, and mirrors that of The Coconut Tree’s sister restaurant in Cheltenham, which garners rave reviews.
Sri Lankan food is fairly new to me. Under Bitten Street we hosted a wonderful Sri Lankan street food trader, Sri-Licious, who introduced us to egg hoppers: yeast-raised, bowl-shaped pancakes made with coconut milk and rice flour, served with an egg inside along with spicy relishes (sambals) – and mutton rolls: spiced potato and mutton coated in breadcrumbs and fried till crispy.
The Coconut Tree offers both as part of their menu of street food dishes, along with a drinks menu featuring a selection of interesting cocktails. And yes, there is a lot of coconut. There’s coconut in the food, coconut in the drinks, there are even coconut shell candle holders on the tables.
Visiting on a Thursday evening part-way through January, it may not be a surprise that the fledgeling restaurant was quiet, but it didn’t deserve the measly offering of two other diners. The food here is good. So are the drinks. Hospitality is always good when you’re visiting for a review, but you can tell the difference between genuinely warm people and those forcing a smile and the team here emit a natural warmth.
The menu has a number of tapas size dishes to choose from, along with some meal-in-a-dish options, which would make for suitably sized lunches on their own.
Virgin coconut mojito ordered for me and white wine for my companion, we chose a broad spectrum of dishes to sample, including one I’m still raving about to anyone that will listen – a deep-fried, polenta-crusted cuttlefish (£7), doused in crispy fried onion, spring onion, chilli and sugar, which sang with flavour, texture and heat.
After the cuttlefish, dish after dish arrived at regular intervals, delivered as they’re ready. The chickpeas (£3.50), which were billed as one of the waiting staff’s favourites, were enjoyable, though not to the lofty heights of the cuttlefish. Savoury to the end, the little legumes came sauteed in garlic, mustard seeds, crushed chilli and onion. In need of something a little crispy and sweet to balance the dish, I mopped mine up with the remaining cuttlefish garnish.
While devilled chicken wings (£5) didn’t quite leave me selling my soul for more, they were tasty, plump and fell off the bone. Reminiscent of a Chinese sweet and sour sauce in flavour, the overall result was a little too sweet and not quite fiery enough for my chicken wing taste, and heavy on capsicum.
Note – all dishes can be served as mild, spicy or Sri Lankan in heat. Our dishes came out as mild automatically but I would opt for spicy next time.
Alongside the chickpeas, cuttlefish and wings, came the aforementioned egg hopper (£3.50) and mutton rolls (£4), plus a dish simply called ‘Black Pork’ (£7). The mutton pleasantly deep in meaty flavour and generous in filling, the egg hopper – meant to be rolled up and eaten as finger food – light and delicate with background punches of flavour from the spicy relish toppings.
‘Black Pork’ consisted of treacly coloured pork cubes, coated with a heavily savoury blend of ground spices. Densely meaty and peppery, with warming waves of cardamon and ginger.
By this point, we were lagging. A flatbread side dish of parota rotti (£2.50) helped mop things up, but a serving of beef, chicken and cheese (BCC) kotthu (£8) barely got a look in. We were getting comfortably full, and this in itself would have made a suitable meal, packed with meat, vegetables, rotti and egg. My triathlon husband was eyeing it up for a perfect post-training refuel.
Of course, we saved room for pudding though! Coconut treacle hopper with coconut ice cream (£5) for him, rotti banoffee (£5) for me. The former a lighter version of treacle pudding, the latter a Sri Lankan take on a traditional banoffee pudding, and both delicious.
If you were one of the people previously put off visiting Joe Perks with kids, then you’ll be pleased to see Coconut Tree is very different. Not only do they welcome children, they offer FREE FOOD to children under 10 years old, in the form of chickpeas, chicken rice or potato springs (Sri Lankan style Pringles).
As well as being child-friendly, the Sri Lankan cuisine lends itself naturally well to vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free diets.
I liked Joe Perks when it was there, and it was a shame to see it close down. There are so many restaurant chains in Oxford and they can be such a disappointment, it’s important to support great independent and small chain restaurants when we get them, and this is one of them. Go try it out, visit for lunch, coffee, dinner or just drinks, but do go. Maybe that way this incarnation of 76 St Clement’s Street will last the distance.
We dined as guests of The Coconut Tree, views remain entirely our own