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  • Anna McDonald & Isaac Lomax

The Coconut Tree, Reading: A Spiced and Sumptuous Night in Sri Lanka

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

The ‘St. Colombo’ Cocotail (vegan)

Coconut pancakes, coconut candles, and cocotails - this is a restaurant that takes itself literally. Against the British juxtaposition of a wet and stormy evening, we arrived fairly early - which served us ample time to dry out and absorb what appeared to be a cohesive emulation of a Sri Lankan tapas bar. Most hospitality chains attempt in some way, often through meretricious decor, to illude their customers into enjoying false authenticity - but in the case of TCT, its ornamentation of wicker lampshades, wrought-woven cutlery pots and reed awnings simply complemented the genuine cuisine to come.

After clambering atop our bar stools, we were soon greeted by a refreshingly cold ‘cocotail’ each. The ‘St. Colombo’ was a balanced - though slightly undermixed - blend of sweet elderflower syrup, emboldened by the potency of a high-quality gin. TCT offers an impressive selection of two-for-£12, or two-for-£14, cocktails which, though not inexpensive, can still fit safely into a student budget if you’re careful. However, the value was somewhat undermined by an excess of ice, which in part contributed to the St. Colombo’s uneven mixing.

Vegan Selection: Kotthu, Parippu Dhal & Spiced Chickpeas

The tapas-style experience entails a continuous flow of plates to your table. Each one transformed TCT’s signature flavours of coconut, onion, and spice into distinct creations and, despite the uniqueness of each item, recurrent flavours allowed them to blend seamlessly into one other. After indulging in the recommended three-to-four dishes, and sampling bites of each others’, the flavours grew to be familiar - reminiscent of home-cooking previously unknown.

A characteristic feature of Sri Lankan food culture, and TCT’s, the hopper, was enthused as a ‘must-have’ for newcomers. An introductory plate, it served as an underwhelming - and slightly undercooked - start to an evening of better things. The traditionally golden and crispy coconut pancake arrived spongy and notably pale. Though, irrespective of colour and texture, the flavours accompanying it - the sambols and lunu miris - complemented the hopper’s subtle coconut in a way that almost forgave its initial appearance.

TCT’s Signature Hoppers (vegan), Lamb Cutlets & Beef Brisket Kotthu

Departing from the muted adequacy of the hoppers, our food only got better. TCT’s lamb cutlets, one of two ‘short eat’ options, were culinary artwork. Presented alongside a spiced pineapple jam, a firm layer of batter gave way, complete with reassuring crunch, to a warm pocket of well-cooked meat. The menu fails to note the amount of potato that nullified lighter spices within the cutlets, but this was soon forgettable after a dip of deeply fragrant pineapple jam.

TCT does seem to have mastered the art of aroma when it comes to meat dishes. Most poignant was the beef brisket kotthu, which obliged - even excited - the fussiest of palates. A rich amalgamation of bolder flavours was enticing, and the kotthu carried an unusual texture - but it was consistent throughout and did nothing to impair its flavour. Moreover, and importantly so, it's a dish effectively modified into options that don’t have to include meat.

Vegetarians are often obliged to decide, at best, between two choices - choices which tend to be a thoughtlessly thrown together salad, or a tasteless tofu concoction. TCT offers a pleasantly surprising plethora of vegan options, since an abundance of Sri Lankan staples are naturally vegan, and welcomes the opportunity for finer flavours. Some courses lacked the finishing touches required for a truly developed dish, but others exhibited a conscientious effort at a meal on par with the carnivores’.

‘Sri-tato’ (vegan) & Parippu Dhal (vegan)

One lacking item was the parippu dhal, which carried a warm and subtle spice - but confounding presentation. For a slow-cooked dish, the excessive layers of fresh spinach just masqueraded as a garnish. Offhandedly tacked on, they were in fact obstructive to the unremarkable dish beneath. In contrast, the ‘Sri-tato’ was bursting with flavour - a joint-favourite of the night, these well-cooked spuds offered a complex mesh of flavour, spice, and textural delight. We should really have ordered two portions of these.

Price-wise, The Coconut Tree is a comfortably average choice for those adrift in a cost of living crisis. It isn’t strictly cheap, but the likes of two-for-ones on some cocktails, or the 20% student discount, makes for an affordable taste of something different. Certainly, the service came with a smile - more than worthy of The Spark’s esteem. Our waiter, Sachin, was exemplary, offering a library of know-how when it came to ingredients and the caveats of certain dishes. Even as the restaurant filled with pockets of regulars, and some larger groups, he was keen to supply us with anything from spare plates to an entirely new range of tapas. The open bar and kitchen was pleasantly active to watch; not chaotic enough to upset the individual conversations happening around the place - but enough to observe with interest when the conversation ran dry…

TCT Reading is, on the whole, excellent. It perhaps lets itself down by focussing too much on foods purported to be Sri Lankan staples, as indeed they are, before dishing up a somewhat lacklustre product. That said, overwhelmingly delivered was an outstanding balance of flavour and fulfilment - to the point that our team were content with one course. The dessert menu did offer a limited range of ‘Sweets’ - some classic cake, biscuits and ice cream - but this felt relative, since reaching dessert was an ambitious feat. The savoury menu, however, felt like a hug: readable and punctuated with interesting information, there was an abundance of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options - and excellent attention paid to other allergens. Everything down to the spice-factor of each dish was accounted for, and most options were as delicious as the next.

This is a well-managed venue, able to curate an atmosphere that feels genuinely happy to have you. The food is - overall - delectable, regardless of dietary requirements, and, put simply, we’ll be back very soon.

- Cowritten by Anna McDonald & Isaac Lomax


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