Disclosure: I didn’t pay for either of my visits here.
The first was at their launch event, when I went as another blogger’s guest; the second was at a friend’s invitation.
The Coconut Tree didn’t know who I was, although you may argue that our ‘invitees only’ table at the opening night would presumably guarantee the best available treatment.
You can draw your own conclusions from that.
I wanted to like this more. I did.
It’s not The Coconut Tree’s fault I had eaten somewhere much better* the night before.
It’s not The Coconut Tree’s fault they were full.
It’s not The Coconut Tree’s fault that, out of the 15 or dishes I tried over two visits, few excited me.
It’s not The Coconut Tree’s fault Jay Rayner had reviewed Cheltenham and loved it, making the prospect of their arrival here anticipated with genuine optimism.
Perhaps I expected too much.
I can, I suppose, blame them for one dish, their trademark ‘black pork’, which was so cack-handedly executed that it was inedible. It is comfortably the worst dish I’ve eaten in years.
‘Smoky’ is good; but there’s ‘smoky’, and then there’s ‘tonguing the pub ashtray after a busy lock-in’.
That’s what happens when you burn your spice mix- and when you don’t taste the dish before it goes out: no one could have judged that fit to serve.
In the interest of fairness, I try it again on my second visit: it’s merely deeply unappetising this time, rather than foul: it’s far too heavy on what tastes like cloves, and any other flavours (pepper, cardamom etc) are dominated. It’s a shame, as pork curries aren’t always easy to find and are a joy when done well.
The majority of the dishes I ate? They weren’t ‘bad’, not in the sense you send them back; but neither did they make me sit up and take notice. They were, largely, underachievers. Not that you’d know it from the menu, though: words like ‘legendary’ and ‘flavours’ are either ‘rich’ and ‘bursting’ in ‘an explosion’. You get the drift.
A few highlights include lightly battered cuttlefish, which can be notoriously difficult to get just right, but which is done very well indeed. Twice. A squid and prawn curry is mild, and lacks poke, but the seafood tender; clearly, someone can cook seafood here, though as soon as we take encouragement from this we are frustrated by devilled prawns which bring heat, but are slightly overcooked and hence tend towards wooly.
The polenta-dusted mushrooms work well. Similarly, the thick, jammy chilli sauce clinging to the Cheesy Columbo makes it a decent dish, and the hopper is fun when it works, though based on the five or six examples I saw they are struggling to achieve any kind of uniformity in thickness, with a range from too delicate to be rolled, to overly thick and verging on the rubbery.
Other dishes leave me as cold, being bland (goat curry) or lamentable (that black pork).
They won’t divulge which spices are in that pork dish. Maybe, just maybe, the staff were striving for some plausible deniability. They are keen: polite, helpful, obliging. Sadly, the food doesn’t make the same effort to please.
Ultimately I left Coconut Tree on both occasions feeling rather underwhelmed, and more determined than ever to focus this blog on independents. That might seem parochial, but it’s born of necessity. They don’t usually have huge PR budgets and rich backers, it’s hardly a fair fight- but they often do it better. And while I don’t begrudge anyone success from hard work, I found myself looking around the busy, noisy room and wishing that our local businesses were more prized by Cardiff diners.
Perhaps it came too soon after a visitor to the city messaged me, alarmed that he had been alone in one of our best independents on a Saturday lunchtime while there was a queue for Bill’s.
But ultimately, how I feel about The Coconut Tree reflects a deeper malaise, how I feel about our small local businesses and the challenges they face. Which, if this blog has a theme- other than my inability to resist anything remotely tempting- has always been my motivation.
Not out of some ‘local shop for local people’ mindset- I will always prize quality over parochialism (and have no problem predicting that Honest Burger will easily be among the best in the area the minute they open their doors) but because there are so many places in the city you would get a better meal.
I suppose the food of Sri Lanka has much in common with the food of Southern India, and places like Keralan Karavan and Chai St, or Salkaara and Purple Poppadom (or the new *Bann Thai Smile, indeed) all do spicing better- more vivid, more layered, more insistent, more memorable. They don’t have huge PR budgets. They do what they can with their resources. And I’ll argue they do it better, which is why I shan’t be bothering with The Coconut Tree any time again soon.
There’s nothing here that small businesses in the city aren’t doing better. But ultimately, it’s not about ‘local’ versus ‘import’. It’s about the good versus the unremarkable. Eating here left me shrugging my shoulders. And that’s not good enough, is it?
The Coconut Tree
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.