Friday, January 9, 2009

Lantana: a yummy pocket of Aus in London

A few days ago I had the pleasure of investigating a new little cafe in London's Fitzrovia area (closest underground stop is Goodge St).

In one of my many busy little days working at Rose Bakery, (yes, finally I will reveal to you that that is where I have been for the last 7 months), I met two vivacious and lovely fellow Australians, one the future proprietor, and her enthusiastic chef. They were full of anxious excitement. In their Paris food research itinerary, they were getting some final ideas from the Bakery, for their biggest venture yet, a little café in London, with the mantra of exceptionally good coffee.

I met them as they balanced there on the edge of freefall. I remembered vividly the look in Shelagh Ryan, the proprietor’s eyes as she talked to me over her meal at the Bakery. It was a look of exhilaration, but a definite “am I gonna pull this off” kinda look. I took particular notice, because I knew that fast forward a few years, and I will be there where she was, on the same edge.

I promised I would go and visit them when I was in London next. So I did.

Shelagh, the proprietor, looked at me with a hint of recognition in her eyes as I walked into the café (which was a little hard to find, but kind of appealing for the same reason). It was nice to be remembered, and I know most people like to feel that way, an instant “I’m part of the club” feel.

Lantana is one of those cafes that it would be hard to feel intimidated by when you walk in, despite of the raised platform upon which you enter (which begs “everyone look at me”.) The central counter and cool little take –away waiting area is wooden, which adds softness to the white cement walls. As does the very cool mural on the back wall, done by Melbourne artist and designer. The mural continues on to the take away coffee cups and tableware.

It was bloody freezing outside, and one of the waiters was the poor soul that was stationed on the exterior of the shop window, serving soups and sangers to the “too busy to sit and eat” Londoners. A great idea to get the hoards in. Lantana is really in a great little area, and there is plenty of foot traffic from what I noticed.

Something I really liked while I was shopping and roving through Italy was that many of the streets had music playing, just for the enjoyment of the shoppers. I reckon because Lantana is one of those cafes that make you feel like YOU discovered it, maybe they could use the same principle, and play a little of their laid back tracks to the passing crowds, and attract a bit more attention in a very subtle way. But the place was full when we were eating there, so I could be convinced that they don’t need the extra attention!

So anyway, you probably want to know what the food was like right…well in a Rose Bakery/ Ottolenghi-esque way, the counter was covered in colourful fresh baked goods and salads. I liked the way the platters were displayed on different levels, something I think Rose Bakery could have done a little better.

The coffee machine sits like a proud peacock on the counter, and commands attention, but so it darn well should, as the Monmouth coffee coming out of it is liquid gold, especially in London (MY GOD there is BAD coffee in London). I know I am not telling you anything you don’t already know about coffee standards in London, but EVERY day I was there, I was stunned at the averageness of the average in coffee and food. Incredibly mediocre across the board, and I can’t understand why Londoner’s don’t demand better. I just cannot understand it.

So back to Lantana. I decided to order some of the colourful salads on the counter, because I wanted to see if the chef had managed to match the yumminess of the salads at the Bakery. And I am pleased to report, that she did! It is really hard to get a good salad, and Lantana has got it right. From what I have learnt, it is hard to season a salad right, and hard to match produce that is in season, with other produce that’s ion season, to get the right look, colour, texture and of course flavour…the reason it’s so hard, is because there is nothing good about an over-dressed and over-done salad. The raw-er (is that a word?) the better. Masking the wonderful flavours of the vegetable doesn’t make for a good salad, I don’t think!

My sister is a gluten-intolerant, generally irritating person to eat-out with (but I love her cotton-socks), so she chose the risotto. She said it was packed with flavour and a good serving size…not too over the top. I don’t know how to make a good risotto yet, so I can’t really comment too professionally, but Caroline taught me that it’s super important to cook the onions for a longer-than-you-think time, and to keep them nice and clear in colour, which requires a low heat for a longer time. She said risottos should be lovely and creamy, not the remotest bit gluggy…and that’s exactly what we got at Lantana…creamy and flavourful, with really great tasty mushrooms.

Anth had the BELT, the apparent long lost cousin of BLT (according to Lantana’s menu!)
He said it was ok. He doesn’t particularly like hard crusty bread, but that is just a personal preference. In his words, it was just a BLT…he is right, they are not normally that memorable at the best of times! Maybe it just wasn’t what he felt like…

Lantana is a really beautiful and relaxed space, but as with most places, it’s the people that make it, and I can tell you that everyone at Lantana is great… professional, efficient and HAPPY! So if you need a fix of good coffee and a smile in your sometimes dreary London life go and check them out. I guarantee you the coffee is fantastic. So take a step out of your comfort zone of Starbucks or Costa, or any of the other crappy coffee chains that expats come to rely on just because you can rely on what you’re gonna get (what a sad and miserable reason to give multi-national, culture homogenising chains your money that could be better spent in a fantastic little café with an owner who is putting herself out there and her dream into action!!!)

On the whole I felt a bit like a proud mum going into Lantana. Even though I had only met the lovely ladies for ten minutes in Paris, I was SO unbelievably proud of them. This is something that most people would only dream of doing… taking your dream, the thing you most want to do in the whole world, and putting it into action. It sounds obvious, that if you want to do something then just do it, but then again, it could fail…and then what…you don’t even have the dream! So I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face when I saw that Shelagh was busy, happy (if not still a little tentative – cos when do you really know that it’s a success?!) and the pace was full. YAY for Shelagh!

Can I add here too, that it’s very easy for someone who is gathering, preparing, researching and hasn’t yet put her dream on the line, to sit here and chat about other people’s efforts!! Just remember that when you read this type of stuff ok?!

13 Charlotte Place, (not STREET – that’s where I went wrong for a few minutes)
London W1T1SN, United Kingdom

Closest tube stop: Goodge street.


Angela said...

Hello- it's so strange reading your blog- sort of like stepping into a time warp- you see, I think I must have been working as a cook at The Rose Bakery just before you arrived, and then, I was going to be the chef at Lantana, but didn't in the end (too much work for too little money, and I was a tad scared of London). My name's Angela, and reading about you working with Caroline gave me a little heart ache- I miss her so much! Myself and Avon and Caroline... we learnt so much from one another. And I still have the burns to prove it! So anyway, I thought I'd drop you a line, introduce myself, and perhaps if we're ever in the same city we can have a cup of tea and talk food- my favourite subject!

Frank, food and me said...

Hey Angela,
Thanks so much for writing to me!! Funnily enough, I know all about're the mythical Angela that Avon and Caroline used to yearn for back at RB!! I am glad that I can conjure up such emotion on a blog, but even more glad you wrote to me!
I don't want to put my email address on this page, we should definitely meet, I would love to. From what I've heard you are very creative. I would love to know your future plans as you're a hot item it seems! If you like, send me your email address on this comment, as all comments come to my inbox first and I moderate them before publishing, so I obviously won't publish it! Cheers Kath!

Gourmet Chick said...

I am a big fan of Lantana as well. Great blog Kath and good luck back in Oz.