Lanka – The Perfect Little Place in Primrose Hill

Lanka
71 Regents Park Road
London NW1 8UY
Website
Map
Note: Lanka is a small cafe with stool seating and three small tables; reservations are not taken

  • Pâtisserie & cakes from £3-4 (eating in) coffees & teas from £2-3 (eating in or taking out), plus a small daily menu of savory dishes from £5-10

I always enjoy paying a visit to Lanka. Their cakes are delicious & technically well made, with new flavors constantly being introduced (often bringing an infusion of Japanese flavors to French classics); their coffees are well made; there is a wealth of tea options; and the growing offering of savory dishes are cooked & presented with the same passion and care as everything else. Lanka is a breath of fresh air and breaks the mold of the High Street pâtisserie chains, bringing a lovely charm and individuality to the already pleasant High Street of Primrose Hill.

A fusion that works

In late February, Mrs. LF and I went for a stroll in Primrose Hill. I noticed that there was a new shop that hadn’t been there last time we were walking in the neighborhood, and my spidey-senses began tingling.

Lanka's muted gray facade, accented with little dots of pink

The place was called Lanka. It had a muted gray facade, and some beautiful pink potted plants neatly placed outside its shop front, immediately setting it apart. I peered in through the window and noticed that it the staff all seemed to be Japanese, but that the main thing on offer seemed to be some very French-looking pâtisserie and cakes. It looked very appetizing and inviting. Intrigued, we decided to step inside to see what this was all about.

The pretty, petite & spotless interior of Lanka

It turned out that Lanka is indeed owned and run by a Japanese man. The proprietor, Chef Masayuki Hara, is originally from Japan and since moving to the UK has worked in some very prestigious kitchens, including the two Michelin starred Le Gavroche. He has worked with a number of chefs over the years as well, such as Antony Worrall Thompson and Richard Corrigan, to name a few. In the early part of the new millennia, he moved into private catering, working for an exclusive company catering to City executives, and has now set up his own high-end catering company. Besides the cafe, Chef Hara offers cookery classes, bespoke private dining, party catering and a range of made-to-order cakes and pâtisserie.

The cafe is very cute, always immaculately clean and the service is good once you can gain the staff members’ attention, as they always seem to be busy helping someone, preparing something, or washing up. Chef Hara has been there himself on each of our visits, and I believe it is always a good sign when the owner is present, especially in such an intimate neighborhood place.

As we guessed from looking at the display from outside, Lanka does indeed specialize in French-style pâtisserie and cakes, many of which have a little twist, often with a Japanese infusion. Since first opening, they have gradually expanded their offering, and now have a small daily menu of savory dishes which are perfect for brunch, lunch or a mid-afternoon snack, as well as having expanded their drink range to include a range of iced tea cocktails (non-alcoholic and alcoholic). They use Monmouth Coffee beans and have an exclusive range of high-end teas (they are apparently the only ones to sell Expolanka Teas in the UK).

It is an inviting, fun and relaxing place to grab a quick bite, whether sweet or savory, and Chef Hara is a perfectionist, which is visible in everything they do. When you eat-in, your chosen slice of sweetness is presented beautifully, with a little dab of syrup or sauce, a side of their rich vanilla ice cream, and a few other tidbits, making for a very pretty plate every time (each sweet is dressed slightly differently, from what I’ve been able to make out). The coffees are made well and their hot chocolate is also good (even the infamous hot chocolate fiend @mathildecuisine gave it the thumbs up!). Their savory offerings are prepared with the same care and lovely presentation, and we really enjoyed our recent brunch there.

I have included some photos and brief descriptions of the different things we’ve had at Lanka over our many visits to give you a better idea of what they serve.

Chocolate Green Tea Gâteau

The green color certainly got our attention and we were curious to taste this interesting looking cake. The texture was very nice although the green tea flavor was fairly muted. The ever-finicky Mrs. LF said that she loves the flavor of green tea and wished it would have been more pronounced in this cake. I agreed with her and thought that while it was nice, it didn’t deliver on the flavor that the color hinted it might have.

Lemon Tart

The classic lemon tart was also very nice and well made, though not earth-shattering. It’s not a lemon tart with a difference, like the little Ottolenghi lemon and mascarpone tarts (probably the best ones I’ve ever had) or the fantastic classic lemon tarts from Clarke’s, but it does the job if that’s what you fancy.

Green Tea Bread & Butter Pudding

This was a Japanese spin on the traditional bread & butter pudding and tasted very good. Having said that, on our most recent visit, Chef Hara had us taste another version of the bread & butter pudding, which had a lovely tartness to it provided by some sultanas and berries, and we both preferred that version – it was really special. It’s this kind of interaction and passion that makes the place worth coming back to – there’s always something different on offer.

Pear Charlotte

The traditional pear charlotte was really excellent and full of the flavor of fresh pears. The consistency was also spot-on, and this one worked particularly well with the side of vanilla ice cream and a dab of acidity from the raspberry sauce.

Paris-Brest

Mrs. LF said that their Paris-Brest was “the real thing,” although the cream itself is traditionally more of a praline-brown color and she prefers hers with slightly more hazelnut flavor. That said, she noted that the homemade puff pastry was very light and excellent. Although it is served with a blob of chocolate on the side (probably simply for decoration), she said she would never deflower her Paris-Brest with an alien ingredient – such a traditionalist, our Mrs LF!

Passion Fruit Bavarois

I really enjoyed this passion fruit dessert and, in fact, preferred it to their lemon tart (which is usually one of my favorite desserts).

Mont-Blanc

On our most recent visit, Mrs. LF sampled the Mont-Blanc, which we had looked at many times in the past but for some reason never ordered. It is a chestnut-based dessert and was fabulous, with the delicate flavor of chestnut being infused well throughout, which is not necessarily easy to achieve as chestnut is not a strong flavor and often doesn’t come through well enough. At its summit was placed a whole chestnut, which is reminiscent marron glacé (a popular confection eaten in France around Christmas time), and there was a second one concealed within. This lent a very nice authenticity to the dessert, which we both really enjoyed.

Rum Baba

The last time I was at Lanka, I sampled their rum baba, which is one of the best I’ve had – even Mrs. LF agreed. Everything was in perfect balance. It was just moist enough, but not too much; the flavor of the rum was noticeable, but not overly so; and the ratio of cream to soft cake was just as it should be. I really enjoyed Chef Hara’s version of this classic dessert, after having been let down many a time in the past with inferior versions in restaurants of all sorts. As Mrs. LF pointed out, even if you don’t particularly like rum baba, it just looks so d*mn good, it’s quite difficult not to want to try some!

Scrambled Eggs, Smoked Salmon, Salad

Mrs. LF really enjoyed her recent brunch. The eggs were nice and creamy and dotted with chopped chives, the smoked salmon had been dressed with capers, and the salad leaves were particularly fresh – something to note given it was a Bank Holiday Monday (when we’ve often had issues with fresh salad leaves in restaurants). As you can see, the portion was also very generous, and it was served with some freshly baked bread on the side.

Cheese Omelette, Baguette, Salad

My cheese omelette was also very nice, presented in a classic style. The homemade baguette was particularly good (especially the crust) and I also enjoyed the little side salad, which had been just coated with dressing and well seasoned.

Macchiato

Double Espresso

Hibiscus Tea

Hot Chocolate

As noted above, the hot chocolate is particularly good, very rich and almost all chocolate with not too much milk. I will direct you to Mathilde Cuisine for any further enquiries, as she is the undisputed master in this arena.

The preparation table

Another thing I like about Lanka is that there is always something baking or being newly prepared, and Chef Hara is constantly experimenting with new flavor combinations. He often lets you sample things he is making to get your feedback, which is a lot of fun.

Even your dog will like it at Lanka 🙂

Abstaining from the dog biscuits, we instead took home some of their macarons one day & many of the flavors were very nice

Personality goes a long way

Lanka is definitely a great addition to Primrose hill. The word ‘Lanka’ means ‘island’, which I think is fitting in this case as it represents its own little island of cuteness, deliciousness and individuality in this shabby-chic high street. Places like this, which are infused with not only the flavors of the owner’s homeland but also their personality, are a dying breed and I love eateries like Lanka which break the monotony of higher-end chains such as Paul or Patisserie Valerie.

Although you may not feel like trekking all the way across town if you live on the opposite side of London, if you do happen reside in the general vicinity or are ever passing through, definitely stop by this delightful island of loveliness.

PS – Chef Hara has his own blog, which you may want to check out.

*Note: I have been to Lanka four times since it opened, mostly for sweets and coffee, but once for brunch.*

Lanka on Urbanspoon

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A Tale Of Two Coffees…Well, Sort Of…

Okay, maybe three coffees, maybe four, or maybe more…

As some of you may know, I really do love my coffee. Always have. Ever since I first started drinking the stuff about fifteen years ago at a drive-through espresso shack in the parking lot of my small town’s big supermarket, I have been hooked.

You see, where I grew up in the US, even truck drivers drank decent espresso 20 years ago, and that’s saying something in a country where in most places the best coffee you could hope for at that time – if it wasn’t instant (pardon me while I blow chunks) – was an archaic version of Boyd’s that hadn’t been scorched by sitting around too long on the burner and where the tea you normally got served was Lipton Yellow Label (yuck!).

As I pressed down on the accelerator of my gray Nissan Pathfinder each morning before high school, racing toward my Mecca which was that espresso shack, anticipating the bitter-sweet attack of my morning Mocha (complete with chocolate malt ball on top of the lid), knowing that it would give me that jolt I needed to see the morning’s classes through, I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to give up the stuff. Sure, I’ve tried to wean myself off of coffee (and caffeine) a few times – for punishment, my body gave me worse headaches than most of my friends had when withdrawing from cigarettes – and I even succeeded a few times, once for over a year.

These days, my palate has moved on and prefers something less sweet, namely a simple espresso or the occasional macchiato. I like my coffee the way it comes, no sugar added please, whether it be white sugar, brown or what have you. I have also become pretty finicky over the years when it comes to my morning ritual (occasionally, if really tired, I have an injection after lunch). Having tried what are purportedly the best places for coffee in many of the countries and cities that are meant to have the best coffee, I can honestly say that only the rare occasion have my eyebrows perked up and my taste buds said, “Hey, now this is one of the better coffees I’ve had in a long time.” I would not say that I am elitist about coffee, though, I just know what I like and, even better, what I don’t. For example, when in New York, if in a diner, I might still order coffee, but I just know it will be diner coffee and set my expectations accordingly.

The coffee scene in London has improved dramatically in the 10 years that I’ve been living here. Although a lot of the chains serve very poor coffee and are often inconsistent across their branch network, there are now a number of places dotted around this fair city which serve up a pretty good cuppa joe. Not a lot, but some – hey, such is the march of progress.

But before moving onto the major chains, I would like to focus on two places in particular. Within a 10-minute walking radius of my workplace, there are a couple of very good coffee houses. Unfortunately they don’t happen to fall along the straight line that I walk from tube station to office door, so I don’t frequent them every day, but when I feel the need for caffeine or the burning desire for a good espresso, it is to them that I most often turn. They are my mid-morning or mid-afternoon luxury, my fix, my me-time.

Monmouth Coffee Company (Covent Garden Branch)

The original Monmouth coffee shop in Covent Garden

The original Monmouth coffee shop in Covent Garden

The first is probably the most established of the well-respected coffee houses in London, the original Monmouth in Covent Garden. Having tried all of their espresso based drinks and their black coffee (Americano), I have settled on ‘dry cappuccino’ as my beverage of choice, although all their drinks are fantastic and they probably do make the best Americano I’ve had in London. Their house espresso blend has a nice intensity, lots of chocolate on the palate and is very smooth, with an almost velvety mouth feel. To me, it has a lovely rich, round flavor that beautifully balances the sweeter fruity notes with a not-too-harsh streak of acidity. Paired with the dense and luxurious yet butterfly-light foam from Monmouth’s organic milk to balance the just slightly bitter tannic undertones of the espresso, it is a very competent, highly enjoyable espresso drink and does the trick for me every time.

dry cappuccino at monmouth

Monmouth’s dry cappuccino with cocoa powder

booth for one

I love Monmouth’s passion and quirkiness: A booth for 1 please? Of course Sir. They also try to keep the few tables that they do have mobile-free...how quaint 🙂

coffee beans at monmouth

Some of the coffee beans on sale at Monmouth (they can grind them for you too)

The gist of it: Their drinks are consistently good, and I just like the charm of the place and the impressive knowledge and passion of most of the staff. I mean, they have a wooden bench and table for one person – how quirky and great is that? They also sell a wide range of coffee beans that are painstakingly sourced from around the world and can tell you all about the differences between them. There is normally a long queue if you don’t know what times to go, but I like that it’s on a little street in Covent Garden, that remains slightly funky and has a nice vibe and independent streak about it. I don’t really like the one across from Borough Market as it is too large and too busy.

Monmouth Coffee Company (Covent Garden) on Urbanspoon

Caffè Vergnano 1882

the entrance and the artistry

The entrance (left) and the artistry (right) of their cappuccino

The only other place in the area that really sways me away from Monmouth is a rather new and somewhat flashy upstart. Set along the shop-fronts on an unlikely stretch of Charing Cross Road (unlikely in the sense that you don’t expect a serious coffee house here amongst the touristy drek), it is none other than Caffè Vergnano 1882. I have been in a number of times now and haven’t exactly gotten to the bottom of what the 1882 stands for (okay, I haven’t really tried to find out), but that is beside the point. The small chain has been set up by Luciano Franchi, whose family has been working for three generations in the London food industry. They apparently supply coffee and related machinery to the Italian Embassy, for whatever that’s worth.

the silver elektra belle epoque

The grand dame herself (the machine that is)

But the best thing about walking into Caffè Vergnano is seeing their gargantuan silver madame, the holy grail of espresso fabrication, the elegant and maniacal stainless steel workhorse that pumps dark brown blood through its veins, the aortic arch from which the pulse of Verganano’s espresso emanates. Yeah, it’s the big honkin’ shiny espresso machine that you can’t miss from the window. It is the Elektra Belle Epoque, and on its crown is perched a peering eagle.

To make a long story short, it makes a mean cup of espresso. Their own blend of espresso is composed of seven single-origin beans (including the elusive and expensive Nicaraguan Maragogype) and it is one of the nicer ones I’ve had, certainly one of the top in London. It has a full and broad flavor spectrum and, to me, has a tad more bitterness beneath it than Monmouth’s, though without being cloying. My favorite incarnation of Vergnano’s espresso is a double macchiato, with the little bit of foam providing a tiny cushion of creaminess to offset the fine espresso flavor.

The other thing I like about Vergnano is that it is sort of like an Italian espresso bar. You can order your drink and have it standing up at the counter – or if you want you can sit down or walk out with it. With each coffee they also give you a little Italian biscuit or chocolate (I have never figured out if it’s the drink you order or the luck of the draw that determines which one you get), and I think it’s a great little touch. I would probably describe the service at the Charing Cross Road branch as ‘professional’. It’s not warm, it’s not touchy, it’s not personal, but it’s not rude or mean either. They are just there doing their job and trying to provide you with a good drink.

The gist of it: I haven’t been to their other branches, but I think that this one is great. No-nonsense accomplished espresso drinks and the holy grail of coffee machines staring you in the face. Plus you get a little treat with your coffee and can stand at the bar.

Caffé Vergnano on Urbanspoon

Honorable Mention: Flat White

flat white @ flat white

A flat white at...Flat White

Although it is really a trek from my office to Flat White, I’ve tried this Soho-based coffee house a number of times and almost think I’ve walked into a funky little American coffee house on a college campus somewhere. There is always rock music on the radio, the staff sort of ignore you (at least me!) and I don’t really like the vibe all that much (it’s a bit up its own backside if you ask me), but the coffee drinks are pretty good. Here, I like the eponymous drink the best.

Flat White on Urbanspoon

At the Top of My Wish List: Gwilym Davies Espresso Cart

gwilym

The World Barista Champion (photo courtesy of youngandfoodish)

I really want to taste an espresso drink from Gwilym Davies, recently crowned the World Barista Champion, who runs a few coffee carts in the City, but haven’t tracked him down as yet. Youngandfoodish did a great little write-up on him recently, and reckons that Gwilym just sees himself as “the last [person] in a line that stretches from grower(s) to roaster to barista and determines the quality of the cup.”

So why do I go to Pret?

Well, after focusing on these two gems, here comes the hypocritical bit. In spite of these places being pretty close to my place of work, I still get my morning shot from one of the larger coffee chains that uses a push-button espresso machine. I know, the travesty, the indecency, the illogicality (is that even a word?) of it all. Come on, go ahead and bombard me with comments about what a sell-out I am, I am expecting it. I just want to be honest, though!

Yes, I will admit it. My morning ritual is to stop by a tiny branch of Pret A Manger located directly on my walking route to the office. They make me a single, slightly long macchiato with just a dollop of foam on top. I like the taste and I like the two or three people who serve me each morning. They are always there, they are exceedingly friendly, they know me, they know what I like and we have a little chat from time to time. Oh, and it costs £1.25, so about half of the two places mentioned above. So, out of the chains, my preferred one is Pret. I think their espresso is perfectly good; it is convenient (hell, they are everywhere) and they are in my experience the most consistently professional, cheerful, fun and well-trained staff out of any of the national chains.  So here’s my little list of the big boys, in descending order.

The Big Boys

  1. Pret A Manger – see rationale above.
  2. Pret a Manger on Urbanspoon

  3. Coffee Republic – always liked their coffee, though they don’t seem to have many outlets these days.
  4. Coffee Republic on Urbanspoon

  5. Caffè Nero – I never really had a big affection for Nero, and think their espresso is simply too bitter, but they’re pretty consistent and it’s not all that bad. They really try with their food offerings too, and it is packaged well, but it just never tastes very good in my experience. The places all have the same vibe, and I sort of like it, I just never leave that satisfied in any respect.
  6. Caffe Nero on Urbanspoon

  7. Starbucks – can’t put them as number three, as they are more the Häagen Dazs of coffee than a real coffee house anymore, but if their normal drinks are made well, they are pretty good. Their espresso is actually okay to me, but is a bit bitter for some people. The main problem with Starbucks in the UK is the lack of decent training of the people making the drinks – it’s simply all over the place. They often burn the milk…
  8. Starbucks on Urbanspoon

  9. Costa – I have tried this place about once a year for the last 10 years and have always hated it. I may be wrong, but that’s always my conclusion. They are making a big advertising push now saying that they don’t push buttons (a stab at Pret, presumably), they hand craft their coffees, so maybe I should give them another try. Should I? Am I completely wrong?

As a side note, after noticing the huge PR blitz around McDonald’s recently re-launched coffee offerings, I eventually succumbed and used a free coupon from the Metro newspaper to try a cappuccino from my local branch of the golden arches. It was Horr. Ibb. Uhl. Not exactly unexpected, but not exactly drinkable either. Milk severely burned, espresso extremely bitter and unbalanced. Puke.

In fact, they are really annoying me these days with their ad campaigns – they have ripped off the best tune from Disney’s Robin Hood (which was one of my favorite movies when I was a child) and are trying to make people believe they’re all into local farming and are a shiny, happy friend of the farmer. They should get real about what they really do and people should not drink their coffee, because it sucks…big time.

So, that’s my little coffee tale. Let me know what you think. I wrote this all at once without thinking too much, so maybe I’ve missed something (?). Let me know.

Disclaimer: I have yet to make it to a lot of the little artisan coffee shops in London (i.e. Fernandez & Wells and so forth), so would be interested to know your opinions of other establishments and your recommendations.

Over and out for now,

LF