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

Advertisements

Asia de Cuba – They Certainly Bento-ver Backwards for Us

Asia de Cuba
St Martins Lane Hotel
45 St Martins Lane
London WC2N 4HX
Website
Map
Online Reservations

Bento boxes at £15-£25/person or ‘family style’ starters from £16-£29/dish and ‘family-style’ main courses from £26-£74(!)/dish

A stunning interior, nice vibe, excellent and relaxed service & some potentially very good food

A stunning interior, nice vibe, excellent and relaxed service & some potentially very good food

The Back Story

I had booked tickets to see the new Derren Brown show, Enigma, a few months ago, and thought we could make a nice evening out of it by having a quick bite to eat beforehand. Asia de Cuba (ADC), located inside the St Martins Lane hotel, has always appealed to me, but for one reason or another, I have never made it to the London branch of this international chain of restaurants.

I visited the New York restaurant many moons ago. It is located inside the still hip Morgans hotel and is a truly iconic restaurant with an amazing space that is dominated by a 30 ft. long alabaster table and a 15 ft. tall photo light box. The restaurant itself is the brainchild of Jeffrey Chodorow of China Grill Management, which also controls a string of other restaurants across the world. So far as I can tell, most or all of the ADC restaurants are connected to Philippe Starck designed hotels, so are necessarily highly stylish in that 90’s minimalist chic sort of way.

The food, as you will have inferred from the name, is meant to be a fusion of Asian and Latino cuisines. So, this means “…asian cuisine and cooking techniques, infused with the flavours of the tropical fruits and vegetables, Latin spices and the bounty of the Caribbean” (to quote from our menu).  Sounds right up my alley…

First Impressions

We arrived around 6.00pm, and the restaurant was pretty empty – go figure. I immediately liked the look of the room. Sure, I guess it is slightly dated, but it is pure Philippe Starck, down to the bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling above each table and the soft beige colors throughout. I loved the chunky columns speckled throughout the restaurant, some with shelves of books and knick-knacks, some with random framed photos and artwork, and some in padded out a leather-looking covering. The blonde wood chairs and white backed chairs and light wood flooring all work well together and, with the club chill-out music playing in the background, it achieves a very pleasant overall vibe.

We were greeted by a cheerful, smiling young woman who found our reservation straight away and handed us over to the guy that seemed to be in charge, who escorted us to our table. It is a split-level restaurant, and our table was near the back of the slightly raised area of the room, which afforded a nice view of the entire restaurant. We noticed that there were a number of larger tables along the wall, which looked comfortable and spacious, and we noted that this would probably be a good spot for groups.

After being seated, our waitress, a pleasant lady from Amiens (in Picardie, Northern France), asked us if we had ever dined at ADC before, and as we hadn’t, she then explained the ins and outs of the menu. If you order between 12.00pm – 6.45pm (not 7.00pm as it says on the downloadable menu from their website), you can between choose one of their four bento boxes. These all start with a small bowl of soup and have four different dishes served inside them. The alternative is to order from the fairly large a la carte menu, which can be quite pricey. The starters and main courses from the main menu are served ‘family style’, meaning that they are fairly large plates that are meant to be shared amongst the table.

As we were a bit pressed for time, we opted for the ‘Anniversary’ and ‘Signature’ bento boxes, and ordered a glass of Sancerre and Viognier.

Did the Flavors Fuse?

The soup came out a few minutes after we ordered.  It was a clear broth full of different vegetables including spring onions and Enoki mushrooms. It was very bland and had no bite to it, though you could tell the vegetables were very fresh.  The miso soups from the likes of Itsu are much better, so a bit of a waste of stomach space to be honest. 4/10.

My ‘Anniversary’ box (not quite sure why it’s called that…) was made up of four components and cost £15.

  • Grilled Salmon with Wasabi Sour CreamThe salmon was served plain: it was cooked well, was still moist and had some basic seasoning.  It came alive when it was dipped into the smooth wasabi sour cream, which had a good horseradish kick to it. 6/10.
  • Crispy Beef Dumplings with Plum SauceThis was probably the best dish of the night. Perfectly fried dumplings – extremely crisp brown shells – with a succulent ball of seasoned minced beef in the middle and a dab of sweet and sour plum sauce drizzled over each one (there were 3 in total). 8/10.
  • Thai Salad of Avocado, Shredded Coconut, Orange Segments and Asian Greens with a Hot & Sour DressingVery unusual and fresh salad. A lot of spice to the dressing, with an underlying smoky flavour.  Didn’t look like much, but really enjoyed it. 7/10.
  • Havana Noodles with Red Peppers, Green Peppers & MushroomsSlightly thicker than Singapore noodles, these were done very well. The right level of saltiness, offset by the green and red peppers. They were good enough to eat on their own or equally nice with the salmon. 6/10.
  • The house Viognier, which was well chilled, complemented this box nicely, but no aspect of it stood out as being particularly noteworthy.

The missus went for the ‘Signature’ box, which also had four parts to it, and was a bit more at £20.

  • Lemongrass Skewered Chicken with Coconut Thai Chilli Marinade, Grilled Pineapple and LycheeThis was the best dish of the box.  A successful combination of tender chicken and sweet chilli flavors. 7/10.
  • Asia de Cuba Calamari Salad: Crispy Calamari with Chayote, Hearts of Palm, Banana, Cashews, Roquette, Radicchio and Sesame Orange DressingThis dish was disappointing as it is meant to be one of the signatures of the restaurant. The salad side of it was fine, and the orange dressing kept you wanting to come back for more, but the calamari was like chewing on a tire – total rubber and totally unacceptable. It killed the dish. 3/10.
  • Tunapica: Tuna Tartare Picadillo Style with Spanish Olive, Blackcurrants, Almonds and Coconut-soy, Lime Vinaigrette + Wonton CrispsThis was where the Signature really went wrong.  The tartare would have been fine on its own, but the olive tapenade was just too powerful and far too salty for everything else and completely dominated each bite in your mouth. Tuna tartare is a delicate thing and needs subtle enhancements, not Mike Tyson’s Olive Punchout. When you did isolate pieces of tartare from the olives and catch a raisin in your mouth, it was not half bad, but you shouldn’t have to do that! 2/10.
  • Plantain Fried Rice with Avocado Salsa. Considering the quality of the noodles in the other box, the standard of the rice was shocking. Mrs. LF said it tasted like it was old rice, and it was certainly dry, characterless and not even as good as the fried rice you’d find in most Chinese take-aways. It was a shame, because we both love plantains – but the flavour just didn’t show up. You just can’t screw up simple rice in a place that is serving main courses of up to £72! 2/10.
  • Mrs. LF’s Sancerre was very dry, acidic and citrusy, so maybe not the best pairing for the fusion fare on offer.

After I ate the bits of the Signature box that my missus refused to finish (I was hungry, man!), another waiter came over and asked how everything was and whether we would like to look at the desserts. We still had time, and my stomach was still way too empty, so we obliged. As we were pondering, he quickly stopped by again and gave us his one recommendation, which he said he LOVED. He also showed us that there were ‘bento’ portion desserts (£5 each) which we could split, as opposed to the normal portion desserts (£12). Now that we had the necessary excuse, we took his advice, which is the Cuban Coffee Brownie, and also ordered a Cuban Opera. We also fancied a sweet wine, and opted for a Barolo Chinato (£13/glass) as we had never seen a sweet Barolo on a menu before.

Well, the desserts certainly didn’t disappoint visually. They were pretty big, too, and we were worried that they had misunderstood us and given us the £12 versions. I started with the Cuban Opera, which is a rich chocolate cake layered with milk chocolate butter cream and coffee mouse with coffee-brittle ice cream. I thought it was excellent – the crisp biscuit layer interacted perfectly with the rich butter cream and coffee flavors. The brittle ice cream was my favorite part, though. It had a streak of bitterness to it which cut through the cream and little crispy bits of brittle throughout it. A very satisfying dessert. 7/10.

Mrs. LF, however, said that I hadn’t tasted anything yet, and seemed to be completely blown away by the Cuban Coffee Brownie, which was finished with a chocolate fudge sauce, a Kahlua glaze and some fudge brownie ice cream. Once my teeth sunk into the gooeyness of this creation, I knew instantly that she was right. This was a seriously naughty, rich and delicious dessert that had been pulled off really well. After tasting that, my Opera seemed more America’s Got Talent standard than Pavarotti and just tasted sweet and buttery. So the brownie really took the ‘cake’. 8/10.

The dessert wine was truly one of the oddest drinks I’ve ever tried. It tasted like cloves and herbs mostly, and just didn’t go with what we were having. We came to the conclusion that this type of wine can only be good in the winter, maybe when served with Christmas pudding, and could best equate it with some variation on mulled wine…although it didn’t have anything added to it whatsoever. Weird! 3/10.

The Verdict

The cynical part of me was expecting the evening to be 90% style and 10% substance, as I had heard that ADC was riding on its past reputation, and that it was all about the scene, not the service of the food.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised on many counts. As mentioned above, it is a very cool space, and I personally love the design. The service throughout the meal was first rate. The staff were interactive, relaxed and gave a very personal service which was efficient at the same time. For instance, when they discovered we did not like the dessert wine, they came over and professionally smelled it, then confirmed there was nothing wrong with it and that this was how it is meant to taste. But they offered us a glass of anything else we wanted on the house, as we didn’t like it ourselves. The waiters did have a habit of congregating and chatting to each other, but our service certainly didn’t suffer because of it.

Food-wise, a few of the dishes we had were very tasty, and the desserts were outstanding, plus good value at £5 each. However, some of the food was pretty dire, too, given the type of restaurant ADC is purporting to be. The ‘Anniversary’ bento box was priced about right at £15, considering you’re paying a premium for the ambiance of the place, but the ‘Signature’ box at £20, wasn’t very good value as there was really only one dish worth eating in it. The wine we choose wasn’t particularly good, but to be fair, it is more of a cocktail place and there is a limited range of wines that go well with this type of fusion fare.

Because it was a comfortable and fun place to be, I am tempted to return another time and order off of the a la carte menu, although I would be scared of picking a bad dish, especially given the high prices of some items on the menu. If I do go back, it’ll probably be with a small group of friends and I will make sure we get a special offer from Top Table or the like to make it a bit more generous on the purse strings.

Oh, and by the way, the Derren Brown show was phenomenal!

Rating

Ambiance: 8/10

Service: 9/10

Food: 5/10

Wine: 4/10 (because of the dessert wine!)

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only eaten at Asia de Cuba (London) once.*

Asia de Cuba on Urbanspoon