An­tipodean bolt­hole

An Aussie cafe has added a touch of Fitzroy to the flavours of Lon­don

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - FIONA GRU­BER

THE first time I visit Lan­tana it’s a dank win­ter’s morn­ing, the sky slate grey, the pre­cip­i­ta­tion de­ter­mined. But in­side all is golden glow and ar­rest­ing aro­mas.

Its Aus­tralian founder, She­lagh Ryan, has cre­ated a bolt­hole in this cor­ner of cen­tral Lon­don that would be very nice but not un­usual in Mel­bourne’s Fitzroy, but here in what is com­monly called Fitzrovia it’s a palace of cof­fee ex­cel­lence and brunch nir­vana.

Time Out mag­a­zine, the Bri­tish cap­i­tal’s weekly bi­ble for what’s on and what’s hot, named it best new cafe when it opened in 2009 and the fol­low­ing year gave it the supreme ac­co­lade in its an­nual pub­li­ca­tion of top des­ti­na­tions, nam­ing it best Lon­don cafe.

‘ ‘ Un­der-prom­ise but overde­liver’’ is Ryan’s motto and this la­conic ap­proach seems to work a treat.

A hum­ble ba­con sarnie fea­tures home-cured meat from HG Wal­ter, voted Bri­tain’s best small butcher since 2005; the or­ganic bread is made by a lo­cal ar­ti­san baker and the tangy tomato sauce is con­cocted on the premises.

Ryan says she has learned to move gen­tly in her aim to ex­pand the hori­zons of the lo­cals, for whom a cafe break­fast still means a ‘‘full English’’ fry-up or poached eggs on toast. ‘‘If you put some of the fu­sion flavours and dishes you see in Aus­tralia on an English break­fast menu, you spend half your morn­ing ex­plain­ing them, from honey blos­som labne to dukkah,’’ she says.

Her reg­u­lars are now wolf­ing down baked eggs, corn frit­ters with lime aioli, home-made baked beans, baked ri­cotta with mush­rooms, ba­nana toast and fruit com­potes. It may be sta­ple fare back home but even in this groovy cor­ner of Lon­don, once the haunt of Welsh poet Dy­lan Thomas, it’s still ex­otic nosh.

As I sip an ex­cel­lent flat white, some­one look­ing re­mark­ably like the nov­el­ist Ian McEwan set­tles down at a cor­ner ta­ble. I later hear that, along­side lit­er­ary types, in­tel­lec­tual pop star Jarvis Cocker also hangs out here when in town.

Brought up in Queens­land in a fam­ily of gour­mands who end­lessly ‘‘ob­sessed’’ about in­gre­di­ents and dishes, Ryan says food is in her blood. Nev­er­the­less, with a nag­ging feel­ing she might be in the wrong pro­fes­sion, she carved out a suc­cess­ful ca­reer as a pol­icy ad­viser in Can­berra for the Depart­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, IT and the Arts and then for Mul­ti­me­dia Vic­to­ria.

It was her sis­ter Caitlin’s re­peated com­plaints about the dearth of good cafes in Lon­don, where she and her hus­band lived, that prompted Ryan’s worm to fi­nally turn, and in 2007, aged 34, she headed for Eng­land.

Af­ter a year learn­ing the busi­ness in Not­ting Hill at Tom’s Deli, owned by Tom Con­ran, son of de­sign guru and restau­ra­teur Ter­ence Con­ran, it was time to set up on her own.

Caitlin and brother-in-law Michael Ho­man came in as coin­vestors and they looked around for the per­fect lo­ca­tion. Ryan be­lieves she’s found it in this lit­tle al­ley just north of Ox­ford Street and Soho, a stamp­ing ground for arty and me­dia types.

She’s toyed with the idea of open­ing for din­ner but feels that for the present, while there are plenty of good evening eater­ies around, she has enough on her plate fill­ing the glar­ing gap in the mar­ket for good, in­ex­pen­sive break­fast and lunch spots.

It’s a seven-day week, with an over­whelm­ingly Aus­tralian crowd at week­ends, who travel from all corners to loi­ter and feast in a fa­mil­iar brunchy at­mos­phere.

It’s called Lan­tana, she says, be­cause the climber is ubiq­ui­tous in her na­tive Queens­land and she wants to em­u­late its te­nac­ity and vigour. In homage to the plant, a huge black and white mu­ral by Aus­tralian de­signer Kat Ma­cleod dom­i­nates the back wall, ten­drils and ex­otic blooms lan­guidly curl­ing round toad­stools, in­sects and but­ter­flies.

Ryan’s laid-back phi­los­o­phy and menu of hy­brid flavours seems to be en­trench­ing it­self very well in this Lon­don back­yard. She has al­ready ex­panded, em­ploy­ing 14 (mainly Aus­tralian) staff and tak­ing the lease on the store next door for take­aways, leav­ing more room for the pale wooden ta­bles and chairs of the main cafe, with its news­pa­per­strewn counter and huge front win­dow, an­other Aussie touch.

The im­pact of her Time Out award was dra­matic, she says. Queues formed at the door and reg­u­lars be­came very grumpy that their se­cret and quiet cafe had sud­denly be­come a heav­ing hot spot. ‘‘We’re vic­tims of our own suc­cess,’’ she says with a grin.

lan­tanacafe.co.uk

Lan­tana thrives with its laid-back phi­los­o­phy and hy­brid menu

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