UPDATE 2013 – The exciting news is that Canteen has expanded, with Canteen Kitchen open next door to Canteen Coffee. With Canteen already rated #4 most popular café in Australia on Beanhunter, Canteen Kitchen’s exciting modern Middle Eastern menu combined with Elcham’s attention to detail in styling and service have given the Gold Coast another exceptional place to dine.
There’s something very sexy about understatement, a certain mystique in a subtle hint of discretion instead of an overblown advertising campaign. Understatement is also an announcement that the goods are of the highest quality.
So when you find a tiny dusky espresso bar with no signage, no advertising, yet with an established loyal following after trading just a few weeks, you know that the coffee must be its own advertisement. And it is.
Semi-hidden in a walkway between two streets, Canteen has a minimalist industrial feel. The shop is adorned only by a few crates, bags of coffee and a large grinder in one corner. Across the room, smaller grinders and a large espresso machine take pride of place on the wooden bar, giving the aura that you’re in a craftsman’s workshop rather than in a café. And you are.
“I didn’t know if you were trading yet! I couldn’t find the sign,” I blurt out to owner operator Brendan.
“It’s how I wanted it to look,” he replies, “for the place to be so raw that it’s just about the coffee, with everything else stripped away.”
“Ah! Sort of tabula rasa,” I reply, “the blank slate on which everything makes an impression – in this case the coffee.”
Brendan agrees, and goes on to tell me about the philosophy of the espresso bar and how he got to this point.
Brendan Elcham did not stumble into coffee by accident, but made a conscious decision to follow in his father’s footsteps. Peter Elcham, one of Sydney’s coffee roasting pioneers and proprietor of the iconic ‘Joe’s Deluxe’ in Potts Point, brought coffee culture to Queensland in 1988, establishing a wholesale business Deluxe Boutique Coffee Roasters, a barista training school and a chain of espresso bars throughout Brisbane. Besides the work ethic and artisan skills passed down from the previous generation, Brendan shares his father’s passion, and in a deliberate move to showcase his company’s product, has opened Canteen. Canteen specialises in roasting their own coffee, specialty blends and single origin coffees, each one with its unique complex characteristics and flavour profile. A different single origin coffee is featured in the espresso bar every week.
Like the vintage concept of its namesake army dining area, Canteen is a central meeting place where ‘soldiers’ meet each other, obtain supplies, and are entertained in a relaxed, easy-going atmosphere. Camping chairs are scattered around inside the shop and outside along the paved walkway. People come and go buying takeaway coffees, a bag of beans or ground coffee, taking a coffee outside to sit on old cinema seating in the sun, or stopping to chat or ask questions of baristas Brendan and his brother Jermaine. Conversation flows around how they make their coffee, which place of coffee bean origin gives certain characteristics or which type of roasting suits which process of making coffee.
Almost effortlessly, there’s an information transfer taking place, an exploration of the diversity of experience, a searching for the excellence in flavour that matches the tantalising aroma floating out of the espresso bar into the laneways of Burleigh Heads. In a suburb boasting some of the best coffee on the coast, Canteen is a cool and sexy understatement that it’s all about the coffee.
NOTE: A shortened version of this review appeared in Cafe Culture, Issue 28, p.87.
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