This was the sight that met my arrival on a cool June evening: a handsome Georgian building on St. John's Square, housing a light and spacious, yet worryingly uninhabited, restaurant. St John's Street and Clerkenwell are thronged with bare-brick missionaries of British food, beating the drum for the blood and bones of Britain's culinary heritage. A risky place to offer vegetarian-friendly modern antipodean 'fusion' food, perhaps?
Anna Hansen, the chef behind the enterprise, opened The Modern Pantry in 2008, having abandoned her fusion cohorts at Providores, though an alliance is clearly present in both her culinary style and its influences.
There is a formal dining room upstairs, but we settled for the downstairs cafe, where we were given an exceptionally warm welcome. I make a point of noting this because it took us over half an hour to get around to reading the menu, and in the meantime, they put my lovely bunch of roses in water! By the time we had ordered, a few more tables were occupied, though the cafe was never full.
We started with a delicate sparkling Argentinian wine (I decided I prefer it over cava, the alternative sparkler, which I find more often than not is slightly cloying). Once we eventually got around to looking at the menu, I was relieved to find that what was on offer was far more decipherable than Providores' 6-liners: prose over poetry, thank goodness! The small plates sounded more tempting than mains, which trod safer French bistro ground, so we ordered 5 dishes to share:
Beetroot, black bean and ginger fritters, wasabi tofu cream, green pepper relish.
Cassava chips, tomato chilli jam, creme fraiche.
Tuna and yuzu ceviche, buck sorrel, keta.
Grilled squid, carrot, mint, and endive salad, candied peanuts, dried shrimp, palm sugar and lime dressing.
Grilled asparagus, buffalo mozzarella, roast red onion and rocket, grilled cornbread.
(Apologies for the lack of accents: I appear to have chosen a rather primitive blog template.)
The cassava chips were rather heavy and dull, could have done with a little longer in the fryer to create a crisp shell, and needed a more generous serving of the piquant tomato chilli jam, but all the other dishes were delightful, some spectacular. The fritters were moreish, bearing closer resemblance to falafel than a fritter. The cream-with-a-kick perfectly complemented their dense dark texture. The tuna with the yuzu (Asian citrus fruit) and keta (salmon caviar) was a zingy delight. Anna's fusion roots were clearly on show in the grilled squid dish: a complicated yet clever and cohesive mouthful. The perfectly grilled asparagus was served alongside complementary ingredients of the highest quality, and the chargrilled cornbread turned it from a salad into a substantial plateful, and was a well-suited addition.
Relatively carb-free, we ventured on to desserts. This part of the menu looked a little lost, a little neglected, and I couldn't find one dish that offered seasonal fruit, not even a strawberry. Reluctant to spend £6-7 on an experimental meringue, pannacotta, or tapioca, we played it safe and ordered two scoops of their guaranteed-to-please Hokey pokey ice cream, and persuaded them to also let us try a component of the tapioca dish: banana and galangal sorbet. As unlikely as it sounds, the sorbet was outstanding, the dish of the night. That we had to share a single scoop was a friendship test one should never have to endure!
I do hope current conditions don't sound the death knell for The Modern Pantry. It's a breath of fresh air amongst the behemoths of modern British food, and deserves a more ardent following than it's currently granted.