At what point did the prefix "designer" stop connoting desirability, and become shorthand for pretentious and ridiculous? Would you rush to eat somewhere that described itself as a "designer restaurant"? No – you'd rightly figure it to be an over-styled place serving silly food to would-be Wags. And as for "designer food", absurdly accessorised, mismatched and overpriced (just like designer fashion) – what could be less in tune with the mood of the times?
The fashion for designer food, featuring ingredients apparently collected by an anhedonic chef on a gap-year tour of Asia, started with The Sugar Club, where Peter Gordon's dazzling combinations of esoteric pan-global ingredients introduced a new style of cooking to this country. Inevitably, less talented chefs got in on the act, and fusion descended into confusion. Meanwhile Peter Gordon and his fellow New Zealander Anna Hansen left The Sugar Club to continue their exploration of the culinary outer limits at Providores in Marylebone.
Now Ms Hansen has set up on her own, a cassava chip off the old block. Her new restaurant, café and traiteur occupies a handsome pair of converted Georgian buildings in the design heartland of Clerkenwell, where the old watch-makers have long since been driven out by web-builders and Street-Porters.
The Modern Pantry is a clever name; the "modern" promising freshness and originality, while the "pantry", with its whiff of stored spices and dry goods, carries the reassurance of old-fashioned values. That duality is reflected in the design; the downstairs café has good Georgian bone structure, emphasised by a trad grey paint job, candles guttering in tall windows and down-lights modelled on fluted copper moulds. But the chairs – spindly and white – and the central, shared table that dominates the L-shaped room, are regulation modern canteen. Perched on a bare wooden chair at a bare wooden table by the zinc bar, my friend took one look at the menu and observed, "At these prices, I expect upholstery."
When the food arrived, though, all was forgiven. The three smaller dishes we started with had little in common, but each was perfect in itself. Crisp fritters, mined with tiny nubs of chorizo, feta and sweet explosions of date, were like falafels given a sybaritic makeover. The unpromising-sounding sugar-cured prawn omelette was a fabulous, Orientally inspired flavour riot, zinging with lashings of green chilli, Thai basil and fresh coriander. And there was plenty of interest in a virtuous salad that combined wild rice, charred sweetcorn, spiced pecans, avocado and ... I could go on, but let's just use the Radio 4 formula and say "other parts were played by the cast".
You'll notice the absence from the above of the kind of weird and wonderful ingredients that characterised The Sugar Club and Providores, where each menu should have come equipped with its own Google toolbar. Hansen is here playing it relatively straight and while certain ingredients have certainly been taken from the dustier upper shelves of her Pantry, such as krupuk (crushed prawn crackers from Indonesia), manouri (Greek ewes' cheese) and tamarillo (oh, Google it yourself...), she has cleverly absorbed elements of new-Brit cooking and thriftier meat cuts into her repertoire. OK, so her roast Middle White pork belly comes with saffron and currant chutney, and her grilled ox tongue with pan-fried manouri bruschetta, but the wackiness level has definitely been turned down.
The Pantry's take on steak and chips was let down by the undercooking of the miso-marinated onglet, requested medium rare but served practically blue, so that it was all about slippery texture rather than taste. Thank goodness there was a bit of crunch to the cassava chips, a Providores staple, which stood in admirably for pommes frites. More elaborate, and more enjoyable, was a perfectly cooked tranche of crisp-skinned sea-bass, served with a salad of preserved lemon, tomatillo and quinoa, a grain my healthy living friend eulogised as a "cunning little minx – it looks like a carbohydrate but it's really a protein".
There's plenty on this menu for healthy-eaters (vegetarians will also find a wide range of options), but the pudding list offers scope for gluttons too, including an elegant pannacotta, flavoured with Earl Grey and tipped with a violet jelly made with Maury wine.
Service, from a nearly all-female team (plus one mesmerisingly tight-trousered man), is personable and pretty competent, though we sat by the bar far too long waiting for a top-up while the bartender polished glasses. Hasn't anyone told the staff that shifting wine and water is where restaurants make their profit? If not, the message will no doubt get through soon, as Hansen's backers are the D&D London group, formerly Conran Restaurants, not known for subsidising cute and quirky ventures that don't make money.
The more formal restaurant upstairs should be open any day now, and on the strength of my visit to the café, I'll definitely be going back. Too often these days, a restaurant meal tends to be interrupted by elaborate introductions from waiters who insist on talking you through every ingredient on your plate. At the Modern Pantry, it's the food itself that stops the conversation, a reminder that in skilled hands, this kind of fusion food can transcend passing fashion to be a design classic.
The Modern Pantry, 47-48 St John's Square, London EC1 (020 7553 9210)
Around £30 a head for three courses, without wine
"There is a 12.5 per cent discretionary service charge, all of which goes to the staff. All tips are split equally among the staff"
Side orders: Design central
By Madeleine Lim
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