"Confit duck leg, roast sweet potato, beetroot, black bean, licorice and ginger salsa, £12.50." Says it all, really. At The Modern Pantry, you get bits and pieces of French bistro cooking with a touch of the Antipodean and some far-flung exotica at a modest price. Some will see this as a breath of fresh air. Others will curl their lips at what they see as a mishmash of magpie pickings from the global floor.
Me, I'm caught somewhere between east and west, sweet and sour. I couldn't bear the chuck-it-all-in-and-hope-for-the best mentality of fusion food, and am thrilled its time has come and gone. Yet we still need people to look at food in a modern way; a post-fusion way.
Enter chef Anna Hansen. Born in Canada, grown in New Zealand, trained in London, and last seen at the fusion-istic Providores with Peter Gordon. Now she is back with a project that's been simmering for four years. Set in a fabulous listed Georgian building, and backed by D&D London, the Modern Pantry is just the sort of modest gastrodome called for by the zeitgeist: buzzy ground-floor café, bookable first-floor dining-room, and cute little next-door deli.
The café is the star, lined with windows, backed by an open kitchen, striped with long rows of white tables and chairs. It's a chatty, sunny, whitewashed room that mingles copper lightshades with vintage/second-hand shop finds.
These days, Hansen's cooking seems more focused, less scatter-gun – or maybe she's just writing shorter menu listings. Lunch dishes from the all-day menu are almost single-minded, including a "small plate" of yielding, deeply flavoured, slow-cooked octopus served with salad leaves and chicory (£5) and a crisp-skinned fillet of softly juicy sea trout with "cauliflower cous cous" (a fine rubble of lightly cooked cauliflower), toasted pumpkin seeds and harissa. A puffy omelette of translucent sugar-cured prawns, green chilli and smoked chilli sambal (£7.50) has a sweet disposition and a good belt of flavour.
I return for dinner as soon as the upstairs dining-room opens and, as always, end up wishing I were down with the hoi polloi. It's too new, raw and bare, as if someone has been kicked out of their bedroom to make way for tables and chairs. The menu is slightly more evolved, with modestly elevated prices, and food can come fast, slow, or both. Roast-tomato soup with garlic and preserved lemon (£5.50) is a bit of a muddle with no clear direction, but a large sea scallop with sugar-cured prawns, slivered mango, a bossy tamarind sauce and Asian basil leaves (£8.50) makes a sprightly salad.
An unlikely starter of slow-cooked ox cheek with beetroot gratin (£6.80) is another goody; the vegetable's sweetness a natural foil to the deeply meaty lobes of fork-tender cheek. Best is a straight-up, un-twisty, anti-fusion, pot-roasted leg of rabbit, teamed with a sludge of fennel and red onion, charred baby leeks and young carrots (£16.50). The notoriously difficult meat has been seduced into a soft, giving texture and remarkably guinea fowl-like flavour by patient, vegetable-infused cooking. The wine list, helpfully divided into Aromatic/Fresh/Crisp, Richer/More Robust/ Tannic etc, yields a serviceable Sauvignon Blanc (£6.50/£26) and Pinot Noir (£29) from Marlborough's Delta Vineyard.
Fried rice balls make a fun finish, like Japanese mochi with gooey umeboshi plum jam inside, alongside a tamarind caramel and snowy white coconut ice-cream (£6.50).
The lack of faff means some dishes can look thrown on the plate, and it is hilarious how wildly exotic can so easily mean brown sauce, yet with its freshness, lightness and casual, drop-in attitude, the Modern Pantry is just that – modern. Like the duck confit with sweet potato, beetroot, black bean etc, somehow it all seems to come together. n
SCORES 1-9 STAY HOME AND COOK, 10-11 NEEDS HELP, 12 OK, 13 PLEASANT ENOUGH, 14 GOOD, 15 VERY GOOD, 16 CAPABLE OF GREATNESS, 17 SPECIAL, CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK, 18 HIGHLY HONOURABLE, 19 UNIQUE AND MEMORABLE, 20 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
The Modern Pantry, 47-48 St John's Square, London EC1, tel: 020 7553 9210.
Open Mon-Fri, 8am-11pm ; Sat, 9am-11pm; Sun, 10am-10pm. Café: around £75 for two including wine and service. Dining-room: around £95 for two
The crunch bunch: More cafés with delis
2-6 Moxon Street, London W1, tel: 020 7935 0341
Try before you buy: the tiny tasting café of this fabulous store is London foodies' favourite place to sit with a glass of wine and a cheese or meat platter
Bill's Produce Store
The Depot, 100 North Road, Brighton, tel: 01273 692 894
Bill Collison's greengrocer/café/deli/wine store serves up everything from brilliant fruit and veg to beautifully decorated cakes to inspire your next meal at home
8 Nelson Street, Newcastle, tel: 0191 231 3000
Drop in to this city-centre café for seared salmon, steak sandwiches and Toulouse sausages and mash, then pick up artisanal breads, cakes, cheeses and olives for home