"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
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