Expect a fusion of exotic, obscure and traditional ingredients from around the world at the refined and stylish Modern Pantry Cafe Bar.
Housed in a converted Georgian building in cobbled St John’s Square, The Modern Pantry looks quietly impressive from the outside. Opened by chef and owner Anna Hansen last year, there is a dining room upstairs and a ground floor cafe, which is breezy and light, with heritage-grey walls, copper lamps and white furniture. A long bench runs down the length of the room, with smaller tables by the windows. It has a very carefully put-together feel, so even the slightly chipped paintwork looks deliberate.
The Modern Pantry attracts a smart, affluent crowd of well-heeled Clerkenwell types and City workers, mainly thirty-plus friends, couples and grown-up family groups. The atmosphere is refined and relaxed, but a bit bland and lacking in real warmth. Staff are very attentive and willing to offer suggestions, and each course arrives quickly.
The menu here changes often and the ingredients are a mixture of seasonal produce mingled with pantry-shelf spices and seasonings from all over the world. For example: gooseberries, fennel, figs, mint and fresh fish feature strongly on July’s menu, as well as year-round signature dishes like prawn omelette and grilled onglet steak.
Snacks and small plates range in price from £4 to £16.50. A starter-sized portion of chorizo, lemongrass and chilli steamed mussels will set you back £5.50, and the mussels, served in their shells, are enormous and juicy. Ground chorizo is served on top with a piece of lemongrass, and the sauce is rich and creamy with a meaty, fishy chilli flavour. Feta, gooseberry and mint fritters (£4.80) are crisp and fresh-tasting, with sweet gooseberry and served on a bed of strong variegated purple mint.
For mains, the red mullet with braised fennel (£16.50) is a colourful, light dish; the fish is served whole in its rouged skin, roasted simply so that the flesh is tender, delicately salty and juicy. It’s served with half a braised fennel, which although somewhat brown-looking retains its almost liquorice freshness, and little shimeji mushrooms. The black olive and watercress relish is strong but its zingy, peppery, leafy flavour complements the fish well.
Grilled onglet (£15.50) is served medium rare and again, cooked perfectly; the meat is succulent with a lovely smokey, honeyed flavour from the marinade. It’s a good-sized portion, too, served with curry-leaf and turmeric chips which are actually more like little orange bricks; they’re a bit dry, but full of robust, fragrant spice and crunch. The mustard-leaf, nectarine and chipotle salsa is a sweet, warm foil for the deep flavours.
For pudding, layered ginger jelly with assorted rice toppings (£6.50) is a real treat. Served in a glass, the soft jelly at the bottom is very sweet, with a fiery kick of heat. The creamy rice puddings on top – one sticky, the other very crunchy – are made from both white and black rice, combined with pineapple. Summery blackcurrant and juniper Eton mess (£7) is rich and sharp, with whole berries and chewy, light meringue pieces. It comes with a scoop of translucent green gooseberry and cava sorbet, which tastes tart and refreshing, and a stick of salty pine nut shortbread on top.
The wine list here is an enormous global selection ranging in price from £3 to £6.80 a glass, £9.50 to £25 for a carafe, or £14 to £120 for a bottle. The waiters are knowledgeable and happy to advise or recommend wines from the extensive, book-like list. To go with the steak the 2006 Argentinian Malbec (£6.50 a glass) has a rich, jammy, plum-like taste, while the 2008 Abadia Albarino (£6.50 a glass) is a slightly dry white with a zesty, clear flavour which matches seafood and fish well. Dessert wines include the strong Pyrenean Jurancon (£7.50) and bubbly, light, elderflower-tinged Moscato d’Asti (£3.50).
Beers and ciders, including Adnams and Aspalls, are priced at £3.25 to £5; cocktails, influenced by oriental to Brazilian flavours, cost around £9.50 and spirits, liqueurs and digestifs are £2.75 to £8. Still or sparkling water costs £2 a litre.
The Last Word
With a menu combining the exotic and unexpected with high-grade produce, The Modern Pantry Cafe Bar is a great place to come if you want to try something original and special.