St John’s Square in Clerkenwell has become a mini hub of serious eating and drinking. The Modern Pantry which opened in 2008 was joined by Bistro Bruno Loubet on the ground floor of the Zetter Hotel in early 2010. The two venues complement each other well. Loubet competently cooks traditional French food in a modern way, while New Zealander Anna Hansen keeps to the path forged by herself and Peter Gordon at the Sugar Club and Providores.
This year the Antipodean trend has continued opposite on Clerkenwell Road with the opening of St Ali, a serious coffee player from Melbourne. A further recent addition to the square is the Zetter Townhouse with a groovy cocktail bar on the ground floor operated by Tony Congiliario the wizard mixologist from 69 Colebrook Row.
I re-visited the Modern Pantry last Friday. I found my companion already waiting, slightly miffed that he had been told not to sit on the outside step. (Although due to his height, you might be forgiven for thinking he was sitting at all). However, we soon got over that one, and were welcomed warmly in. Much was written about the interior when the restaurant first opened in 2008, especially about the copper light fittings which span the length of the long tables by the open kitchen. Now that distressed furniture and light open spaces are the norm, it seems unremarkable. In fact I can never understand why decor gets such attention in restaurant reviews. Apart from the food and wine, what makes a restaurant work is mainly the energies of the people working out in front, and behind the scenes. If the space is reasonably well appointed in terms of being light, comfortable and not too noisy or cold, then the colour of the walls is secondary. The focus is generally inward towards companions, and downward towards the food on the table. With a background of warm efficient attention from the staff, all the customer has to do is relax to have a good time.
Anna Hansen’s food is both down to earth and imaginative. On the menu very often is the signature sugar-cured prawn omelette. This makes an excellent brunch dish, but also a starter, which is what we shared, in addition to the beetroot, roast tomato, feta and hijiki fritters with rose cream. Ok, what is hijiki? I hear you ask. Well, it’s a type of seaweed, and is not just a gimmick in this dish. Beetroot is not an easy vegetable to cook with, as its sweet earthiness can be a killer. The hijiki added a perfectly calculated depth to the beetroot, tomato and feta combination. Next for me was sea bass with gooseberries and fennel, an inspired combination, while Mike tucked into roast pork belly with rainbow chard and daikon. The mystery vegetable this time was a kind of radish, which melted into the general impression : gutsy and full of flavour.
The rest of the meal became a happy blur: the background from the brightly lit kitchen blended with contented chat. We had a peach and blueberry cobbler, with vanilla ice cream and chocolate and bourbon sauce, which was not immediately appealing, but somehow disappeared completely from the plate. And an Eton mess made with berries, and matcha and jasmine teas in the meringue. Another inspiration.
The service was more than exemplary. It was wholehearted, attentive and engaged, but not pushy. My companion, Mike Green of www.tapwater.org was very impressed. And he’s from Yorkshire, where a spade is definitely a spade; not a daikon, a tomatillo, nor a tataki.
If you’re passing by at lunchtime, the Modern Pantry also has one of the best takeaway shops in London. (I still dream about the blood orange tartlets). And afternoon tea is not to be sniffed at either.
The Modern Pantry
48 St John’s Square
London EC1V 4JJ
Tel: 020 7553 9210