At a November 2011 meal I tried a version of Scotch egg (£6), in this case a pair of quail eggs, the filling made with chorizo, served with a green pepper relish. This worked well, the chorizo adding a little spiciness to the usual filling (3/10). A pancake (£8.20) of crab, sweetcorn and coriander also worked well, served with a salad of avocado, fennel and celery cress, with a green chilli dressing just enough to lift the dish without dominating it (4/10).
A pair of scallops (£8.20) were seared and served with their coral in their shells, with a tonka bean puree, and shallot, keta and cabernet sauvignon dressing. These were cooked fine, though the scallops themselves did not taste devastatingly fresh, lacking in sweetness (2/10). Wild mushrooms (£15.50) were served on a celeriac fondant with crispy cabbage, hazelnuts, garlic and thyme, a soft boiled egg and a dressing of verjus and shaoxing rice wine. This sounds over-complex, but the flavours actually worked well together, with some nice texture contrast (4/10). Steamed aura potatoes (£2.80) were plain but very accurately cooked (4/10), though a side dish of cavolo nero (£2.80) was distinctly undercooked, however, and lacked seasoning (1/10). That aside, it was a very enjoyable meal, and staff were friendly and cheerful despite this being very late in the service.
What follows are notes from a meal in February 2011.
The Modern Pantry is tucked away in St John Square in Clerkenwell. On the ground floor is a light, airy bar, the main dining room split into two upstairs. The atmosphere is casual, with wooden floors and no tablecloths, plenty of natural light and grey walls with a few original paintings. Chairs are black wood, small and not very comfortable, but tables are well spaced. On this evening some Cuban music was playing in the background, but not so loud as to be annoying.
Cornish crab rarebit (£6.50) was a simple but enjoyable dish, marred only by a piece of crab shell that had eluded the kitchen (2/10). This was better than a bruschetta of goat cheese (£6.50) on toasted caraway buckwheat with lemon oil. In principle the lemon acidity would be a good balance to the richness of the goat cheese, but there was just too much lemon oil, so the dish felt slightly unbalanced (1/10).
The best dish was my main course of duck leg curry (£16.50) made with coconut and pandan (an Asian leaf with a somewhat floral taste. The duck itself was excellent, cooked slowly and falling off the bone. This was served with bak choy, soba noodle, shallots and shimeji mushrooms (easily 3/10). A prawn omelette (£8.70) was made with New Caledonian prawns, spring onion, coriander, sambal and a little chilli. This was nicely made, and the spices lifted the prawn taste (2/10). Green beans on the side (£2.80) were initially very undercooked, but after returning to the kitchen they came back perfectly cooked.
For dessert a pear, blackberry and chestnut crumble (£7) was pleasant, the crumble itself having good texture, served with frozen chai yoghurt (3/10). Service was pleasant, in particular the maitre d’ seemed quite switched on. Overall this was a rather less satisfactory meal than last time, given the odd slip that occurred, though overall it was a pleasant enough experience. We did have one of the better wines (at £54), but even so £70 a head seemed like a lot of money for the standard of the cooking delivered.
What follows are notes from a better meal in January 2009.
The kitchen is headed by Anna Hansen, formerly of Providores, a London pioneer of fusion cooking, and she continues in this vein here. The menu has “small plates” at under a fiver, starters £4.50 - £7.80, main courses £11 - £16.50 and desserts at £6.50. The four page wine list has, as befits a fusion restaurant, choices from both the new and old worlds. There is plenty of choice under £30, with a few pricier options for those wanting to splash out. 2005 Pinot Gris from Mann in Alsace is listed at £24.50 for a wine that will cost you £12 or more to buy, Isole e Olena Chianti Classico 2006 is £34 for a wine that also costs about £12, while at the upper end Mas de Daumas Gassac 1994 is £90 for a wine that retails at around £31. There was even a refreshing Moscato d’Asti sparkling dessert wine by the glass (at least in theory; it was unavailable when I ordered one).
Bread was made from scratch on the premises, and I enjoyed a soda bread that was not too heavy, a pleasant chilli and fennel bread that had very subdued taste of either but nice texture and, best of all, a nigella seed (black cumin) foccaia which had a really pleasing texture (6/10 for the bread). A nibble of four fried quail eggs with lime and chilli dipping sauce was tasty enough, the eggs lightly fried though the dipping sauce for me could have done with more chilli bite relative to the lime (2/10). Jerusalem artichoke and hijiki (black seaweed) tortilla (Spanish omelette) was well made, the artichoke flavour distinct, topped with a little tomato chilli jam and Greek yoghurt (3/10).
Squid, chorizo and chickpea stew with preserved lemon was a suitably hearty dish on this cold evening, the slices of squid in no way rubber, the chorizo bringing a smokiness, the hint of lemon preserving some freshness, and this dish was well seasoned (3/10). Sugar-cured prawn omelette was garnished with spring onions, fresh coriander and smoked chilli sambal. The tamarind of the sambal gave a little sweetness that was kept in check by the onions and chilli, though again I felt that the dish could have had a little more chilli bite (3/10).
A vegetarian main course of coconut roast pumpkin, saffron and cumin lentils, labne (yogurt cheese) and sumac lavosh (unleavened flatbread) was a dish that seemed to me to be trying a little too hard to throw in multiple influences almost for the sake of it (2/10). I preferred a hot and sour beef feather blade stew (a cut of beef between the neck and fore rib) slow cooked for four hours so that it was meltingly soft. This was served with smooth parsnip mash, tender green beans and a few golden beet crisps. This seemed to me better put together as a dish, the parsnip bringing a little sweetness, the chips a crisp texture contrast to the soft beef, the beans adding colour and a little lightness (4/10).
Dessert of Pina Colada trifle had under-ripe pineapples smothered with too much cream (1/10). Yogurt pannacotta with blackberry compote was more successful, with a pair of pleasant, thin cinnamon biscuits (2/10). I found the coffee rather bitter and cheap-tasting. Service was friendly but disorganised: one of the small plates arrived out of sequence and it was difficult to get attention. I was more irritated when ordering a glass of dessert wine that was clearly marked as 125 ml on the list, only to be served a glass that was maybe 80 ml full. No one in a pub would serve two thirds of a pint in a pint glass and hope to get away with it, so why do restaurants try to get away with short measures on dessert wine? When I pointed out the problem the glass was sheepishly topped up. I confess that dessert wine measures are a bit of a bugbear for me, but this was pretty cynical.
Overall The Modern Pantry has plenty in its favour. The menu is unusual and interesting, the kitchen shows skill in its treatment of dishes e.g. the tender beef, and cares enough to makes its bread and to make it well, while prices are not excessive. I can certainly see why the place appears to be prospering.