Nov 3, 2008

Modern Pantry is a bit behind the times

UNITED KINGDOM Metro - London,

The Modern Pantry
Marina O'Loughlin - Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Here are some of the ingredients in the current Providores menu: hijiki, umeboshi, cassava chips; and here are some from The Modern Pantry: hijiki, ...

Remember fusion? Remember those clashing tastes and menus that needed an encyclopaedia to decipher? Apart from long-standing (and excellent) The Providores in Marylebone, we saw the last of that most pilloried of culinary styles in the 1990s: too many Kevs from catering college flinging blachan into their bain-maries signalled its death knell. Or so we thought.
Anna Hansen – one of London's most highly regarded women chefs – was one of the originators of The Providores and cooked at another seminal fusion perpetrator, The Sugar Club. She clearly believes in hanging on to a formula that has worked for her.

Here are some of the ingredients in the current Providores menu: hijiki, umeboshi, cassava chips; and here are some from The Modern Pantry: hijiki, umeboshi, cassava chips. Plus krupuk, feijoa, yuzu and kalamansi limes for good measure.

To be fair, the fusion clamour has been toned down here: several dishes feature an entire list of ingredients we recognise.

As an aside: don't you just love that name? It's so zeitgeisty, like all those emporia – Re:Found, Labour And Wait, Pedlars – that feed off our nostalgia for black-leaded grates and doorsteps scrubbed with big bristly brushes, selling us balls of twine for ten times what we'd pay in B&Q.

Somewhere called The Modern Pantry should really be purveying – yes, that's the word – bowls of organic rare-breed stew with fluffy dumplings and steamed fruit puds lustrous with golden syrup, not spinach, shiitake and plantain green curry.

Anyway, it is a perfectly lovely-looking place: two Georgian buildings in St John's Square bookended by The Zetter and the Priory. I've driven past it several times, each time wishing I were going there instead of wherever I was heading.

There's a ground-floor café that I like enormously, a chic melange of heritage colours, copper lampshades, vintage-style coat-hooks and blindingly white contemporary furniture. It's bustling when we walk in, full of the area's statement-bespectacled media middle-youth.

But the upstairs restaurant proper is almost monastically featureless, with two connecting rooms providing blank canvases for some cold Farrow & Ball-ish colours and splashy artworks.

Marcel Wanders's heavenly Skygarden lights – plain exterior, ghostly bas relief interior – add a rare decorative touch. We're entirely alone and a little chilly, making us wish we were downstairs where, irritatingly, the 'all day menu' appears to be identical.

What are we doing up here in frosty isolation? A luscious bottle of Hasel Grüner Veltliner from winemaker Birgit Eichinger – yay for the sisterhood – from a sharp, concise wine list warms us up nicely and other punters start appearing, more grown-up and sedate than the groovers downstairs, but hey.

The sugar-cured prawn omelette has, since the place's opening, become something of a signature dish, a kind of Vietnamese-Malaysian-Thai collision featuring smoked chilli sambal, liquoricey holy basil and tamarind. It works brilliantly, the cured prawns dense and sweet, the frilly edges seductively crisp, the interior baveuse, herbs and spices adding tongue-tingling zing. Apart from this, I can't find anything to get wildly excited about.

Another starter reads ham hock, mango, spiced peanut, green chilli and watercress salad with plum wine dressing. It's fine, just fine, but no more than the sum of its parts, a little like something you'd serve yourself in one of Islington's similarly furnished nouveau canteens. And, for £7, it's a fairly weeny portion.

We have to order something called a gunjya – well you do, don't you? – which turns out to be a mini pasty or samosa, filled with duck and potato and served with a coriander and mint relish, altogether like something the Raj up the road might deliver for you to mindlessly chomp in front of The X Factor.

Main courses: a nicely autumnal dish of roast guinea fowl with ceps, chanterelles, sweetcorn and polenta is good but a bit beige. 'Crispy' roast pork belly isn't; but the flavour is deep and porky – decent ingredients are used throughout – and its green pepper relish perks it up no end. But I really loathe our pudding, a jarring confection of Earl Grey chocolate tart, roast fig, plum marshmallow and caramel syrup. It's like a surrealist nightmare version of a Tunnock's Tea Cake.

It has taken Ms Hansen four years to bring this ambitious project to fruition. I think that, in the meantime, food fashions have moved away from the challenge of the exotic and unfamiliar into the warm embrace of the comfort zone. Especially right now.

The Modern Pantry's money men are D&D, the Conran Group management buy-out chaps who have also backed the excellent Launceston Place. They seem to know what they're doing. Hansen herself has denied that what she's doing here is fusion, claiming it's merely modern cooking for her Modern Pantry. Strange, then, that it all seems so last century.

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