The Modern Pantry is only a 10 minute walk down the road from where I live in Bloomsbury - bonus marks for convenience! The building itself is Georgian, and sits rather like a beacon atop St.John's Square, just off Clerkenwell Road.
We arrived at 1pm for a weekend brunch in the ground-floor cafe and it was predictably busy (lots of achingly hip languid men with asymmetric haircuts) but blissfully devoid of noise. The interior is not as flat-pack Scandinavian as has been suggested by one critic. In fact the soft grey paint was rather soothing and the copper light shades looked fabulous against the pared-down walls.
Our waitress was ditzy and flustered - it was obvious she couldn't quite keep up with the pace - which made for a somewhat frustrating experience as the food was on the whole good. We'd booked a table for five people, and upon arrival were rusticated to the end of the restaurant, squeezing three of us on a bench meant for two so we wouldn't take up an extra chair at the end of the table. Admittedly it was a cozy experience but this strategy on the part of the staff seemed a bit desperate given that the table next to us remained empty for the duration of brunch, or 2 1/2 hours fomenting revolution at the back of the cafe - whatever it is they thought we were up to.
Our drinks were also rather weak - a Japanese Bloody Mary with wasabi is theoretically my idea of perfection, but when it arrived there were negligible fireworks from the wasabi and the tomato juice was flat in flavour, not to mention lukewarm. It's fine for the decor to be pared-down, but with cocktails a little embellishment and enthusiasm goes a long way. Our Bloody Marys were devoid of both and sin of all sins - arrived a full 20 minutes after we ordered them.
Menuwise, the Modern Pantry echoes the Providores, Hansen's previous restaurant where she worked in partnership with Peter Gordon - lots of Pacific Rim 'tapas' which are on tap from 9am to 4pm (or at least they are on a Sunday) with interesting components such as tamarind yoghurt and plantain fritters. Though much derided, I actually enjoy the quirkiness of fusion food, particularly if there is an emphasis on judiciously contrasting tastes - lots of mixing of salty, sweet and sour. Rather than mixing them on a whim, the Modern Pantry has embraced that Providores ethos of clever balancing of tastes, textures and flavours.
Meanwhile, nursing hangovers and concomitant delicate tummies most of us opted for eggs of some description - the poached were fine, the scrambled a little dry, and the boiled served in cute nostalgia-rich egg cups. This was when the Modern Pantry started to look rather more confident - my eggs were perfectly poached, and accompanied by lavishly buttered sourdough toast (perfect), seared chorizo (double-perfect) and plantain fritters (super). It fitted the bill of comforting brunch fare without being predictable, I can't tell you any more about the menu as our main dishes took so long to come to the table that we didn’t get to order puddings
The verdict? Anna Hansen has a thoughtful approach to cooking, and I liked the off-beat menu, but I'm not sure that it's quite firing on all cylinders yet. Ottolenghi does the same sort of food with greater panache, and I would actually rather see the Modern Pantry push the boat out a bit with the quirky ingredients - do more whacky smoothies, better Bloody Marys, fewer fruit muffins, and more imaginative pancakes then the ricotta pancakes with plum and grape compote on offer. Better service also wouldn't go amiss.
Given how near it is I'll give it another go once the dust has settled but one wonders if perhaps Anna Hansen didn't have too much time to deliberate over this venture. It has more kinks than one would expect from someone who's spent three years developing the concept.
The Modern Pantry is at 47-48 St John’s Square, Clerkenwell, London EC1V 4JJ
T 020 7250 0833. www.themodernpantry.co.uk
Fiona Beckett adds:
I had a rather happier experience with service on my recent visit though it was a much quieter time of the week - an early evening supper on a Wednesday. The quality of the food continues to be a touch uneven with some very good dishes (a delicious sugar-cured prawn omelette, with green chillies, spring onions and smoked chilli sambal and grilled miso-marinated onglet with cassava chips) rubbing shoulders with some slightly less successful ones (a soggier than anticipated grilled aubergine with Thai basil and crispy shallots) I also found the strawberry meringue with vanilla mascarpone and roast peach too sweet though my sweet-toothed daughter loved it) It's a very nice place to hang out though and prices are reasonable which should ensure its survival in the tough economic times ahead.