You might have seen Modern Pantry feature in the ubiquitous best brunches in London lists, but I’ve actually never tried their brunch menu. Instead, my first visit was for dinner followed by another for afternoon tea; both with my sister, both at the original Clerkenwell branch and both equally impressive (the afternoon tea is great value for money and showcases some unexpected flavour combinations). A few weeks ago, I had dinner at the Finsbury Square outpost and then again for lunch with a friend (BP) a week later; this review is long overdue. To keep things short and sweet, I’ll cover my lunch date and include some dessert highlights.
Ambiance and decor
Unlike the identikit high street sandwich, sushi and coffee chains surrounding it, Modern Pantry delivers a dose of history as it lives in the Grade II-listed Art Deco Alphabeta Building on the corner of the square. The bright and bustling bar, offering an all-day tapas menu, welcomes you before you’re lead into the main dining space. One of the first things you notice is the high ceiling from which dangle cream, egg-shaped light fittings. I realise that this sounds rather odd, but they work in harmony with the wooden floors and furniture, white walls and touches of dark blue leather. Just so there are no nasty surprises, the toilets are unisex.
Although we’d reserved our table, there was no record of our booking on the system. Luckily, we managed to bag a booth since we were meeting up early. Since BP is allergic to nuts, fish and dairy, he took some time to decide, and our waitress talked us through each dish and explained how it could be adapted. Unfortunately, she’d forgotten to check whether the sauce contained dairy, so we had to request a new plate.
Food and drink
The espresso and tonka bean panna cotta I’d had last time had been on my mind ever since, but it being a sunny day, the summery-sounding lunch menu (£22.50 and £25.50 for 2 and 3 courses respectively) drew me in a different direction. BP was less enamoured with these options and simply went for a main from the à la carte menu. Our tipple of choice was a carafe of rosé (Château de la Martinette 2013, Provence, France); not high up in our list of preferences as red wine lovers, but we wanted to avoid falling asleep at our desks later that afternoon.
Neither of us fancied a starter, so we dived straight into our mains: Chermoula Scottish salmon with turmeric cauliflower, pomegranate, sea purslane and pink peppercorn and lemongrass salsa for me and caraway roast lamb rump, beetroot and salted black bean puree, baby beetroot, radish and wild garlic for BP. Both dishes smelt and looked enticingly fresh, and I didn’t regret having a fish main over meat. The chunky salmon and the various elements were well matched, despite my initially sceptical view on the turmeric-laced vegetables. However, there was no awkward jostling for attention among the flavours and therefore no complaints. BP’s feedback on his lamb was similarly positive, his only gripe being that he wished he’d ordered a side of potatoes instead of a green salad.
And what about the dessert that derailed me? Here’s the full description: Pandan-glazed strawberry and black sesame seed parfait, white sesame seed shortbread crumb, gariguette strawberries and pea shoot tendrils. Quite the figurative mouthful, and this work of art deserved a moment of admiration before I ruined it. The Pandan glaze splintered under my spoon to reveal a delicate parfait to which tiny morsels of rich shortbread clung tightly. Both sets of sesame seeds, woven into the parfait and shortbread then sprinkled lightly on top, added another Asian spin. Accents of sweetness came through with the fresh and freeze-dried fruit. The only element which let me down was the pea shoots, which looked a pretty picture, but didn’t seem to complement the other flavours.
A few words about the other desserts I’ve tried recently. Firstly, there was the sweet potato churros coupe served with a dark and chilli chocolate sorbet and flaked almonds; every bit as indulgent as it sounds and looks.
Then my personal favourite, the espresso and tonka bean panna cotta, with milk and caramelised white chocolate crumb, cinnamon ice cream and an Armagnac prune; smooth and slightly spicy interspersed with some snaps, crackles and alcoholic pops.
Anna Hansen, Modern Pantry’s chef-owner, explains that the menu is about “the desire to please and excite the palate by fusing everyday cooking with modern ingredients.” Her cooking evidently draws inspiration from global cuisines and is all the better for it, setting her dishes apart. While the savoury courses are strong and definitely worth trying, I have a very soft spot for the sweet here, from the patisseries in the afternoon tea and the à la carte desserts to the croissants (I took a hazelnut one to go for a friend and they live up to their reputation). The interior transitions well and is therefore suitable for any occasion, big or small. The Clerkenwell charm is missing from the City setting, but the food remains loyal to its roots.
Budget: £36.50 (including 10.5% service)