I awoke in a heap like a sack of potatoes, my head still spinning from the Jamaican Pogo cocktails I had imbibed at the Experimental Cocktail Club in Soho the night before in what was a vain attempt to match rock ‘n’ roll film director Simon Rumley drink-for-drink, tantamount to following Lewis Hamilton around a grand prix circuit in a motorised lawnmower. What I desperately needed was a Jeeves-style pick-me-up, but Mrs Baylock, my demonic housekeeper, was outside shooting pigeons or tourists and my vocal chords would not generate anything more than a ghostly whisper. So using the walls for support, I teetered into the kitchen like a seagull in a strong gale, and botched together a cup of treacherously strong coffee to set me right.
I was faced with the horror of staggering into the office and facing my disapproving colleagues, before departing for a three-course lunch at a restaurant whose name and location I couldn’t remember. As the coffee slowly restored by vision from quadruple to merely double, I decided that it would be better for all parties involved if I skipped the whole going-into-the-office-malarkey altogether. So I made my excuses to our new receptionist who still doesn’t appear to know who I am or indeed where he is working (“Hello, Arbitrarian, can I help you?”), and made the plan to meet Lawrence and Charlotte at the mystery restaurant instead.
If you had been a fly on the wall that morning, you would have noticed the hint of a grin, curling slowly like an overcooked turbot upon my face, as I perused my BlackBerry calendar to see that we were headed to The Modern Pantry, Anna Hansen’s much talked-about restaurant in Clerkenwell. I first sampled Anna’s unique brand of cookery at Taste of London last year. I recall being so impressed with the vivacious flavours of the colourful salmon dish that I made a mental note to visit her restaurant at the next opportunity I had. I then promptly forgot all about it until some months later when Charlotte suggested we dine there.
Having made the bizarre decision to walk all the way to the restaurant in a heavy blizzard, I slipped and slid my way from west to east, alighting upon the attractive Georgian townhouse in St. John’s Square that is now home to Anna’s pantry; and thoroughly modern it is too, with a shop and cafe on the ground floor and the formal restaurant and private dining room up the narrow, creaking staircase.
The venue is light, bright and airy – as one would imagine the gates of heaven to be – with enough stripped floorboards and exposed brickwork to retain a certain amount of Georgian charm. But what really catches one’s eye is the food. A brief peruse of the menu while I thawed and my spirit was quickly fortified. It’s the sort of menu that makes you wish you were in Groundhog Day and could try every single dish, some twice, until you had exhausted all the offerings.
We quickly settled into the important business of ordering. Quick off the line, I plumped for the Cornish crab, sugar snap, avocado, red onion and endive salad, with spiced cashews and a chilli yuzu dressing. It was a vibrant, refreshing affair that made me feel awfully healthy without sacrificing on flavour as ‘healthy’ food so often does. Larry and Charl both had the chorizo scotched quail eggs with tomato relish and were kind enough to give me a sampling after I threatened to walk out of the restaurant if they refused. It was, in a word, glorious. The spicy chorizo complemented the egg rather expertly.
Main courses took some deciding but I eventually catered to my bloodlust in the form of the grilled tamarind miso-marinated onglet steak, with braised red cabbage, chestnut puree, redcurrant and cumquat relish. It was a well balanced dish, the tart tamarind offset by the sweet relish and the meaty, juicy tang of the rare-cooked steak. Charl and Larry, like the twins from The Shining, both opted for the roast cod with plantain and cassava fritter, nashi pear, green papaya, fennel and daikon salad, and a rose-coconut dressing. Larry had hardened to my wandering fork but Charlotte permitted me a mouthful and I began to regret ordering the onglet. While the steak was delicious, the fish dish was perhaps more adventurous and it certainly dolloped the Dijon in the flavour department. Combining fish with fruit is something of a trademark for Anna Hansen, as it is for her former colleague Peter Gordon of Providores and Kopapa fame; a fine example of coastal Asian meets Western cooking.
By the time desserts arrived – an indulgent cumquat marmalade steamed pudding with vanilla ice cream for me – I had forgotten about the fact that I was supposed to have a dreadful hangover. The evening before now seemed like a distant memory, a disturbing dream sequence from one of Simon’s films. Wrapped in the convivial warmth of the wood-stripped pantry and doused with effortless hospitality, great wines with a strong nod to the New World and the rather splendiferous grub, I began to think that actually a good three-course lunch at a place like this is just the ticket for setting a chap right again after a night of depravity. Jeeves can keep his pick-me-up. Mine is called The Modern Pantry.
The Modern Pantry, 48 St. John’s Square, London EC1V 4JJ. Tel. 020 7553 9210. Website.