Now, I don’t know if I made this clear before, but I don’t have personal access to a whole lot of moolah. I certainly don’t have enough to allow for regular dining at fine eateries, not even those that offer good deals as long as you’re prepared to sign up for regular attacks of email carpet-bombing: Two course weekday lunch + glass of wine for £20 at a Michelin starred joint, etc. I’m pretty sure there are some amazing bargains to be had, but I simply cannot stretch my mean means (sic) that far.
The last time I ate a meal at what might be called a respectable dining establishment was a good nine months ago, when friends treated me to a wonderful lunch at the Canton Arms for the dubious achievement of having racked up yet another year in age and decrepitude.
I work in Clerkenwell, an area of London that is home to many fine eateries including The Modern Pantry, and almost every day I walk past these places on my various errands, catching a glimpse of the diners within, and hoping that one day I’ll be on the other side of the glass. In fact, I have had a Modern Pantry postcard stuck up on the pinboard in my studio that has been there since August 2008 when it opened. Here it is.
I hope I have painted a background of sufficient bleakness to contrast with the happy news that is about to follow. Last week I got a text message from a friend, and the following cellular conversation ensued:
And so it happened that on Thursday 27 January 2011 at 7:30pm, I found myself peering smugly at pedestrians through the windowpanes on right side of the of The Modern Pantry Cafe and Dining Rooms. Needless to say I enjoyed myself thoroughly.
There was a brief moment of fear when, asked to taste the wine I sipped it… and oh dear, it was very bitter. However, I gritted my teeth and nodded to the waiter. After a few minutes of stomach-churning panic that we were stuck with a dud bottle I decided to relax. I swirled the glass, took another sip and it tasted wonderful. A little time and oxygen was all it needed. Whew.
We shared a breadbasket which featured three different variations of ‘le Pain’. There was a type of brown chewy bread the colour of muscovado sugar, focaccia that was sort of crispy, chewy and springy in texture (I do hope focaccia is allowed to be chewy and springy, it certainly is meant as a compliment) and in taste it was all olive oil, and crunches of salt. The third, our favourite was a snappy crispbread made with cheese (Parmesan?), Poppy seed and whole Fennel seeds that exploded in the mouth like little aniseed fireworks when bitten.
My companion had the most delicious and tender Pork and we both agreed that the use of toasted seeds as a crunchy garnish is a Very Good Thing. Especially when they are coated in a melange of spices, as these were.
The Onglet of Beef with beetroot and ginger gratin, and chard that I chose was all good. The taste of the ginger in the gratin eluded me, but who cares, because that cube of tender layered beetroot tasted of nothing but the soil that it was grown in. Just call to mind that wonderful damp-earth-after-warm-rain perfume/memory that lies dormant in the little grey cells of every homo-sapiens blessed with a brain. Well, if you transform that memory from odour to flavour you’ll know what I mean. I think I’ve just spotted drool on my keyboard.
The beef was perfectly cooked, dark brown on the outside and deep crimson everywhere else. It had been marinated in a tarty concoction involving Miso, (oh dear, or was it Tamarind) and other delightful Asian flavours. I’m struggling to remember all the details, which I think may be a good thing, as I was there primarily to enjoy the moment with my friend, not to catalogue every whiff and flavour the sole purpose of critiquing it after the fact. Perhaps that is the luxury of writing about a treasured experience, rather than a strictly analytical review with a particular angle or agenda in mind.
For pudding we decided to share a comforting crumble so as to fortify ourselves against the freezing cold we would soon have to face outside. Underneath the loose layer of crunchy buttery oaty crumble lurked warm pears and quinces, soft and sweet. These were contrasted and complimented by a perfect globe of Chai ice cream, velvety in texture and just the right state of frozen-ness.
It then occurred to me that when eating ice cream at home I’m usually in such a rush for a creamy sugar hit that I scoff it when it is still far too frozen, enduring great pain in the form of the evil ‘Ice Cream Lockjaw’ and inflicting irreversible damage on the weaker teaspoons in the cutlery drawer. I will exercise more patience in future.
One aspect of my dining experience lay beyond the control of the restaurant, namely: damn fine company. A person may dine like royalty but grim company will ruin the feast, just as the company of a good friend can make an awful meal palatable.
When one hits upon that happy partnership of good food and excellent company the result is most favourable indeed: a satisfied belly, a stimulated mind, and an uplifted heart. Not even the Winter chill, or tedious journey home on public transport could put a dampener on that.
And from now, on every time I walk past the Modern Pantry Cafe and Dining Rooms I will not stare longingly through the windows, but rather I’ll catch a reflection in the glass, and it will be smiling back at me.