Apologies, this has become quite a lengthy post. It’s just there’s a lot to talk about: supper clubs; fusion food; champagne; 5 courses; coffee and chocolates; and too much wine. The food takes up a bit of space because it was good and because I don’t take pictures. I won’t spend too long directly writing about the other themes, but hopefully you’ll work out through the general discourse that I enjoyed my first supper club experience and was won over by Anna Hansen, the chef proprietor of the Modern Pantry (in Clerkenwell) and all round ambassador for fusion food.
Supper clubs are basically a cross between a dinner party and a restaurant: you pay to eat in someone’s house. There are loads across London (and elsewhere) – have a look at the London Foodie for a round up of a few of them. This particular supper club (the “Friday Food Club”) is based in Blackheath and run by Lee and Fi Behan.
I’m not going to lie, on arrival my heart sunk a bit – awkward small talk with strangers felt like an insight into the first half hour of a swingers party (“do you do this often?”… “no, this is our first time, honestly”).
But then the hosts took control, sat us down at our tables and it suddenly felt as though we were at a restaurant, rather than a party. The difference being that at this restaurant, the chef personally introduces the menu. Anna, who had donated the food and her time for the evening (which was in aid of the charity Chance UK), spoke (shyly) about what she liked about the dishes and why she was doing them. She also touched on her restaurant and, briefly, fusion food and its critics. I would have liked her to speak more about the fusion food genre as it was clear that she would have given a passionate defence (I, for one, sometimes wonder whether random and unnecessarily odd ingredients are used for the sake of creating a ‘fusion’ dish). To be fair, she couldn’t spend long talking as she and Lee had to get back to the kitchen; and in any event proceeded to produce food that spoke volumes.
Whilst Anna was talking we each had a couple of krupuk quail eggs with a chilli lime dipping sauce on the side. Krupuk is what you make prawn crackers with. This was effectively the deep fried outside to a mini scotch egg type bite (minus the meat). That’s a bit dismissive; the krupuk shell was a novel and crunchy contrast to the inner, just hard boiled, quails egg, and collected the thick, clingy, zingy reduction that we dipped them in. A good start. Washed down nicely with some Champers.
Sugar cured New Caledonian prawn omelette was much more than just a well cooked omelette (though each mini omelette was golden, light and fluffy and had just enough of a runny middle oozing out when you cut it open). What made it different was the sweet, firm prawns in the middle and the smudge of smoked chilli sambal that it was sat on. The mix of the very western style omelette, the Asian coriander and sambal flavours, and sweet prawns from the SW Pacific is an example of the Fusion genre really working. It’s (rightly) one of the Modern Pantry’s signature dishes.
Pan fried cod, chorizo and clams, squid ink mash and samphire was a generous and super tasty fish course. The cod itself was well cooked but otherwise unremarkable. However the clam and chorizo saucing was ace and the squid ink mash was black, salty and very moreish. A great looking and tasting accompaniment. I always enjoy samphire too.
The main dish for the evening was Singapore style woked crab with Thai basil. Which basically meant a large crab (body, legs and claws) in a delicious sauce to share between two. Getting the crab meat was hard work – and some people probably found more on to their clothes afterwards than they got to eat. But I would have been quite happy just to lick the sauce off the claws and shells. Because it was amazing. A friend and I guessed at which Asian flavours had been combined to provide the incredible tasting deep red sauce. We were wrong on all counts. I think I remember being told later that evening that the sauce ingredients included the same sambal that was smudged under the omelletes; prawn stock (also linked to the omelettes), fish sauce and Thai basil. We got bread to mop up the juices and were grateful for that. The main shell was full of excellent dark meat. All in all, it was finger licking awesome.
Dessert was the weakest of the 5 courses. There were elements that were really nice – the very refreshing coconut sorbet in particular and the subtly flavoured tamarind caramel sauce. But, ultimately, I wasn’t a huge fan of the key component: sticky coconut rice balls stuffed with umeboshi (Japanese dried plums) and palm sugar. One bite was nice, but after that I couldn’t decide whether the stickyness was just a bit too claggy; and the fried outside a little bit too like the deep fried pancake batter fritters that a lady called Marian who looked after me and my brothers in school holidays (and who may actually be Mary in X Factor?) used to try and fatten us up with [now breathe]. I doubt others had such a traumatic memory/association when eating the little fried rice dumplings. But I also don’t think anyone (on our table at least) loved them.
As an aside, the umeboshi centres remind me of why I sometimes think fusion can be hit and miss: I can’t get excited about this flavour and (before Friday) always felt that such an addition was made just for the sake of adding an exotic sounding ingredient to the menu, rather than because it’s good. I don’t now think that’s the case; certainly I’m now sure Anna Hansen has more legitimate reasons than that. But I still won’t be throwing umeboshi in my rice pudding.
We finished up [well, more wine was drunk, but at some point between food and stopping drinking] with Modern Pantry Valrhona chocolate truffles and Friday Food Club French coffee. The truffles were excellent; the centre was on the soft, almost runny side and was rich and decadent. The French coffees included a decent dose of very pleasant brandy, were shaken and frothed. Beyond that, I’m afriad I can’t divulge the surprising and secret reason for the coffee tasting so good.
This was a really well conceived and cooked meal. Full of quality food, but not uncomfortably stuffed, we were all felt very content; even before getting to spend a bit of time with the chef and the hosts. Which is what made the evening particularly fun.
I don’t think they’re for everyone, but I’ll be taking on a few more supper clubs. I’m going to be selective though. I don’t mind opening myself up to being labelled snobbish by saying that I intend to pick ones that are more like pop up restaurants than amateur dinner parties; ones where the hosts are clued up and the dining is basically a casual take on a Chef’s Table type experience; ones like the Anna Hansen takeover of Friday Food Club.
Friday Food Club in 3 words
Home restaurant fusion
£65 for 5 courses, a couple of glasses of champagne, chocolate truffles and some brandy laced with coffee. All the cash went to charity. Non “takeover” evenings are more in the £40 range and I’m confident Lee’s cooking would make that well worth it. BYO wine.
I had originally contemplated sharing this piece with a write up of the Modern Pantry. But it would’ve been way too long and you’d definitely have lost interest. In summary: it’s a nice restaurant, serving relatively casual but good and interesting food; there are a number of ingredients on the menu that you won’t have heard of or may seem odd; I’m not sure we ordered the best dishes – I remember having food envy; and dinner is nice, but I suspect it’s in its element for brunch and lunch.
www.themodernpantry.co.uk – 47-48 St John’s Square, Clerkenwell, London, EC1V 4JJ – 020 7553 9210