Signature dishes are what chef Anna Hansen describes as “odd.”
“You do get attached to things, and sometimes you feel proud of something,” says the the New Zealand chef who this summer celebrated the tenth anniversary of her London restaurant, The Modern Pantry.
“But it does also happen that you really love something you’ve made and nobody else does. People don’t buy it or like it. So it’s a funny one.”
For a dish to end up on her menu, Hansen says there are several things that need to come together. “Generally I’ll do a first take on an idea, and sometimes it’s flukey and it just works,” she exaplains.
“More often than not you work on something, and then realise you should add something. But it doesn’t always all happen at once – for example, our sugar cured prawn omelette was almost so many different things. But you also have to try not to overwork it because you get bored and also you can change it and ruin it.
“The best things to me are the ones that happen quite quickly and naturally. If you have to try and fix something too many times it also makes it incredibly hard to replicate and obviously that’s what you’re trying to do in a restaurant kitchen.”
Once she’s tested a recipe, she’ll pass it to one of her chefs to make it. “And then if it’s good, then it’s good,” she adds.
Here, she explains the background behind six of her favourite dishes from ten years worth of menus at The Modern Pantry.
1. Tamarind miso marinated onglet, lemongrass braised cherry tomatoes, cassava chips
“This was on there from day one. Before opening, I ran a contract catering job in the city and used it to develop my ideas. I was trying to do a take on the black miso cod, using steak, as I thought its offaly rich flavour would be nice with the miso. I’m also a massive fan of tamarind so all together I wanted to go for a sweet and sour effect, and it was so delicious. We use the same marinade in so many things – from lamb to aubergine. The lemongrass cherry tomatoes are a classic and delicious Modern Pantry side dish, which works so well that we tend to keep it on there.”
2. Sugar cured New Caledonian prawn omelette, smoked chilli sambal
“This has basically been on the menu for the longest, and is considered the signature dish of the Modern Pantry. I had this idea to cure prawns before the restaurant opened. I tried curing them with flavours like lemongrass, ginger, sugar and salt, and initially I thought I’d be able to eat them straight away – like gravadlax. But they were disgusting! Then my brother and I were looking through a book by the Australian chef Kylie Kwong and found her recipe for deep fried eggs, so we decided to do that with the prawns. We chucked them in the wok and they were really delicious. It wasn’t until we opened the doors of the Modern Pantry that I decided to have it as an omelette, and adding the smoked chilli sambal.”
3. Singapore wok crab
“This is super iconic and was inspired our first regular customer, Eric Tan, who has his offices in the square and has been coming here since day one. He was so in love with the prawn omelette that he began to come every day. The sambal is apparently very similar to one in Singapore, where they might spread it on bread or toast. So this crab dish was a tribute to Eric, and it tends to be on the menu around the spring when the crabs are available. We steam and clean the crab then make a paste using shallots, Szechuan peppercorns, chilli and garlic. We make a rich base sauce with our tomato chilli sauce and chuck the whole lot in the oven, and then into a wok with some stock we make using the prawn shells leftover from the omelette. You end up with a thick, juicy, luscious, earthy, umami-ish dish that we normally serve straight or with rice or bread. People love it, but it’s tricky to serve as they take so long to eat it!”
4. Chorizo scotched quail egg, tomato relish
“Another early dish that came about because I used to be utterly obsessed by chorizo and would eat it at any opportunity. I also went through a phase of Scotching eggs and this one was the winner. We make it with Brindisa’s spicy cooking chorizo and some pork mince and add in fennel seed, black onion seed, shallots and curry leaves. We serve it with tomato relish or green pepper relish, which are two staple chutneys. It’s a pain to make but it’s such a delicious crowd pleaser and it’ll be back on the menu again soon.”
5. Chocolate liquorice delice, candied pink grapefruit, whipped cream
“We used to go and eat loads of amazing rye bread and pastries when we stayed with my aunt in Copenhagen, as my mum’s family are Danish. But on the flip side you get these Haribo liquorice sweets out there which have a hard candy on the outside. One day after a frenzy of eating these and lots of chocolate, I thought it was something I wanted to recreate. The delice is like a custard that if you put enough chocolate in will set and you can make a quenelle. We make a wafer to go with it, made with cocoa, glucose, paprika, lots of salt and chilli so that you end up with this amazing almost meaty chocolate wafer – like highly addictive gourmet cocoa pops! We also add some fresh pink grapefruit and some candied peel, as the fruit is quite aniseedy and heightens that character of the dish. We add whipped cream because every Danish person has cream with everything!”
6. Ricotta pancakes, gooseberry & vanilla compote
“This was inspired by the Australian chef Bill Granger who I’ve admired for years. I went to his restaurant many years before the Modern Pantry opened and had something involving honey and butter. Then because I love brunch I thought I’d do something in our restaurant. It’s a thick pancake that you have to bake for 10 minutes, and it has ricotta crumbled all the way through it. We serve it with one of a variety of compotes, sometimes berry and liquorice, or more recently one with gooseberry, turmeric and lemongrass.”
The Modern Pantry is at 47-48 St John’s Square, Clerkenwell, London EC1V 4JJ; themodernpantry.co.uk
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