Non Americans looking upon the hugely entertaining spectacle of the US Presidential election campaign are befuddled by the importance of religion in America. On the right side of the pond the only people who are religious are recent immigrants and senior citizens cramming for their finals. The rest are mostly C&E Christians; they go to church on Christmas and Easter. It is indeed staggering that some normal, educated, not outwardly loony people in America believe that some dude made the world up in six days and then went fishing. No matter. It is all a matter of faith and people are entitled to believe in something. In the post religious world that most of us occupy, the new religion is environmentalism. It has all the hallmarks of a religion; dubious science, the threat of damnation and apocalypse, as well as some dodgy high priests.
The eco religionists can be identified by their beards and their vehicles; either a Toyota Prius or one of those tiny Indian battery operated death traps. They like to talk about recycling. I lunched with a few of them recently in St John’s Square, Clerkenwell, at a restaurant run by a Lesbian Kiwi chef, which is the kind of thing they like. We were joined by Starkers the well known Soho streaker, and He Who Cannot Be Named because he is always strictly off the record.
The Modern Pantry is the creative, exuberant kind of place that you couldn’t have found in London ten years ago. Anna Hansen who opened Providores with Peter Gordon cooks Asian fusion cuisine of a sort rarely done well outside of the Antipodes. Dishes like her prawn omelette with sambal and her Singapore style crab with coconut flatbreads are complex and bursting with flavour. The wines are well matched and reasonable. The week-day £20 two course lunch is a bargain.
This part of Clerkenwell has had a slow burn to gentility following a few colourful centuries. This was the centre of Dickensian London in the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century it was the hotbed of radical thought and communism. Lenin published his magazine Iskra (Spark) here in 1902 and had meetings with a young Josef Stalin at the Crown and Anchor pub, now called the Crown Tavern. The area went into decline after the war (together with the rest of Britain). Its revival (together with that of the rest of Britain) started in the Thatcher years and continued during the dot com boom. Restaurants and drinking holes followed soon after. Within a stone’s throw of the Modern Pantry are some excellent food and drink venues including the Zetter Hotel with its excellent Bruno Loubet restaurant, the newly opened Zetter Townhouse and the Giant Robot.
Seeking a postprandial cocktail we walked into the Zetter Townhouse. The bar here is run by Tony Conigliaro and Camille Hobby Limon whose other bar, 69 Colebrook Row, I previously reviewed in The Tale of the Socialist and the Good Looking Waitress. The decor is seriously bonkers – a Dickensian melange of your maiden aunt’s musty living room and a taxidermy. There is red patterned wallpaper and wooden floors with lots of rugs. A fire crackles invitingly. Chairs have arms covered in burlap sacking. There’s a bunch of paintings with landscape and hunting themes. A stuffed fish is mounted on a wall. A stuffed cat dressed in a Victorian gown and parasol stands over a stuffed bird. A table is scattered with rusty tin boxes. It’s eclectic, perhaps even slightly disturbing. However, it grows on you as you spy yet another novelty. I reached for a drink.
Needing something to settle my stomach I went for the old standby – Fernet Branca, sometimes fondly described as a black licorice flavoured Listerine. The drink I chose was called a Flintlock and is made with Beafeater 24 gin, gunpowder tincture, sugar, dandelion and burdock bitters and the aforementioned Fernet Branca. Our waitress flamed my drink with a cotton wick to bring out the traces of gunpowder. The resulting cocktail is delicate and slightly sweet with bitter afternotes. There is a hint of gunpowder (never having actually tasted gunpowder I can’t be certain) on the palate. A slightly bitter but pleasant aftertaste lingers.
Next on the menu was a drink called Les Fleurs du Mal (flowers of evil), a reference to Baudelaire who no doubt would have approved of our Bacchanalian debauchery. True to form the drink includes rose vodka, lemon juice and absinthe. There is raw egg white which is beaten into a thick, creamy head. The first impression is of creaminess, followed by the licorice notes of the absinthe. The rose flavour of the vodka is hidden. The lightness of the flavours lull you into forgetting the drink’s potency; it’s delightful.
The drinks list here is inventive and tempting. However, the beardies were complaining that they hadn’t recycled anything yet, so we had to leave. Our bill came inside an old volume of Dickens.
Come visit St John’s Square on a sunny afternoon. There’s a great choice of food and cocktails. Once you’ve had enough to drink you can ignore the beardies.