Let’s start at the end and work our way back. Is it worth your time to head from wherever you live to a sleepy little shopping plaza in the Maplewood neighbourhood of North Vancouver just to try the wares of a tiny bakery that operates there?
Yes. Yes, it most certainly is. In fact, I am troubled that I didn’t know about this place sooner. Had I known, I would have undertaken the 10 minute car ride on numerous occasions prior just to secure a freshly baked breakfast bun filled with cheddar, spinach and charred onion.
Or maybe I’d make the journey for a ginger molasses cookie sandwich filled with citrusy crème patissiere-style frosting. Better yet, I’d do what I just did this past weekend and load up three take-away boxes with an assortment of sweet and savoury individual baked items, a weighty quiche, and a loaf of fresh-from-the-oven sourdough bread for a late morning brunch at home. I would then sit looking at the spread before me, easily enough for six people, and wonder how it could have only cost me $40.
My first encounter with The Modern Pantry was through a pretzel and coffee-studded cookie at Treehaus play cafe, the subject of a Dish review a few weeks back. A little sign in the café’s display case attributed the cookie to the Old Dollarton bakery and I made a mental note at the time to check the place out. I have subsequently learned that The Modern Pantry is a lot more than a bakery; it is a conduit to European-influenced food experiences, some of which include travel to romanticized destinations like Tuscany as part of a guided culinary discovery, led by Modern Pantry owner and chief baker, Kendall Gustavson.
Gustavson is a masters-level graduate of the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy and has lived abroad in five countries where she deeply explored the food scenes. She brings her experiences to her diminutive Maplewood bakery space through which she champions, as she puts it, the “triumphant return of real food.” I can see this mission translated into reality based on my recent sampling. Everything served in the space is made on premise, using locally sourced ingredients, with intensity of flavour seemingly prevailing as a guiding principle.
A weighty individual quiche, for example, was remarkably velvety and soft set, with a tangy zing of citrus, pockets of sweet caramelized onion and fragrant ribbons of fennel. The centre was custard-like and silken, light as air and perfectly seasoned, while the crust was just thick enough to contain the egg mixture without overwhelming it. I would like to learn how to make a quiche like this myself as my past efforts now feel oafish and crude by contrast.
The notion is not far-fetched, it seems, as Gustavson hosts cooking classes in her Modern Pantry space (the kitchen is at least double the size of the small guest seating area, which is nevertheless bright and warmly appointed with earth tones and natural light).
Previous classes, according to the café’s website, focussed on cheesemaking and sour dough bread making. I am somewhat inclined to try out either of these classes, but would be a sure-thing participant in a quiche workshop.
The breakfast bun I mentioned above was another stand-out in a universally exceptional tasting of various incarnations of The Modern Pantry philosophy. It had a pleasing density and elasticity that contributed to the substantial feel of the bun as a breakfast meal in its own right, while a generous pocket of spinach and boldly flavoured charred onion added depth and complexity.
A honey, buttermilk, and rosemary tart, a sweet item, was simply ridiculous. I apply that word because I don’t think the combination of tart, sweetened buttermilk egg custard should work with the earthy and floral intensity of rosemary, and yet the tart was outstanding, both in texture and in harmony of flavours. The crisp, sugar-coated wisp of fresh rosemary that adorned the top of the tart as a garnish was a revelation in its own right, an unexpected testament to the versatility of the herb.
A butter-enriched scone studded with toasted filberts and dusted with what I surmise was paprika, straddled the line between sweet and savoury, lending itself well to coffee, while a cinnamon bun with a caramelized sugar and walnut topping achieved just the right balance between dense, toasty bread and indulgent sweetness.
The father in me was leaning towards trying Modern Pantry’s whole wheat sourdough loaf with various seeds, but the foodie in me ultimately prevailed and I came home with a traditional white flour sourdough loaf instead. The bread had the requisite chewy, golden crust that turns manual slicing into a test of mental fortitude, while the springy, dense center was textural perfection. Gustavson’s sourdough recipe yields a surprisingly subtle bread that I would describe as light on the sour taste signature that usually defines this French specialty. I made a simple egg salad with smoked sea salt and arugula for which the sourdough was the perfect vessel.
A final item, a hot cross bun with currants, was a nice teaser for the Easter weekend ahead.
My menu tasting, which included 10 items, was remarkably inexpensive at $41.
The Modern Pantry, 2055 Old Dollarton Road (just up the road from Maplewood Farm). TheModernPantry.ca. 604-770-2055.
Sound Bites: Rive Gauche
I am dismayed to report that Rive Gauche, Chef Weimar Gomez’s high-end Colombia-influenced French restaurant in West Vancouver has, suddenly and without explanation, closed down.
Gomez and his team dished out such great meals on my visits there last year that they garnered my top meal of the year spot in my annual Best Of round-up column. I have been unable to connect with Chef Gomez to learn what happened to his promising eatery and sadly am left to wonder if that location is simply cursed (several incarnations of the inconsistent Café Ca Va didn’t fair any better there). Window signage indicates a new Japanese eatery is slated to open soon in the space.