In London during Easter week, I went to a restaurant called Pharmacy. Only someone who slices up dead cows and floats them in formaldehyde could invent a place like this. The most fashionable new restaurant in London, Pharmacy has waiters dressed in surgical gowns designed by Prada, cabinets filled with white boxes of medicine and surgical instruments, and glass-backed urinals into which syringes, suppositories, Band-Aids, rubber gloves and other surgical waste have been stuffed. The house cocktails include Voltarol Retarding Agent, Russian Quaalude and Anesthetic Compound, and the house wine is alluringly named “pH.” As one local critic pointed out, “perhaps the idea is to make Notting Hill trendies feel at home, as if they were back at the detox clinic.”
Pharmacy is the brainchild of the artist Damien Hirst (a partner with restaurateurs and P.R. men Jonathan Kennedy and Matthew Freud). On a busy high street, the two-story detached building, with its shining white facade, its automatic plate-glass doors and its name spelled out in luminous green letters, looks so convincingly like a pharmacy (it would be quite at home in a new shopping mall) that the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain considered legal action, claiming that the restaurant was misrepresenting itself as a chemist. In response, the management issued a statement: “Pharmacy is a restaurant and bar and art installation. Damien has done an installation at the Tate Gallery called Pharmacy and one in Dallas. To confuse it with a retail operation is surprising.”
But so strong is the power of suggestion in all those white packets of methadone and Prozac stacked on shelves around the walls, and the gleaming scrubbed-clinic look of the place, that when you first walk in you could almost swear it even smells like a pharmacy. By day the downstairs is bright, pleasant and very white (white tables, chairs and banquettes), but at night it is rather eerie, lit by strips of bright-blue fluorescent tubing that make everyone look as though they were in the final stages of drug withdrawal. The bartenders, moving around the room in their white jackets done up at the back, and the barstools shaped like aspirins (not to mention the aspirin motif on the bar itself) add to the somewhat creepy atmosphere. But upstairs, as one reviewer wrote, “it’s actually rather sweet.”
The spacious dining room, which is dominated by a large colored model of Mr. Hirst’s DNA, has a skylight and big plate-glass windows that overlook the seemingly perpetually rain-swept streets of Notting Hill Gate. The walls are hung with framed paintings of dead butterflies flying around on backgrounds of solid color. (Apparently, Mr. Hirst released the butterflies and waited for them to stick to the freshly painted canvases.) The silver wallpaper, which at first I thought was subtly decorated with miniature colored flags of the world, turned out upon closer inspection to be made from pages of an encyclopedia of currently available drugs. I sat down in front of a row of Thorazine pills and waited for the young French waiter to bring a glass of wine (not the house pH, but a pinot gris).
Where were the Notting Hill “trendies”? Not at the next table, which consisted of a group of flashily dressed and enthusiastic young women from Beverly Hills; nor further off, where serious Japanese consulted the menu; nor across the way, where middle-aged couples, among them a wine writer and a food editor, seemed to be making their way contentedly through dinner.
There is nothing weird about the food at Pharmacy, which is quite straightforward. At the bar, you can get English nursery dishes like boiled eggs with “soldiers” (strips of buttered toast) and potted shrimp. Upstairs, there’s steak and chips and fisherman’s pie, but the cooking is generally more serious. The nearest chef Sonja Lee gets to pig’s innards (Mr. Hirst’s last controversial work was called This Little Piggy Goes to Market, This Little Piggy Stayed at Home , an installation for the Royal Academy’s Sensation show in the fall consisting of a pig cut in half) is trendy Jabugo ham from near Granada, Spain. As far as I know, Federal regulations prevent you from getting this ham anywhere in the United States-which is too bad, because it blows prosciutto out of the water. It arrived in thin, silken pink slices rimmed with delicious pearly fat. Also very good were the Dorset crab served in a mound, lightly seasoned, with greens in a light vinaigrette; and the carpaccio of sea bass topped with a “Nobu” dressing redolent of soy sauce. A salad of smoked magret (duck breast) was served with shredded duck confit (nice, but ubiquitous these days). The char-grilled sea bass with whole little onions and a red wine sauce was excellent, the skin crispy over moist flakes of fish. The pavé of cod looked rather as though it had been dragged through a hedge backward, sprinkled with greenery and bits, and was on the greasy side.
In addition to roast lamb and grilled rib-eye, Pharmacy has a couple of spit-roasted meats on the menu. The Landes duck had been on the heat a tad long but had good flavor (and I liked the apple juice with it), and the spit-roasted suckling pig with its crackling (the typical British way) was excellent, served with caramelized apples.
For dessert, there was a pleasant apple crumble with ice cream, a gooey brownie, a tangy lemon tart and a very pretty fruit salad made with pink grapefruit, slices of banana, green grapes and unripe pear. As I write this, a work of Mr. Hirst is going on the block at Christie’s in London, the auctioneers seeking a record price (most recently they took in $71,400 for the painting Anazolene Sodium ). This piece is a drug cabinet, a few shelves lined with medicine bottles like the ones in Pharmacy. It is called God .
150 Notting Hill Gate, London W.11
Dress: Nightdress or lab coat
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: Short and well chosen and fairly reasonable
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Complete lunch $21.60, lunch and dinner main courses $13.60 to $40
Lunch: Monday to Saturday 12:30 P.M. to 2:30 P.M.
Dinner: Daily 7 P.M. to 10:30 P.M.
* – Good
* * – Very good
* * * – Excellent
* * * * – Outstanding
No star – Poor