Wednesday, 16 March 2016
One of the few strong memories I have of my first year in London all those years ago (specifically 2003) was a visit to the original Pharmacy in West London. By that time, it's fair to say it was somewhat past its best - having been open 5 years, the once spotless perspex cabinets of artfully arranged drugs had gone a bit scuffed and warped, a good few boxes of the "drugs" themselves had gone missing (I was never quite sure if they were real or not), and the whole atmosphere and attitude of the staff had that kind of general torpor of an operation having long lost its raison d'être. And yet even by that stage you could see that the idea of marrying modern art and fine dining - a baton picked up by places like Sketch in Mayfair in subsequent years - was not entirely without merit. Pharmacy may have always been more influential than enjoyable, but you could say the same for most art. And plenty of restaurants too, for that matter.
So I was hoping that catching the relaunched Pharmacy2 - a Damian Hirst/Mark Hix collaboration - in its opening weeks I might be able to see what I missed in the first few years of the original spot, where the great and good of London's creative industries gathered to- well, do whatever they did (don't ask me) and where the paparazzi camped outside every night hoping to grab a pic of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson arm-in-arm with Liam Gallagher (look I'm on really shaky ground when trying to talk about celebrity culture so please just bear with me). But what would I find in the grand new building near Waterloo?
The answer to your first question, then, is no, I didn't see any celebrities. At least, I don't think I did. As I have mentioned, this really isn't my area of expertise and unless someone's been on Saturday Kitchen or is a Hollywood A-lister, I'm not very likely to notice. What I did find, though, and much more importantly, is a beautiful room full of enthusiastic staff, and - ironically for the pedigree of the place - a superbly accessible and unpretentious dinner menu.
First, to go with an excellent martini, some snacks. "Crispy prawn kale hearts" were wonderfully brittle, shattering in the mouth to a vegetal/seafood explosion and commendably greaseless.
Cuttlefish "croquettes" were actually more like arancini (presumably thanks to bits of chopped cuttlefish) but had a good rich squiddy flavour and crisp crust.
I loved my starter of "Brik a l'oeuf de canard with rose harissa", partly because it was genuinely something I'd not seen before but mainly because it was a really clever and delicate bit of cooking. The thin, buttery pastry, crisp and golden on the edges held a central pocket of deep orange egg yolk, and the dollop of spicy harissa matched it beautifully.
My friend had the prawn cocktail, which I think she said was "nice". The horseradish-spiked Marie Rose was slightly discombobulating but there were plenty of big fat fresh prawns in there and it looked the part.
There was a clear winner in the mains as well. My own duck curry was perfectly fine, enjoyable even, with its little multipart presentation and ironic curry-house copper hot plate. Perhaps the flavour of the dish itself paled slightly in comparison to another recent ironic curry-house tribute dish at the Marksman in Hoxton (never mind any actual Indian restaurant duck curry, but let's not go there), and the wild rice was a bit dry, but I still happily polished it off.
But my friend's chilli crab linguine, which I'm happy to say I got to try a bit of, was astonishingly good. Pasta as vibrant and bouncy and fresh as I've tried for a long time (which includes some fairly high-end Italian restaurants), glossy with a complex yet perfectly balanced seafood sauce, and topped with a good dollop of fresh white crab meat, this was a pretty much unimprovable dish, and worth the journey all by itself. Whoever's responsible for pasta at Pharmacy2 should be thoroughly pleased with themselves.
Mini desserts, at £4 each, were objectively only just worth the effort but we were having so much fun by this point (aided it has to be said with a £40 bottle of Albarino which is a little more extravagant than I'd usually allow on a Thursday night) we didn't feel like going home. My own favourite was the poached rhubarb with ice cream supposedly involving saffron but (perhaps thankfully) we didn't detect much of that. But the others, a rich chocolate mousse and a pineapple upside down cake looking a bit like a canelle, were decent too.
I have to ask myself whether I'm being kind on Pharmacy2 because my expectations were, well if not low then at least realistic. The original Pharmacy was never really about the food (certainly not towards the end at least) and the grim history of celebrity restaurant endorsements contains far more Fashion Cafés and Planet Hollywoods than anywhere you'd actually choose to eat with a straight face.
But there's no trick here, no need for a sprinkling of celebrity dust to distract from mediocre food or sniffy service. Without the YBA associations Pharmacy2 would still be a comfortable and friendly place to enjoy an interesting menu of crowd-pleasing dishes. The walls of medical branding and pill-shaped stools just adds - well, I don't know what it adds. Who cares? Just save up and enjoy it.
There's a good chance Pharmacy2 may be in the next version of the app. But if you can't grab a table here, see what else is in the area.