I feel like I should start this review with a personal anecdote about Damien Hirst. Everybody seems to have one, like the time he pulled his foreskin through a hole in his trousers, pretended it was a blob of chewing gum and got people to try to brush it off.
My anecdote would recall a time we clashed over a philosophical point while enjoying shepherd’s pie at the Ivy in the mid-1990s. It would end with him, Damien, my friend Damien, learning something about himself, or the world, and with me proving my status as the alpha-male of the London restaurant scene. That’s what AA Gill would do.
But I’ve never met Damien Hirst. I was still a teenager when he opened the first Pharmacy restaurant, in Notting Hill Gate in 1998, alongside PR-man Matthew Freud. I never got to eat there before it closed in 2003, which is, by most accounts, no great loss.
Now Hirst has opened Pharmacy 2 in his Newport Street Gallery in Vauxhall, which I think is rather brilliant, and I have no clever personal hook to draw you in. So I thought I’d make one up. What if Damien had joined me for dinner last week? It might have happened something like this.
“Hi there Damien Hirst, who I definitely know. How are you?”
“I’m fine, Steve, thanks for asking. Welcome to my new restaurant, which I’ve filled with lots of things that I have made.”
“Yes, I see it’s packed with the pharmaceutical paraphernalia that’s been a recurring motif in your work since the 1980s.”
And so it is: medicine cabinets adorn the walls; the bar looks like a drug-store counter, its glass top revealing syringes and rubber tubes and latex gloves; the word “prescriptions” glows above it in neon tubing. There’s a medical waste sign on the door to the kitchen. Pills – real and depicted – are everywhere: the floor and the wallpaper and the chairs and the menus. Even the bar stools are giant pills; vivid, multi-coloured things, consumerist delicacies to pop into your mouth to make yourself feel better (I suppose it’s not a great philosophical leap from “pills” to “food”).
“Originally I wanted to fill the whole restaurant with live butterflies,” said Damien, “But Mark wouldn’t let me. Said it might interfere with the food.”
He’s talking about his Pharmacy 2 partner Mark Hix, the chef and serial restaurateur behind a small empire of venues bearing his name, all of which are excellent. The pair have been friends for years and Hirst made a formaldehyde “Cock and Bull” for his Tramshed restaurant in Shoreditch.
“He wouldn’t let me install my 1990 piece A Thousand Years, either,” continued Damien sullenly. “He was worried about the flies escaping and laying eggs.”
“Probably wise,” I nodded as a bowl of dainty cuttlefish croquettes arrived, followed by crispy kale and shards of pork crackling, all from the “snax” (which I think is supposed to rhyme with “Hix”) section of the menu.
“You have to try the cod chitterlings,” said Damien. “I wanted to pickle them in formaldehyde but…”
“Yeah, yeah, Mark again.”
Cod chitterlings are, for want of a better phrase, sacs of cod spunk that, through some culinary alchemy, end up as delicate, nugget-sized balls the consistency of sweetbreads or brains, with the faintest taste of a fish supper. They’re always delicious but these ones are transcendental, served with thick, chewy guanciale – cured pig’s jowl-fat, hailing in this case from Ulster – and sea purslane.
“And you can’t miss the brik a l’oeuf de canard,” Damien went on.
“Let me see… That’s duck egg in a thin sheet of pastry (traditionally warka but filo will do), right?”
“That’s the one.”
Wow. Slicing through this crispy, dinner plate-sized parcel to release the burnt-orange egg yolk lurking inside is my single most satisfying food moment of the year.
“I planned to cut that dish in half and suspend it above the plate…”
“Shut up, Damien.”
Other highlights included the Hix staple Heaven and Earth – soft, creamy black pudding with apple-sweetened mashed potato – and an excellent dessert of poached rhubarb with saffron ice cream. My only criticism is of the duck curry, which never quite gelled from its constituent parts into the satisfying whole it seemed to promise.
We enjoyed a lovely meal, my imagination and I. While the décor is as bright and gaudy and opulent as you’d expect of Hirst, the food is simple and precise, prepared by a chef who rarely puts a foot wrong.
And then, just as we were finishing off a Willie’s Peruvian chocolate mousse (which, at only £4, represented exceptionally good value – value that’s apparent throughout the menu), Damien and I clashed over an intellectual point. We argued long into the night about life and death and art and, most importantly of all, about food.
I won’t bore you with the details – they’re all made up anyway – but it ended with Damien coming round to my way of thinking. He really learned something that day. I wish I hadn’t tried to help out with the chewing gum, though.
First published in City A.M.