A Bitter Pill to Swallow
Damien Hirst is obsessed by death. Way back in the 1990s he made his mark as a YBA (Young British Artist) with his famous shark in formaldehyde entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living and his work In a Thousand Years, featuring the ever ongoing life cycle of maggots from eggs to flies in a rotting cow’s head, enclosed in a glass showcase. Later, he took apart butterflies and used their wings to replicate stained glass church windows, these colourful and much admired insects symbolizing resurrection but also idealized beauty. In 2007 his £50 million memento mori, a diamond encrusted platinum skull, For the Love of God, caused a furore in the art world for being the highest priced single work of any living artist. And then there were the medicine cabinets and pill bottles, referencing our complete trust in the healing power and easy access to medication. Completely off the subject of death, are his polka dotted spot pieces, so beloved by Fulham housewives for their pretty uncontroversialism and easy match to any interior design, but they are largely executed by Hirst’s team and not by him. On second thoughts, perhaps their relevance to his favourite subject is that they can bore the viewer to death.
Art is not about something attractive to hang over your sofa, loosely articulated, art is about provoking feelings or thought or both. This is true of the Old Masters as much as it is of contemporary art, yet throughout the ages, the creative have also had to dance to the tune of their patrons. With Charles Saatchi as his, Hirst has been considerably less restricted than most, if at all. Much lauded in his early years, he has also been accused of plagiarism on several occasions, and increasingly of lack artistic development, but then he himself is quoted as saying: “I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it. At the moment if I did certain things people would look at it, consider it and then say ‘f off’. But after a while you can get away with things.” Indeed, he is reputed to be the richest artist alive and ranks highly on Britain’s Rich List. The Emperor’s new clothes spring to mind.
Anyway, enough of me banging on about him (once an art historian, always an art historian…), let’s get down to brass tacks and talk about his newly opened restaurant Pharmacy 2. Basically it’s a somewhat watered down rehash of his famed Notting Hill eaterie The Pharmacy, which opened in 1998 and went under in 2003. This time around, Hirst has partnered up with chef and food writer Mark Hix of Caprice pedigree, to form a canteen like restaurant in his Newport Street Gallery in Lambeth, where he shows art from his vast private collection. The area initially appears dark and dingy until you realize that it is a gentrified, sanitised industrial complex. The building, facing the railway line and designed by architect Caruso St. John, white and minimalist inside, is very faintly reminiscent of the Guggenheim in New York, though about as far removed from it as
Lambeth is from the Big Apple.
On entering you are greeted by a man standing not at a desk but at a miniature Portaloo cabin. I guess this is supposed to be an ironic take on the final path of digestion but it’s implications don’t necessarily bode well….Upstairs, it’s predictably all very pharmaceutical: rather jolly looking pill pictures and medicine cabinets adorn the walls, there are DNA double helix over the bar and, etched on to the glass entrance door, chromosome strands, strangely featuring all but the Y chromosome. Signs of the four elements hang over doors and cupboards, chairs show pills and other medicines on their backs and the glass bar top is stuffed full with medical paraphernalia such as bandages, syringes, blood pressure cuffs, stethoscopes, tongue depressors and speculi. The bar stools look like colourful pills on chrome stilts with the foot rest so far down that our legs can’t reach them and dangle in the air. They are so infernally hard and uncomfortable that I wonder whether they might leave a tablet imprint on my bottom. An inordinately large number of serving staff, dressed in black, scurry around hectically as though they had a medical emergency to deal with but they are, nonetheless, friendly and helpful.
That’s just as well because the menu, supposedly simple and straightforward, is not. What are scarlet elf cups (mushrooms)? Or Heaven and Earth (wild boar black pudding with crushed potatoes – Mark Hix’s signature dish)? Or guanciale? The Lovely Husband is tempted by the Launceston Lamb Pie until he finds out that it also contains lamb’s kidneys and sweetbreads (also very Mark Hix). We’re not offal people, so he opts for the interesting sounding Swainson House Farm Duck Curry with Apple Pakora. I almost order the Linguine with Portland Crab and Chilli but then decide that I am being childish in my pasta choice and go for the more sophisticated Roast Lyme Bay Monkfish Tail with Rosemary with a side order of Rape Broccoli, whatever that is when it’s at home. But first we ask for a starter to share of Shaved Winter Squash with Trevisano and Graceburn Cheese.
While we wait, we contemplate the potential as a murder weapon of the heavy marble salt cellar on the table, embossed with a PH2 symbol. I decide it’s at least a pound in weight, the Lovely Husband thinks it’s less. We get it weighed on the kitchen scales and, as always, he is right, it’s 354 g. Still, if you hit someone just above the temple with it, it could smash a skull. I contemplate quietly pocketing it, just in case, but think better of the idea.
Our starter arrives. It’s roughly a handful of cold raw squash curls, little strips of bitter red raddicio and some nice bitey Feta like cheese in a fresh vinaigrette. Niceish, if a little insubstantial along the lines of ‘did I just eat something?’. The main courses take their time showing up, but we are happily quaffing our bottle of Kraal Bay. When they do, I find the most uninspiring and lonely piece of monkfish tail on my plate, without even a slice of lemon for company. It’s meaty but entirely tasteless. The Rape (pronounced raypay) broccoli comes in a cup sized bowl and is more garnish than side order. That, like the fish, is of forgettable flavour and just greenly floppy. The Lovely Husband’s duck curry looks more promising, sitting there on its copper food warmer, though it’s in a worryingly small bowl. It may not be the most mindblowingly delicous curry I have ever eaten but it’s not bad. The crunchy pakora is good too, although again, there’s not much of it.
Oh well, there’s still pudding to fill us up. Quite delightfully, here they do mini desserts, which means that you can taste several different ones, always a thrill for those of us with a sweet tooth! We’re desperately keen to try the Bread and Butter pud but they’re out of that, so we settle for Poached Yorkshire Rhubarb with Saffron Ice Cream, Crème Brulée and Blood Orange and White Chocolate Cheesecake. Mini is the word, the portions really are tiny. The rhubarb is nice and tart, the crème brulée, well just like you’d expect it and the cheesecake okay, no more, no less.
I’m tempted to ask if they have appetite suppressants among their collection of pills but instead we pay our £106.76, including wine, coffee and service, which seems a lot for the amount of food we’ve had, much of which was quite boring to boot. We wend our way back home and then the feasting starts as I get stuck into a few chunks of processed Cheddar cheese and Tuc crackers. I’m all of 163 cm and 48kg, so not a person of exorbitant appetite, but I’m starving!
Well what can I say? Pharmacy 2 just doesn’t ring my bell. The concept is a bit tired, the food not too interesting. Why bother heading to deepest darkest Lambeth to sit in a canteen and spend lots of money when all you get out of it is a grumbling tummy and a pill imprinted bottom? In my opinion, the old hell-raiser, now no longer Y and less of an A, has lost his touch, and his work takes on an all new meaning with the skull standing for hunger, the butterflies for the portions and the spots for those infront of your eyes when the bill arrives. Maybe he should sink it all in formaldehyde for a retrospective on his former success and title it after his favourite punk group, The Clash’s hit single “Should I stay or should I go”.
Pharmacy 2, Newport Street, London SE1 6AJ.
Tel.: 020 3141 9333 www.pharmacyrestaurant.com
What I wore
A Roberto Cavalli dress, so old it’s almost vintage, black suede Brenzi boots bought in Beirut, High Tech black jacket with velvet and leather trim black Hermes Birkin bag.
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Kia aka Fizz of Life