Eating out: Pharmacy - Dispensing with dinner

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The Independent Culture
PHARMACY

150 Notting Hill Gate, London W11, 0171 221 2442. Open Mon-Sat 12.30-3pm, Mon-Thurs 6pm-1am, Fri-Sat 6pm-2am, last food orders in restaurant at 10pm. Two-course set lunch pounds 12.50, three-course set lunch pounds 15.50, average a la carte, pounds 35. Credit cards accepted

ANYONE WHO ever lived in and around Notting Hill Gate in the Seventies or Eighties will remember the Cleopatra Taverna, just opposite Hillgate Street, as something of a landmark. With its silver arches and permanently drawn curtains, it had an air of impenetrable seediness and mystery; was it a brothel, an opium den, or a meeting place for Greek gangsters? Since nobody I knew had actually ventured inside (the food was rumoured to be awful), such idle speculation could run unchecked for years.

Eventually, when my stint as a barman at the restaurant 192 came to an end in 1988, I decided it was time to get to the bottom of the Cleopatra mystery, and booked a table there by way of a small leaving do. I was promised mixed mezze, half a bottle of retsina per person, plus cabaret - all for just pounds 14.95 per head.

It was an unforgettable evening. I finally confessed my feelings to the waitress I had a crush on, who gently rebuffed me with the information that she was a lesbian. Later in the evening she got so drunk that she slumped over the table and set fire to her hair on the floating candle. We put it out with several glasses of retsina - the heady aroma of pine resin mixed with burnt hair is one I hope never to encounter again.

After the grisly cabaret of bazouki and wobbling cellulite, the band played on and I ended up dancing on the stage with my singed unrequited love. She spun me round so fast that I finally flew off the end of the stage, and landed, full toss as it were, in the middle of a large table, around which an extended Greek family were still tucking into their mezze. The table collapsed and I was, briefly, knocked unconscious. It says something for the staff that, far from throwing me out, they pampered me and nursed me back to a state where I was sufficiently recovered to order two bottles of Metaxa - one for us, and one for the family whose dinner I had interrupted.

I hadn't revisited the scene of this youthful folly until last week, when I walked into what is now London's most talked about restaurant, bar none. I went to Pharmacy for a late weekday lunch - which is probably anybody's best chance of getting a table at less than three weeks notice.

It is no great surprise that the sneering has already started. Damien Hirst's glass walls and cabinets full of pharmaceuticals have (appropriately enough you might think) been getting up some people's noses. I thought they looked fab. I also thought, if I may be allowed a brief stab at art criticism, that the juxtaposition of the ultimate in synthetic man-made consumables with a menu that clearly takes the sourcing and the provenance of untampered-with produce very seriously, is both provocative and worthwhile. Besides which, the upstairs dining room, airy, roomy, bright, with a great glass wall view over the street below, is one the most pleasant I have sat in for some time. And the butterflies in the glass cabinet are quite beautiful.

And what of the food? Well, I've read and heard a few moans about that as well, so I arrived with my critical faculties fully barbed and sharpened. Before we got to grips with the menu proper we had a couple of kirs, and shared, by way of an amuse-gueule, a Welsh rarebit from the downstairs snack menu - where everything, as you may have heard, comes on toast. This was a proper rarebit, made as it should be by mixing a strong farmhouse cheddar with a little bechamel, beer, Worcester sauce and mustard. It came hot and bubbling straight from the grill and we both loved it.

My friend Belinda started "real lunch" with a tian of Dorset crab. It was composed of accurately cooked sweet white meat, well- (and not over- ) dressed with a loose mayonnaise that had a little pep in it - perhaps Tabasco, perhaps cayenne. Very nice, as far as it went - though I'm always a little bit irritated when you don't get any brown meat on a plate of crab.

My own first course was a wholly successful variation of a favourite dish of mine: mushrooms on toast with a poached egg on top (although on the menu it was rather misleadingly described as "en croute" - which doesn't mean "on a crouton"). The mushrooms were wild and an impressive selection - mousserons, girolles and trompettes de mort among them - for the time of the year, and if some of them had been dried and reconstituted it had been done with some skill. The poached egg was a bullet-shaped beauty, judged to perfection, and the whole plate was made a bit lux with a drizzle of heavily reduced wine-flavoured meat juices. In short, a dish which presented a number of opportunities for error - soggy toast, watery mushrooms, badly timed egg - was spot on.

Main courses were mostly familiar combinations without any pretentious razzmatazz - the kind of things that are awful if they are not done right. So my roast suckling pig came simply with a few rounds of fried apple slices. The meat was perfectly tender, not dry, and nicely porky; most importantly, the crackling crackled. The apples were tart and kept their shape (Granny Smiths, I would guess), so did their job. The gravy had plenty of porky depth, but might have benefited from a touch of sweetness to balance the apple. Meanwhile, Belinda had slow-cooked shank of lamb, which flaked unctuously from the bone and came with cannelini beans that were so soft and creamy I suspect they came from a tin - in which case, I'd like to know the brand.

For afters, Belinda was defeated by an enormous ile flottante, but I managed every last scrap of a coffee mousse, rich, real and reassuringly undecaffinated in flavour, sandwiched between some precariously thin and nutty tuiles. Then I polished off the sea of delicious, vanilla-flecked creme anglaise that Belinda's partially erodded island was floating in. Then I ate the island.

Pharmacy may have sent home a few unhappy customers in its first few weeks, but we were not among them. The fact is, you can tell there's a kitchen here that knows about good food, and that is quite capable of ironing out any wrinkles.

Only one thing disappointed me: the men's urinal. Behind the glass splashback (if that's the right word for the place on to which we men are encouraged to pee) is a lively collage of hospital waste: surgeons' gloves, paper towels, syringes etc. Trouble is, it isn't waste at all. Everything in it is pristine, clean and new. Surely there's room in there for a bit of Hirst blood and pus, something to stir it up a bit? With food this good, Pharmacy's natural constituency of detractors will need something else to complain about.

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