The restaurant is bleaker and more functional than it was, with square tables instead of the old round ones and more air-vents showing, and is decorated with art from Damien Hirst's own collection. There is also his model of DNA in red, white and blue plastic which, as one of Willie Rushton's cartoon characters pointed out of a similar work in the Sixties, is all balls. This construction is shown on the cover of the menu in the same patriotic colours, and Union Jack flags hang above the street outside.
Both the ladies, my wife and my step- daughter's future mother-in-law, were already mourning the old restaurant before we got through the door. Why did the fascia board have "London" painted in small letters after Quo Vadis? They remembered it when it was old Soho Italian, Leoni's Quo Vadis, offering spaghetti followed by veal, when Signor Leoni himself "used to wander round from table to table rather lugubriously talking about Positano, and it wasn't at all expensive". One of them claimed to have had dinner there for 17/6.
One of the starters now costs pounds 250. This is for buckwheat blinis and fromage blanc with Iranian caviar on top, and has the effect of making everything else seem cheap by comparison. For the first course there was a big choice of fish - fish soup, mussel soup, oysters, salmon, gravadlax - as well as foie gras, risotto and salads. My wife ordered grilled sea scallops, gros sel, citrus fruits, beurre a l'orange, my step- daughter's future mother-in-law's second husband (deep breath!) had a veloute of parsley and truffle served with poached egg.
The real shock was the design. Whether or not the wild-eyed Damien was at work in the kitchen or had simply inspired Chalky and his boys to sculpt in food, the scallops came with wings of shell trembling in an arctic landscape of deep salt - six ounces of gros sel - the little bundle of asparagus lay in a perfect circle of pinkish truffle sauce, scored round with tiny green dots, and the green parsley and truffle soup contained a poached egg, wrapped like a dwarf in a cloak inside a matching green cabbage leaf. There were minor technical difficulties. The little asparagus tongs didn't really grip and visibly upset my wife who believes in fingers. They were replaced immediately with a silvery finger-bowl full of hot water and a thick slice of lemon. The cabbage leaf in the soup also took a bit of dismembering with a spoon. But otherwise it was all very good indeed, the soup smokey and delicious, the asparagus and the scallops excellent.
My real curiosity was about Damien Hirst. Had he suddenly had a new artistic vision, realising that there was as much money to be made out of cooking food as from dunking it in formaldehyde? I asked both the discreet French waiter and the less discreet English manager. The waiter said Damien was simply "a friend" who had generously lent his works of art, and suggested we might like to go up to the bar to see the "Cows' Heads", "per'aps after deener". The manager thought for a long time. Was Damien Hirst an investor or an exhibitor? He was definitely an exhibitor.
Meanwhile, the manager wanted to correct the impression that had somehow found its way into the press that the wine list was expensive. It was, but there were wines under pounds 20 a bottle. We had a bottle of Pouilly Fume at pounds 27.50, which was fine and, eventually, after a foolish qualm of self- restraint, two half-bottles of Australian red, Peppertree Shiraz, at pounds 18 each.
The main course also offered fish - salmon, skate, salt cod, tuna, haddock and sole - as well as some good solid Damien Hirst animal pieces like calf's liver, grilled ribeye, roast rabbit, lamb, duck and chicken. The spit-roast suckling pig was off, possibly on loan to another exhibition. Our guests had the tranche of salmon grilled, croquante of fennel, sauce bois-boudrin, and we each had half a spit-roasted Gressingham duck. Our guests were not wild about the salmon, thinking it was farmed, and the duck was okay, but a bit tough and ordinary.
The other customers seemed to be mostly eager young businessfolk, girls having supper with girls, men having supper with men. There were also two long tables, one of excessively well-behaved young French couples who turned out to be the restaurant's wine dealers, the other of what we took to be Damien's friends, young women in black dresses with thick blonde hair, young men in semi-inflated leather jackets with an earring and their hair cropped down to stubble. My wife then opened the topic of the waiters' trousers, which appeared in every case to be four inches too long, pegged at the ankle, and what she called "ruched". That made a change from the wedding arrangements and kept us quite happy till the pudding arrived.
There was a variety of ices, tarts and a red-wine gelee, but we had pannacotta with salad of poached fruits. The pannacotta was a knockout, and the poached fruits would have been even better without the kiwi. The in-laws had a marquise of bitter chocolate, sauce caramel, solid chocolate biscuit-cake and very good. We also had herbal tea and coffee. Supper for two came to pounds 104.76 including the 12.5 per cent "optional gratuity".
Upstairs in the bar area, Damien reigns, with the two embalmed scraped "Cows' Heads" and a glass case full of old surgical instruments and two skeletons, and with Damien's Friends lingering there, all agreeably louche. One of the girls told us her old man was in the wholesale meat business and the cows' heads didn't do anything for him. In the retail catering trade, it seems, it's another story.Reuse content