Published 24 May 1998 Style Magazine 254th article
Best treatment: back, left to right, Ruth Mayer and Sonja Lee: front, Vanessa Perry and Michael Winner (Marco Pierre White)
I don't want to be "in". Being in is one step away from being "out". When I hear recession is coming, I think: "Good, then all those dreadful, ephemeral 'in' restaurants can collapse. The sound of falling catastrophes will be music to my ears." I could give you a list of restaurants I'd be delighted to see go down. And their owners with them. I'm sure I will live to enjoy the spectre of it all. So when a very famous chef (hereinafter referred to as VFC) suggested we had dinner at Pharmacy, the newish place in Notting Hill Gate, west London, I said to myself, "I can't think of anything worse." This restaurant is so chic, they have a special phone number for the superchic to use so they don't have to get ear contamination from being listened to on the same phone as the less chic.
In case there is anyone who doesn't know, Pharmacy faces the busy through road from Bayswater to Shepherd's Bush. It's done out by Damien Hirst, he of the half-cow school of art. On being driven past it from time to time, I noted it was an Addams family version of a Disneyland chemist's shop. I like theme restaurants. In the 1950s, I was very fond of El Cubano, a Mexican-style, glossy-table-topped place in Knightsbridge, full of exotic birds in cages, which served an excellent chilli con carne at any hour of the day. The exotic birds bred so speedily they had to open a second, similar place up the road. We understood they were closed because the kitchens were filthy. Doubtless lining them up with many of today's posh places.
Pharmacy's shelves of supposed chemist products (a jar of Rimactane caught my eye) were quite inoffensive. The downstairs bar seemed a perfectly decent place for a snack. I was greeted by Ruth Mayer. She's nice, very pretty. I knew her from the River Cafe. She led us up to the first-floor dining room. I must admit it looked very good: plastic-covered panels with butterflies in them, airy, spacious, interesting. I was sat obscenely close to a molecular sculpture which probably came from a school for retarded car dealers. Imagine my surprise when told it was terribly important and some art expert had bought 11 of them at £150,000 each. Believe that if you wish.
The bread was unspeakable. Like rock. It was Sunday, when frequently the bread isn't fresh - but really! I ordered foie gras cooked on sel with shaved fennel, then pave of cod grenobloise. "Good choice, you'll like that," said the general manager. My foie gras was pretty good. The same horrid bread was with it, but toasted, so marginally better. The dressing on the fennel was rather tart. The VFC pointed out that I had sliced pear as well. Vanessa greatly liked her goat's cheese salad.
The chairs were very comfortable. Robbie Williams, formerly of Take That!, walked by from right to left wearing a hat. Mr Robert Earl, emperor of themed restaurants, was at the next table. I was told the female toilet was identified by a round circle with a cross, the male one by a round circle with an arrow.
I liked my cod very much. Vanessa had sea bass. I don't remember her complaining, so it must have been good. "Look," I said, "there's slices of grapefruit with my fish." "It's lemon," said the VFC contemptuously. I don't care. Lemon, grapefruit - it's all citrus fruit to me. The chips were disappointing. For pudding, the apple crumble was off. The lemon tart had a too-solid pastry base, but the orange sorbet was the best ever.
It was all very trendy. Surprisingly, I found myself enjoying it. I even checked the number of a couple of tables I'd ask for on my return. Pharmacy is a far better and greatly updated version of Kensington Place, which is just around the corner. It has a lady chef, Sonja Lee. She's half Norwegian and half Korean. I meant to ask her if, being Nordic, she ever did herring. I like herring; you don't see it around much nowadays. You don't see prawn cocktail or fried scampi much, either. I like those, too. The VFC, sitting beside me, was apoplectic when I said I really missed sole Capri, which they used to do at Wheeler's when it was in its prime. That is sole with chutney and bananas. I think there is getting to be a certain sameness about nouvelle British cuisine. Back to basics, I say. But if you want to be part of Cool Britannia, you could do very much worse than earn your badge at Pharmacy. I'd heard good and bad of it. I side with the goodies.
I have just suffered an evening out at San Lorenzo's in Knightsbridge. We had booked and confirmed, but on arrival were told by a very brusque maitre d' that we had not done so. No apologies were offered. Having struggled with a menu written entirely in Italian, we had to wait 30 minutes for the dessert menus, which were all "engaged". I felt like popping in later and photocopying some extras for them. Please go there in disguise and see for yourself what it's like.
Catherine Jarvie, Orpington, Kent
Michael Winner, baby! Hiya man. I just had to write to you after all these years and those Death Wish films. Now that you're jumping around at The Sunday Times I saw a photo of you dining with Ollie Reed. Any chance of mad Ollie and your wonderful self sending photos (signed, of course)? And why don't you make a sequel to Mission: Impossible starring Vanessa? She's smashing.
Horace Harris (Prisoner 9681913), Eastern New York Correctional Facility.
Recently, my sleep patterns have been disrupted by nightmares about meeting Mr Winner on the terrace of Reid's Hotel in Madeira. What joy to learn that he has recently visited the establishment, so will not be in residence during my spring visit.
Brian Pette, Marton, North Yorks