Originally posted 20th January 2013
“It’s everything that you think it will be”
So said our sprightly, smiley waitress as we enquired about the chocolate fondue. We could be forgiven for casing out the pudding menu before we had even ordered the rest of the food, as the menu at Tramshed is not exactly what you would call voluminous…
The overbearing lack of choice at Mark Hix’s latest bastion of recession-busting British gastronomy is well-documented, as is everything else here. The Tramshed, tucked down Rivington Street in Shoreditch, is currently the darling of London’s restaurant scene and yet another jewel in the already blinged-up crown of East End cuisine. Ever since its opening in June 2012, Tramshed basks in the glory of rave reviews, reviews which commended the oh-so-simple and oh-so-fashionable chicken-or-steak menu, the quality of the cooking and even the architecture of the shed itself – where the magic happens.
There is of course, the little matter of ‘Cock and Bull’ – not alluding to the hype surrounding Tramshed – but Damien Hirst’s installation; a monolithic vitrine supported on an anvil-like structure, containing a chicken perched on a cow’s back, the sorry pair sunken in formaldehyde. The piece salutes the purpose of Tramshed, its presence a result of Hix and Hirst being besties. Our chef friend appears to have quite the social life!
All things being equal, Tramshed has been screaming “Look at me!” to London foodies for the past six months and (as I am easily suggestible) it worked. My yearning to go here was only exacerbated when the restaurant won ‘Best Meat Restaurant’ in the 2012 Time Out Eating and Drinking Awards. Personally, I am much more likely to pay attention to that than a big dead cow in a tank of water.
Seemingly a half-year after the rest of London, I made it to Tramshed last weekend, catching up with a couple of mates who, seeing as the airport broke, selfishly didn’t make it out to Budapest last month. Lunch was the order of the day, and so on a bitingly cold Saturday in January we set off in search of warmth – and how that search took us via the open-air bar at Cargo I shall never know. The novelty of sipping over-priced beers under a tit-freezingly cold tarpaulin soon deserted us and we moved on to the main event.
The shed itself seems to disappear into the mess of a typical East London street all too well, yet opens up and yields all its space on the inside, much like the Tardis from Doctor Who. First impressions were very different to what I had imagined. For a start, the place was near-empty, not packed to the (very high) rafters with carnivores, East London’s finest and ladies who lunch, as I had imagined. The atmosphere did get a little more exciting when Rick from Tool Academy rocked up and sat on the table next to us. Cock and Bull does dominate the room, a focal point that sticks its middle finger up at the sins of vegetarianism and veganism, but there is much more to gaze at; I was drawn to another Hirst original, a massive cartoon print of Cartoon Nework’s Cow and Chicken, hung on the far wall above the Mezzanine level. It’s called um, Beef and Chicken.
Tramshed does possess more than a touch of the Tate Modern, and not just because of the art (though there is an entire gallery in the basement). As my more cultured friend quizzed the waitress on all things art, where, when, how much, who by etcetera, it dawned on me that, like at the old Bankside power station, Hix and his design team had done a really rather grand job of doing the place up. The 107-year old electricity generating station for trams has been set upon like a skilled butcher would to a beef carcass. Spacious booths nestle into a sliced away section of a side wall, light pours in from a single window cut into the corrugated roof and every dose of clinical factory-esque decor is offset with flecks of the finer things in life; the colour of a well-stocked bar, the occasional (barred off) bookshelf and a cozy-looking lounge area-cum-holding pen for eager diners.
Despite the shortcomings of the menu, ordering took a while – as per usual – this time, we had belated Christmas presents to sort out. Mine included a tea-towel illustrating a periodic table of offensive phrases (I’m sure I could think of someone who ‘Stinks like a piss Ceefax’) and a pack of popping candy.
We finally ordered drinks; a lager, of the ‘craft’ variety (yeesh) – though it was served in a chilled glass which is always a nice touch – and went on to survey the wine list. The multitudes of wines are crammed onto one sheet of A4 and cover all tastes, regions and budgets. A nice touch, I thought, was selling plonk by the carafe, though at the other end of the scale – if you are getting the party started – there are quite a few magnums to choose from too. We went for an Oz Shiraz called Stone the Crows, a choice made simply on the name alone. It was glorious. All well and good so far, but hey, we’re in the Tramshed! Let’s look for the USPs! Let’s get wow’ed! And we did, when Ash noticed something on the menu called a Cock Shot, being sold for a fiver.
An ironic taste of things to come, the Cock Shot was basically a chilled dose of chicken stock and vodka. To be honest, we couldn’t not try it, but to have what seemed like a half-cooked, freezing cold chicken soup sloshing around my gums was too much even for this moodavore. We decided against a second round and relaxed into the wine. As my taste buds relapsed back into normality, the food arrived.
There are only ever three starters on offer – and they change daily. On our day, we were blessed with Coronation Prawns, and a plate of stewed-down leeks. Both were fantastic; the prawns with Coronation dressing was something that I have simply never tried, yet it was moreish and had that ever-so-slight spice that patriots know and love. The leeks – a vegetable that I can usually do without – were cooked down yet retained a crispness that chucked around flavour like there was no tomorrow. The two starters were accompanied by Yorkshire Pudding (a nice touch – they are traditionally served as starters), which were in turn accompanied by a really rich, iron-y pâté which was top drawer, beating even the mighty San Carlo (sorry boys). While quality was there, quantity certainly wasn’t; and we were left somewhat bereft, as we awaited the main course.
We decided to transcend boundaries by ordering – wait for it – chicken and steak, specifically the roasted Swainson House chicken for three (Tramshed also offers a Spring chicken for one though I have been told that the de-boning gets a little laborious), and the Mighty Marbled sirloin, which comes in cuts weighing multiples of two hundred and fifty grams (which is exactly what we ordered) Everything comes with chips, though when these arrived it was disappointing to discover that they were nothing but off-the-shelf french fries. Surely Hix could offer a little better? Thick/triple-cooked/chunky etcetera are not even an option. For shame. We ordered a side of Scrumpy-fried onion rings, which were decent enough, crispy and tangy, though I have had plenty better.
Maybe the sides were a case of what Viz magazine calls ‘going ugly early’, as the meat was smashing. We’ve all seen the pictures of the poultry at Tramshed – served arse-end up, the claws of the chicken praying to the heavens (or maybe simply to Cock and Bull), but it tasted as good as it looked – probably the best chicken I have ever had. I simply cannot stand carving chicken – I am not great with anything on the bone as I do not believe in singing for supper – but my mate, who courageously stood up to the task of carver, did so beautifully, as the meat was sliding off the bone as easy as de-waxing a Babybel. There was certainly enough wing, leg and breast for three strapping lads.
The two hundred and fifty gram sirloin seemed a bit sorry-looking in comparison to the bird, looking like nothing more than a sliver of medium-rare rear-back of beef laid upon a large plank of wood (I was angling for at least half a kilo; and should have pressed my co-diners further!) Nevertheless, it was cooked beautifully; perfectly pink all the way through (steak does come medium to rare as a standard). Like the chicken, it gets served with a whacking great carving knife, letting the diners do all the work. Nice touch!
You eat well at Tramshed, make no mistake; and I can sort of see why it was a case of ‘easy on the starters’. Replete, we still made room for a little pudding (again, an ever-changing choice of three or four), opting for the fondue, after it was bigged up by the waitress. The fondue – like all the other food – was served exquisitely, upon a bespoke clay dish. The marshmallows were served on the right side of soggy and there were enough for the three of us. The chocolate itself was rich, dark and plentiful. We had started to piss around with the popping candy by now and tipped some into the last of the dessert. It caramelised and went minging.
Though we left Tramshed a good few hours later full, on the brief side of drunk and all caught up on the frivolities of the the holiday season (and as it turned out, en-route to a back-street pub in St. James’ and about five pints of Guinness apiece), I do maintain that though they could never steal the show from the food, the staff are surprisingly good. No, check ‘fascinating’ instead. The service is, like everything else, simple and wholesome, with a crust of quirk thrown in; for example, our principle waitress was a vegetarian, if you can believe it. I couldn’t, and pressed further;
“So why work here then?”
Like she had never heard that question before.
“…and more to the point, why are you a veggie?”
“Well, I don’t agree with the way meat is looked after [when it is butchered], but everything is treated really well here”
I nodded, but stole a glance up at Cock and Bull.
Another waitress, who strangely looked a lot like the young Janeane Garofalo from Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, took a wonderfully childish fancy to our popping candy, eating her fair share of it and then (apparently) heading into the kitchen and successfully suggesting a popping candy cheesecake that will make its way onto the menu in the first few months of 2013. Watch this space… The personal touch – in this case, banter – is a simple pleasure in a restaurant, a priceless, costless gesture that means the world. Such simplicity is in abundance at Tramshed, so much so that it surprises me, but never at a level encroaching on cheap and nasty; the food – exemplifying the ‘limited choices executed to perfection’ zeitgeist-slash-mantra of modern London gastronomy – finds that balance. And get this, kids eat free at the weekend. Uncharacteristically charitable for this neck of the woods.
As we did the obligatory ‘men take turns in the toilet’ hang-around after the meal, I took the opportunity to take a look at the gallery underneath the restaurant. It is all modernist junk; junk that ‘makes you think’, but there was a cool picture of a tiger down there and I thought that, well, there are a few restaurants out there which offer great food, great service and an art gallery, yet still can get away with being referred to as down to earth.
The price for all this simplicity? A rather less straightforward £160, but hey, apparently Cock and Bull is a bitch to get cleaned. Despite the trendy cost, Tramshed is, as the waitress said, everything that you think it will be. Which is awesome.
c£fifty per person for three courses, sides and wine
@The_Tramshed | 0207 749 0478 | chickenandsteak.co.uk
32 Rivington Street, London, EC2A 3EQ