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One day, I reckon we’re going to look back on Sir Terence Conran with the same soft fondness we have for other national institutions. Since the Festival of Britain he’s led us, quaking with nerves, to a place where design matters, where elegant yet informal dining is not just a possibility but almost a right. No one who ever swished down the stairs of Quaglino’s, sat under the twinkling stained glass at Bibendum or watched the sun go down on Tower Bridge from the Blueprint could doubt that the man knows how to create a restaurant.
One of his later creations was at the Boundary hotel off Shoreditch High Street, in an astonishing double-height basement. An ecclesiastical vault with pavement lights creating a clerestory, it’s a space that has never fully lived up to its potential, but has been revivified by Conran’s company Prescott and Conran with the introduction of chef Stéphane Reynaud.
Reynaud runs his own highly regarded restaurants near Paris, is the author of a string of award-winning cookbooks and, perhaps most relevant, is scion of a family of pork butchers and pig farmers in the Ardèche. It is possible that only the French could have conceived of the notion but Reynaud is the world’s first Celebrity Charcutier.
Conran’s design was always inspired by French tradition, so Reynaud’s food seems a good fit. Tratra is a twee bit of slang which, we’re told, connotes “tradition with a modern twist”, and Reynaud’s signature terrines arrive in Kilner jars with amusing paper labels. They look like the kind of thing you’d find on the shelves of a fashionable deli — borne out by an import label on the back, listing the ingredients in translation.
The terrines are stirringly rugged, coarse-textured and moist with fat and jelly. The “twist” arrives in the flavourings — duck with citrus, pork with gingerbread, venison and blackcurrant. Portions are vast and the sourdough plentiful enough but, if I’m honest, the effect is overwrought. I appreciate the idea of playing with fragrances but it takes an overpowering amount to match the strength of an authentic country terrine. There’s a touch of the air freshener about it.
Taking a step back from the meats, there’s an exceptional plate of hard-boiled eggs in herbed mayonnaise and a “spring roll” of mistily fresh and crunchy raw vegetables. This might sound like hard going but the selection is brilliantly judged, and the raw tomato dressing pooled in the bottom of the serving bowl is enough to justify the visit. I want this in a long glass — with vodka.
Tête de veau can be a challenge. It takes a lot of cooking to get the different elements in a calf head rendered to forkable softness, so it’s usually done in advance and then reheated for serving. In this case, it was as near perfect as can be: pink, juicy and more yielding than the terrine. It was served in rich broth with rustically chunky turnips and carrots that were just shy of fully cooked through. Dotted across the surface were floating islands of piquant herby mayonnaise billed as ravigote sauce — clinically proven to fix anything from a broken heart to being run down by a tram, and easily capable of mollifying an uncompliant British root.
Food aside, I have a nagging problem with Tratra. Conran’s restaurants have historically been about the whole experience, not the personality of a chef, and the amazing room at Boundary doesn’t feel imprinted with Reynaud’s character. The restaurant publicity implies that Reynaud will often be there but it is opaque as to whether this is a residency, a pop-up or some other sort of relationship.
On one level, none of this matters. Like many charcuterie enthusiasts, I’m just thrilled that Reynaud’s work is available in London. But there’s an uncomfortable impermanence about the set-up — a feeling that this is an entertaining play, bringing together a talented cast, but that next week they’re going to fold up the set and move on.
Conran has shown skill in pulling together many of the elements of a fantastic restaurant experience, and this might be a cutting-edge experiment in how brands in the food world can work together in the future. But in that lovely room, the experience is cold. Tratra is missing a guiding spirit and so ultimately, for all its pedigree, lacks soul.
Photograph: Lewis Khan
2-4 Boundary Street, Shoreditch, London E2 7DD; 020 7729 1051; boundary.london/restaurant-tratra