Though politicians tell us that “choice” is a right worth fighting for, there are occasions when it’s far more pleasant not to have to bother. The Tramshed, Mark Hix’s latest Shoreditch outpost, is an imposing temple to the notion that too much choice is overrated. The Tramshed serves steak and chicken, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is it.
A kind soul, concerned for my welfare, had suggested I ask for the special, off-menu house cocktail. Perhaps suggestion may be the wrong word, perhaps it was a dare, because a drink made with vodka, chilli and chilled chicken juice and called “The Cockshot” is a pretty tough thing to ask the waitress for, let alone consider drinking. Actually it tastes surprisingly pleasant, though some may find drinking their first meat/alcohol combination while sitting beneath a cow preserved in formaldehyde too challenging an excursion into extreme eating. The gigantic Damien Hirst vitrine of a chicken standing on a cow’s back is the centrepiece of the room and probably the only artwork short of a dangling jump jet that wouldn’t have been lost in the great vaulted machine hall.
Art lovers will be gratified to hear that a team of specialist engineers pops in every month to maintain the piece. It’s fun to imagine an afternoon between services, with waitresses polishing cutlery, chefs poring over invoices and eight blokes in a cherry-picker squeegeeing a pickled cow.
Three starters are listed on the menu but are only available together – just when you thought you were going to have to choose something. The liver mousse is piped down on to the plate in a tight brown coil and yes, that looks every bit as uncompromising as you are imagining; an homage, perhaps, to Piero Manzoni. It’s served with a great blowsy Yorkshire pudding that you’re advised to rip apart and dip. There is also their own smoked salmon and a delicious beetroot salad – just in case any confused vegetarians have wandered in off the street and failed to notice the dead cow in the tank.
The chickens are of a naturally impeccable pedigree and cooked with their feet still attached. They are roasted vertically and brought to the table impaled on a special earthenware serving dish of Hix’s own devising. This means that the cooking juices are retained in a limpid pool for your pleasure and the bird can be paraded to your table with its claws in the air. I know Hix has a deep respect for his ingredients but it can’t be said he offers them much dignity in death. The birds come from Woolley Park in Wiltshire (Hix buys their entire output) and are somehow cooked in such a way that both breast and leg are juicy – this may be something to do with the serving dish or may, for all I know, be voodoo.
The chips, abundant, crisp and finished in chicken drippings, may well be the best in London right now – but eat them quickly. One of the many reasons true connoisseurs deplore the ghastly trend towards the thinner chip is the speed with which they lose heat. Even Hix’s über-chips can lose their charm if they stand around too long. Fortunately they won’t.
The steak was, it’s true, just a tad over the cuisson requested by my date – but it showed every sign of care in sourcing, preparation and resting. Call me a Luddite, but I’m beginning to look forward to a steak cooked with fallible human judgment rather than a digital probe thermometer and a wallchart of Whitehall-approved temperatures. We have become used to outlandish claims for the provenance of our food so I’m still trying to work out if “Our beef is dry aged in a Himalayan salt chamber, on Peter Hannan’s farm on the Glenarm Estate, Northern Ireland” is intended to be informative or some sort of subversive artistic hoax.
In opening something as large and as different as The Tramshed, on the rim of the City and the lip of recession, Hix is taking a big chance. But this is a place that seems driven by something other than a strict business logic. Hix is known for his close relationship with artists and there’s much of the art piece in The Tramshed. It’s a big gesture, made with total commitment and if he pulls it off it will have introduced something new and exciting to the restaurant world.
Unlike many well-known chefs, Hix is often seen working the room in his restaurants. Sometimes he looks like the host at a fashionable party, sometimes the ringmaster of a bizarre circus, but on this occasion, as he plays with the mechanics of the restaurant environment and audience expectations, he’s starting to look a lot like the artist.
The writer is the FT’s regular restaurant critic in Nicholas Lander’s absence; firstname.lastname@example.org
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