The East End is now art central. Hoxton is awash with galleries; Gilbert and George famously reside in Spitalfields; the walls are covered not merely in graffiti but with the works of Banksy and other lesser artists. Everywhere you look in the gentrified streets of Hackney, Whitechapel, Stepney and Bethnal Green, art has risen from the slums. The so-called Young British Artists are there in force, originally bankrolled by Charles Saatchi but with many friends among the glitterati.
One such is Mark Hix, chef and restauranteur, once head chef at that legendary celeb magnet, the Ivy, now with a portfolio of his own eating houses – including Tramshed in, guess what, a converted tram shed in the fashionable back streets of Shoreditch. In fact, this is how it is described on the Tramshed website:
Situated in a disused tramshed dating back to 1905 with its original tiling and beams, the impressive space is also home to a gigantic Damien Hirst formaldehyde sculpture of a cow and a cock which takes centre stage in the middle of the restaurant.
Mark, so I hear, is very chummy with the YBAs, including Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and the Chapman brothers, so it would not surprise you to learn that the first thing to hit you at the doorway to Tramshed is the Hirst sculpture and typically macabre wallpaper by Jake and Dinos Chapman.
I mention this to illustrate Hix’s ability to court the right sort of publicity and in the process create restaurants that are iconic before you ever eat the food. No question about it, Tramshed is the sort of restaurant that will earn attention if Hirst and pals manges ici. This is of course a distraction, since my humble philosophy is to judge any restaurant on its merits (food, drink, service, ambience, value) and not who are the regular celeb diners.
So what is the concept of this Hix outpost? From the website (www.chickenandsteak.co.uk of course!):
Mark Hix’s idea is simple, its chicken or steak to share. Mighty Marble Himalayan salt dry-aged steak from hand selected cows and barn reared chicken from Swainson House Farm in Lancashire.
There’s a bit more to the menu than that, but the bedrock is top notch chickens (mounted vertically) and killer steaks. In short, some comfort for the aspirational mid-market foodie who cares about provenance rather than more snobby fine dining establishments. You can’t go far wrong with those two items, though some manage to screw it up.
Source great ingredients is not as hard as it once was, though doing so well is not necessarily cheap, yet Hix manages to do so within a reasonable budget. An IPA produced by Palmers but branded by Hix is perfectly decent, but then at £6.75 so it should be. Drink markups don’t follow the same value as the food.
So what of the food? The lunchtime menu comes in at a nifty £9.95, with several options, some of which sound dangerously close to kitsch imitations of well-known fast food joints:
- Fillet steak sandwich with scrumpy-fried onions and land cress
- Chicken burger and chips
- The Cock ‘n’ Bull half chicken, half steak sandwich
- Chicken and Egg a chicken croquette topped with a Burford Brown egg, anchovies and capers
Thus it was that lunch consisted of the Cock ‘n’ Bull sandwich as a taster of all that is good about Tramshed, plus a salad, as follows:
Lettuce heart salad with Tewkesbury mustard 3.95 small …add Cashel Blue and hazelnuts for 1.50
The construction of the ten quid edifice merits detailed analysis, so here goes. It is built on a bed of split char-grilled ciabatta, roughly half a loaf’s worth. On the bread is a decent smear of the Tramshed “whipped chicken livers” (somewhere between a mousse and a pâté in texture), along with a tot of mayo; then comes some rocket and a few other leaves; next chunks of meat – some perfectly rare slices of steak and char-roasted chicken; add a spoonful of house stuffing, a square of crisp crackling and the top layer of bread and you have your sarnie.
On the side there is a touch more garnish, including some salt and vinegar onion rings – battered but lighter than the straight-from-the-freezer-to-the-fryer versions you get in fast food outlets, even if the vinegar was barely noticeable.
So then, very much an all-in kitchen sink sampler of the Tramshed wares, but the key to success is unquestionably the meat. Both the steak and the chicken were thoroughly delectable and very moreish – all the more reason to wonder why the main menu does not include a dish with both steak and chicken, along the lines of a surf & turf, for those who can’t decide. Clearly the way to work it is to order a range of dishes, as you would in an oriental restaurant, and take bites from all. Two people, one rib eye and one half chicken please!
However, disregarding this flight of fancy, the food clearly demonstrates the virtues of obtaining first rate ingredients and serving them with minimum fuss, for which I commend Mr Hix. I suspect not that many London restaurants go to the trouble of buying chicken from Swainson House Farm (though Bresse chickens are reputed to be the best, and most expensive in the world), nor steaks sourced from Shorthorn, Hereford and Aberdeen Angus cattle courtesy of the Glenarm estate, aged in a Himalayan salt chamber. Each top notch steakhouse has its preferred sources
On this occasion the lunch did not extend further, though it has to be said the goodies served at neighbouring tables (and in a barn of a tram shed it’s not difficult to see what other people are eating) looked very tempting – probably more so than some of the art on display in the downstairs gallery.
So I shall return to Tramshed for a lengthier exposition on the virtues of the main menu. In spite of the flashy art, it deserves a visit for the food alone. My only bugbears are likely to be the buzz of conversation when it fills up, plus the price of drinks – but what the hell? Enjoy – you only live once!