Mark Hix’s Tramshed is a beast in every sense of the word – vast space (it really was a shed for trams); vaulting glass ceiling; bar the length of the room; 130 covers; Damien Hurst art installation of a cow in formaldehyde with a cockerel perched on its back rises up like the golden calf of Baal to fill the space above the tables; and just two foods on offer. You can have chicken or you can have steak, and that’s it. Oh, there are first courses too, and puddings, but when it comes to main courses it’s either roast chicken or grilled steak in various permutations. Vegetarians aren’t going to have much joy unless they confine themselves to chips or salad.
This may seem unduly restrictive, but steak and chicken are the default choices for a great many of us when we go out. They’re a kind of universal food, dependable sources of simple satisfaction, skipping nimbly past the burden of complex decision-making that goes with the territory of most restaurants.
Mark Hix has always hung his hat on the peg of quality provenance, in his column in the Independent, in his books and in his restaurants. So this is the natural starting place for the chooks and steaks at the Tramshed. The chickens are sprightly, free-range creatures from Woolley Park. The steaks come from Glenarm in Northern Ireland and are dry-aged in a chamber made of Himalayan salt. Exactly how this effects the meat I don’t suppose even Mr Hix really knows, but it sounds fancy, and does no harm. However, there’s no point in having the finest raw materials in the world if you go on to brutalize them in the cooking.
I suspect that, while the basic production systems at The Tramshed were carefully worked out before the place opened, there has been a continual refinement since. I’ve eaten there several times, and have noticed marked improvements in terms of consistency, quality and finish. The scale and streamlined processes may replicate those of the mass-market food sector, but the end results are anything but.
There’s a fabulous amount of bollocks talked about steaks – best cuts, best country of source, best hung, best method of cooking etc etc. I could write several volumes on my experiences and views, but when it comes to eating steak, I’m not sure that there’s that much you can really write about them. There are poor saddoes who will debate the relative qualities of this steak or that until the cow’s come homes. At the cheaper end of the market, there’s a good deal of rubbish, but in the better class of restaurants, steaks are much of a muchness in my view. With very, very occasional exceptions, they occupy a decent, but narrow, band on the flavour spectrum, and, let’s be honest, we like it that way.
Mr Hix’s steaks are in the upper echelons of the better class. He needs a lot of them, so we’re not talking highly refined steak selection or rare breeds let to live to ripe maturity. They’re served in multiples of 250g, leaping by £20 each time. They start at £20 for 250g and finish at 8 (8 what? do you mean £80?) for 1kg, which, by the standards of our day, isn’t bad at all. I suspect Mr Hix uses water baths to get them to the point where they can be finished off on the grill. Whatever the method, it produces a proper chew, an agreeable crust and a fine, sweetly meaty finish.
The roast chickens are also cooked to an exemplary finish, with their feet intact. (You can tell a lot about a chicken from its feet.). They’re beautifully bronzed, but still juicy inside. I have few reservations about the maturity of these chooks. They have to be killed when they reach a precise size, big enough to feed two people, but not too big. I’m not sure this allows them enough time to develop their full flavor. The colour of the legs and thigh meat is suspiciously the same as the breast. But, all in all, these are as good as young chickens get, and at £25 for the whole bird, represents remarkable vfm*
I have the odd bone to pick here and there, but really The Tramshed is a blast. It’s as if all the other Mark Hix restaurants were a rehearsal for it. It’s a great place to eat, as relaxed and genial as Mr Hix himself. It’s geared towards producing very good food of a limited range at a seriously reasonable cost. It does. As a result, The Tramshed is fast, fun and full.
(*Value for money)
32 Rivington Street, London EC2A 3LX
Tel: Tel 020 7749 0478
PS As you can tell by the quality, the photo is not by me but by the fabulous Jason Lowe