I hadn’t flown to London last month just to eat at the hot new Tramshed, an homage to my two favorite animal protein sources — chicken and beef — and, it appears, to the fine art of moneymaking in the restaurant trade during a bad economy.
No, I was en route to my summer eating sabbatical in Paris. Back home in California, I had read the extensive media coverage of Tramshed’s exalted opening in May, the latest recession-defying venture from chef/restaurateur Mark Hix. Much has been made of the connection between Hix and his artist buddy Damien Hirst, who installed in Tramshed’s dining room one of his notorious formaldehyde-preserved whole animal vitrines, this one called “Cock and Bull.”
So I was happy to delay my Chunnel connection to Paris long enough to experience both — the dual fuel dishes at Tramshed (chicken and steak are the only main courses on the menu) and Hirst’s post-minimalist oeuvre on view both at Tramshed and at the Tate Modern’s current Hirst retrospective.
On both fronts, food and art, it’s a popular, if often silly, debate in the media these days whether Paris or London takes the respective cake. London, for my tastes, has clearly pulled ahead of Paris on one of these fronts — art. I can’t think of a French artist today that interests me as much as the abstract master Howard Hodgkin, or the late, great figurative painter Lucian Freud, or Damien Hirst himself, the most talked about and richest artist of our time.
As for London’s food, it’s still, at least for me, an open question. In a recent article in the Financial Times, the art and food writer Peter Aspden quotes France’s master chef Joël Robuchon’s claim that London is the gastronomic capital of the world “ … because it’s only in London that you find every conceivable style of cooking.” But does London truly excel at all of them? After a somewhat perplexing meal last summer at Fergus Henderson’s highly regarded nose-to-tail restaurant, St. John, including a main course slab of pork served next to a plain boiled carrot and a mound of garlicky aioli (British cuisine epiphany or Provençal nightmare?), I had to wonder what all the fuss was about.
Tramshed or Tramsham?
So I approached Tramshed with modest expectations. On arrival I was indeed bowled over by Hirst’s “Cock and Bull” towering over the dining area in the dramatically cavernous former electricity-producing facility for London trams. My guest, a food writer who had already eaten at Tramshed, suggested that she order the “Mighty-marbled Glenarm sirloin steak,” that I order the “Roast Woolley Park Farm free-range chicken,” and that we share. What she didn’t share until after the meal was her lukewarm opinion from her first visit.
The only steak on Tramshed’s menu is the sirloin, which my dining companion ordered rare. The menu states that the beef is dry-aged “… in a Himalayan salt chamber on Peter Hannan’s farm on the Glenarm Estate in Northern Ireland.” What? I attempted to get details on Himalayan salt chambers back in my hotel room after the meal, but I mainly found references on the web to the healing properties of Himalayan salt when people are exposed to it at special salt spas. Puts a new spin on the age-old technique of salt-curing meat.
Our steak arrived on its wooden carving board overcooked the first time and almost raw the second. Actually, the first round was, for me, perfectly cooked, an American (circa 1950s) medium rare — pink, not red, in the center. Unacceptable, however, to my guest. As our server apologetically picked up the overdone sirloin, which he had started to carve, I was able to skewer a slice as he raced the board back to the kitchen. I was hungry. It was good.
When the second round arrived, I could see we were in even bigger trouble — the steak was gray, with scarcely a grill mark. As the server began carving the almost raw piece of meat, he asked whether it was done properly, to which my stoic companion replied, “Yes.”
As for my shriveled “spring chicken for one” served upside-down, as if diving into its little pool of jus, it too was sadly wanting. If not officially overcooked, it had been surely sitting around awhile. An inserted mini wad of stuffing was tasty but the chicken’s skin was deflated and the meat dry. If you can kill a chicken twice, here was proof.
Build it up expensive and they will come
It’s never easy for an ambitiously conceived restaurant to deliver on the ecstatic hype that builds around its opening. But in London, where media-identified darlings become sacred (and, in this case, preserved) cows, it seems rather easy. The template is, of course, the British monarchy, which, over the centuries, has survived a multitude of indiscretions. The British can be, I’m reminded, a fiercely loyal and forgiving lot, and Hix and Hirst apparently can do no wrong.
So it doesn’t really matter in London’s blooming art and food culture whether Hirst’s “Cock and Bull” installation is brilliant art or just over-the-top restaurant décor spun off from his 1980s natural history series on display at the Tate. Either way, and I’m not entirely sure which, it attracts herds of artsy eaters to Tramshed’s gentrified Shoreditch neighborhood.
But it apparently does matter to me that three out of two of Hix’s dishes (yes, chicken once, steak twice) were painfully short on precision, if not well-sourced ingredients. Of course there are terrific-sounding fine dining options in London I will visit next year, like Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner, offering modern takes on historical British food, and Mikael Jonsson’s Hedone, which channels new Nordic ingrediocentricity. But after my meal at Tramshed, I was hungry for Paris, the world’s most underrated over-the-hill eating mecca.
For all of culinary London’s exciting diversity, it’s still my Paris amuse-bouche, a very entertaining warm-up act.
Illustration: Two-and-a-half cock-and-bulls down for Tramshed. Credit L. John Harris