The Tramshed Project, London: ‘It's so now’: restaurant review

Jay Rayner
·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The Tramshed Project, 32 Rivington Street, London EC2A 3LX (020 3515 0480). Small plates £5-£10, larger plates £10-£18, desserts £5, wines from £25

In its first incarnation as a restaurant, when it belonged to chef Mark Hix, the Tramshed in London’s Shoreditch had at its heart a huge, thumping joke. It was an artwork by Damien Hirst: a stuffed bull, with a cockerel standing on its back, inside one of Hirst’s formaldehyde-filled tanks, raised above the dining room on a heavy-duty plinth, so it could watch you while you ate. The gag was that at Hix’s Tramshed you could have anything you liked as long as it was steak or roast chicken – Cock and Bull, as the artwork was entitled. Those were the only options. So here was the menu, staring you down.

House chef Andrew Clarke looks like he could swiftly skin and butcher the elk you just bagged on Shoreditch High Street

Sadly, Hix’s restaurant empire did not survive 2020. Accordingly, the Hirst has been removed from the Tramshed (which, as the name suggests, was once where London trams went to bed at night). It’s been replaced by a rubber plant. What a symbol for 2020: out with the jokes and in with the sturdy, low-maintenance foliage.

But there’s much more about what has since been renamed the Tramshed Project which is so now. The handsome, sandy-bricked and vaulted building has been taken over by Dominic Cools-Lartigue, a study in nominative determinism if ever there was one. His previous projects, nudging rough-hewn urban spaces into becoming street food hubs, are the definition of the cools. This new venture is still very much a restaurant, but it is also now a space for involuntary home workers fed up with banging away on laptops at their kitchen tables, forever just on the edge of what writer Caitlin Moran once called a freelancer’s lie-down. Anybody can get a seat here for free to work. Or, if you need to hold meetings, you can book one of the sizeable booths along the wall at £50 for the day, the cost of which will be deducted from your food and drink bill.

&#x002018;Pitch-perfect&#x002019;: grilled hake with leeks.
‘Pitch-perfect’: grilled hake with leeks. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

I’m writing this in the present tense though the place is now closed. But, squeeze the rabbit’s foot and kiss the horse’s shoe, it should be open again soon. I visit the day before the current lockdown is announced. Arriving here feels like coming face to face with the accommodations we have all had to make in 2020. Open laptops litter tables like flocks of silvery birds about to take flight and intense young people, trying to make this whole damn situation work, stare into video screens to which they are connected by an umbilicus of headphone cable.

If this all sounds exhausting, you can relax. We’ve all been in this together for so long that we know the deal. This is how we now must live. The Tramshed Project is still very much a food venture and a good one. Cools-Lartigue’s intention is that, in time, it will play host to a variety of chefs. Zoe Adjonyoh of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen will be a presenting a menu of West African-influenced dishes, while James Cochran of 1251 will be offering a set of bar snacks built around his brilliant way with buttermilk fried chicken. That menu is already up and I seriously want to lick the words.

&#x002018;Roasted over the coals&#x002019;: beetroot.
‘Roasted over the coals’: beetroot. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The so-called “house chef”, however, is the marvellous Andrew Clarke, a chunky, bearded and tattooed man, who looks like he could swiftly skin and butcher the elk you just bagged on Shoreditch High Street. He has worked alongside Jackson Boxer at both Brunswick House and St Leonards, and is also a major figure in the Pilot Light, a project highlighting mental health issues for people in the restaurant business. Having him here looking after us feels bang on right now.

The kitchen that Hix installed has at its heart a charcoal grill and Clarke puts it to good use. From the small plates menu comes beetroot, roasted over the coals. It’s served with snowy peaks of soft sheep’s curd and a sweet-sour dill dressing, much like the mustard sauce you find with gravadlax. On another plate, leeks grilled until soft are paired with the crunch of almonds and then enveloped in grated truffle. There are also finger-sized ox cheek croquettes with a lightly fermented pineapple pickle underneath and a spoonful of a butch chilli aioli on top. Clarke’s flavours are reliably huge.

&#x002018;Reliably huge flavours&#x002019;: ox cheek croquettes.
‘Reliably huge flavours’: ox cheek croquettes. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

At lunch there is a list of possibilities piled on top of heat-blistered naan breads for between £10 and £12: lamb shoulder with labneh and pickles, a mushroom and celeriac shawarma and, the one we have, sweet and salty tangles of shredded Tamworth pork butt and pickles on top of herbed crème fraîche. Tear and fold. Now wipe your hands. Clarke’s long experience at the fancier end of the business is most obvious in a pitch-perfect plate of grilled hake with roasted leeks, spun through with crab meat and aioli and nutty coco beans. The skinny, seasoned chips come skin on; the hispi cabbage has been grilled to a chopped and gloriously buttery mess.

The dessert menu is short and to the point. An intense scoop of chocolate mousse comes perched on a bowl full of a salted caramel cream, with crisp wafers of dark chocolate. It’s a steal for £5. Our other dessert is the niggling thing that Niles and Frasier Crane liked to pick at in an otherwise fabulous meal. It’s listed as a quince and rose trifle and if there was a Trifle Defence League, I imagine they would be raging outside the doors of the Tramshed on Rivington Street with burning stakes guttering at the windows, albeit in a gently polite way, given the demographic of trifle lovers.

&#x002018;An intense scoop of chocolate mousse&#x002019;: chocolate carmel pot.
‘An intense scoop of chocolate mousse’: chocolate pot. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

A trifle should have layers: of (ideally booze-soaked) sponge fingers, of jelly and custard and cream. Hundreds and thousands wouldn’t go amiss. It should be a childlike joy. This is a shallow bowl of sweetened cream with, admittedly, lovely cubes of quince, dried rose petals and a bit of crunch. Andrew Clarke, how very dare you. (Just change the name, mate; the Defence League will quickly extinguish their burning stakes with a moistened thumb and forefinger and be on their way.)

The criminal outrage of that trifle aside, this space is now a welcoming, beating heart in the centre of the city for those in need of refuge of so many kinds. The lockdown will end eventually. The new normal will return. We will need places that enable us to adapt, while bringing us moments of edible joy. The Tramshed Project is most definitely one of them.

The Pilot Light is at pilotlightcampaign.com

News bites

One casualty of this lockdown has been the charity Streetsmart, which each winter raises money to tackle homelessness by getting restaurants to add a small donation to bills. They estimate the disruption to hospitality due to the pandemic has cost them £500,000. Many restaurants are now asking for donations with deliveries. For details visit streetsmart.org.uk/news/. Streetsmart have also set up a crowdfunder and are asking people to consider donating the whole cost of a meal out, say £30, to help. You can give here justgiving.com/streetsmart

Most nationwide delivery services are run by high profile restaurants. Here’s one from a smaller operation: Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen in Reading, run by first time restaurateurs and chefs Nandana and Sharat Syamala. Their southern Indian menu, including the likes of bhuna venison, paneer tikka masala and beetroot tikka, is now available for chilled delivery (and then reheating), to England, Wales and much of Scotland (clayskitchen.co.uk).

The highly regarded Moorcock Inn in Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire, which has been doing takeaway pizzas, has turned itself each Friday into what it says is the only Chinese takeaway in the area. The menu includes deep-fried brussels sprouts with turnip cake and hot and numbing sauce, five-spice braised beef shank noodle bowl and salt and pepper crispy smoked potatoes (moorcockpizzas.co.uk).

Email Jay at jay.rayner@observer.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1