Our food critic is wowed by fresh ingredients and tempting early bird prices at a stylish London eatery
Since the axis of London shifted east, all the most interesting new restaurants seem to have opened over that side of the city. Which is all very well — and if you haven’t visited places such as Max Rocha’s Café Cecilia, and the triumvirate of Brat, Brawn and Bright, you should put them on your list for your next trip — but not so good if you’re heading to a show in the West End, or from a case in the law courts, or have other reason to be in Central and need somewhere to eat.
Toklas — named for Alice B Toklas, partner of Gertrude Stein — is located off the Strand not far from Covent Garden and close to Somerset House and Waterloo Bridge in what a well-informed young man who knows about such things tells me is the most fashionable address in London, owned by the people behind art business Frieze. On the night of my visit, the procession of young, beautiful and, yes, very fashionable people into a private party elsewhere in the building proves him right.
We’re not in time for the pre-theatre menu, served from Tuesday to Saturday from 5.30 to 6.45pm, but it’s an absolute bargain, offering two choices per course and priced at £19 (€22.34) for two courses and £23 (€27) for three. The early bird menu has all but disappeared in Dublin, and I do a double-take at those numbers. (Later on, a quick tot shows that, had we been a little earlier, we could have, for £23 (€27), eaten a three-course meal of dishes which add up to £54 (€63.50) on the à la carte — quite the saving.)
On a not-exactly-balmy summer’s evening, we sit outside on the heated terrace running the length of the restaurant, with blankets on offer should we need them. Across the road is the disused Aldwych tube station, with its distinctive facade of ox-blood-glazed red brick.
There’s an onsite bakery of some repute, and we’ve been advised not to skip the bread. This turns out to be a good steer: the hunk of dark, chewy-crusted sourdough is excellent and essential for mopping up all the juices and sauces which might otherwise go to waste.
After a winter and spring when the dish one could not escape, the dish featuring on every single menu for months on end, was tartare — lamb, beef and venison versions abounded — I believe summer 2022 is shaping up to be the summer of tonnato.
It’s not a dish you see often on menus in Ireland (although Etto used to do a fine version which I think I shall start a campaign to bring back), but it’s starting to crop up in London, and, writing in The New Yorker last month, Helen Rosner declared tomato tonnato her dish of the summer.
In Italy, you can buy tonnato by the jar in the supermarket, but it’s not complicated to make, and Rosner’s recipe is a beauty. Traditionally, tonnato accompanies thin slices of veal — the vitello of vitello tonnato — but at Toklas, the meat component consists of wafer-thin slices of Tamworth pork. It’s a fine combination, the piquant loose tuna mayonnaise spiked with capers and anchovy lubricating meat which might otherwise suffer from dryness.
My dinner date’s salad of Vesuvius tomatoes with fresh borlotti beans and the salty, fishy kick of shaved bottarga is wonderful, a combination of ingredients which feels fresh and original. Bottarga is another ingredient cropping up more frequently, imparting plenty of bang for its buck, and I plan to use it in salads at home over the summer. We wipe out the puddle of dressing with the sourdough.
A main course of clams and fresh peas in a light broth is simple summer loveliness incarnate, while lemon sole with braised escarole, olives and pine nuts is another essay in the power of not doing too much, of knowing when to stop, of letting good ingredients speak for themselves. The kitchen at Toklas, under Yohei Furuhashi, whose CV includes stints at The River Café and Petersham Nurseries, is not in the business of gilding lilies.
If this all sounds very decorous, then it is — Toklas is a civilised spot — but the most delicious things we eat are the sensational thrice-fried chips. I defy anyone not to agree these are the Very Best Chips Ever. You simply must order them, no matter how restrained and grown-up a diner you consider yourself to be.
We finish with a shared almond and cherry tart of simple, buttery perfection. The pastry crumbles just the way it should, the fruit is slightly sharp, the whole not too sweet. With a bottle of Christina Netzl’s eponymous off-dry rosé from Austria, all delicious strawberry and watermelon, and a glass of red, our bill comes to £159.77 (€187.85) including a 12.5pc service.
The two-course pre-theatre menu is £19 (€22.34).
A full dinner for two could cost £150 (€176.37) before drinks or service.
Toklas, 1 Surrey Street, Temple, London WC2R 2ND toklaslondon.com