Toklas, London: “Serves fabulous fries” – restaurant review | Food

Toklas, 1 Surrey Street, London WC2R 2ND (020 2930 8592). Starters £8-£16, mains £17-£27, desserts £5-£9, wines from £28

The Alice B Toklas Cookbook, first published in 1954, includes among its many recipes instructions for making a hash fudge. The confection, Toklas says, is easy to make, but she warns that it can encourage hysterical laughter and grandiose thoughts “on multiple planes simultaneously.” When the London restaurant that bears his name opened at the end of last year, the owners, who are also the founders of Curly magazine and art fairs, said they were very inspired by Toklas, writer and partner of Gertrude Stein. Together, Stein and Toklas hosted many elaborate dinner parties in Paris attended by some of the greatest artists of the early 20th century. However, the restaurant’s owners said the new venture would not use any of the recipes in the book. Then it’s not hashish fudge.

Carefree. Because instead, Toklas has his chips, which are more than capable of inspiring an awful lot of grand thoughts on multiple planes at once. Such as: “Fuck, they are good” and “Why are they so good?” and “How do they make them so good?” Halfway through the main course, shortly before ordering that second helping, I rushed into the semi-open kitchen and pestered the mid-serve chefs for answers. I’m sure they were delighted to see me.

“Served with a dollop of salsa rossa”: chicken with chickpeas. Photography: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Turns out they’re using a version of Heston Blumenthal’s triple-bake method. The potatoes are cut into thin fries (unlike the thick shape favored by Blumenthal), then steamed for 20 minutes (rather than boiled). They are cooled, fried at 140°C, cooled again, then finished at a higher heat. The result is truly the Platonic ideal of French fries: golden, cracked, soft inside, but crispy. Oh so crispy. And salty. And unlike some, they never seem to kill the appetite. They cost £5 for a filled bowl. I challenge you, by eating them, to resent this price.

“Serves fabulous fries” might sound like the proverbial damn with low praise. It is not so. Given its origins in the art world, you’d be forgiven for worrying that Toklas is a conceptual reimagining of the very notion of a restaurant. Granted, it manages to be awfully cool. It’s tucked away on a quiet street that slopes down to the north embankment of the River Thames near Waterloo Bridge, and occupies a Brutalist building that was apparently once a car park. Witness the use of carefully cast concrete. It could be a brother of the National Theater. I say that with admiration. It’s now a vast utilitarian space of hardwood floors, with modern art flourishes, next to curvy banquettes in teal tones. It looks like an opulent modernist canteen.

“They use a version of Heston Blumenthal's triple-cooked method”: Toklas' exceptional fries.
“They use a version of Heston Blumenthal’s triple-cooked method”: Toklas’ exceptional fries. Photography: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The menu, however, is simply a collection of excellent ingredients, presented to their best advantage, much like these fries. No wheel is reinvented. No envelope is pushed. There is no concept at all, beyond “Do you fancy something to eat?” You are just very well fed. I have been there twice. The first time was a quick lunch with a friend: asparagus, roast chicken, some of those fries, pistachio ice cream and lemon sorbet. As I was leaving the manager pulled me aside and told me that their new chef only started that day. Could I keep that in mind if I intended to write something? I told him he didn’t need to say a word. I wouldn’t have noticed. For the record, that new head chef is Yohei Furuhashi, who has time at the River Café and Petersham Nurseries on his resume. This goes hand in hand with the virtuous simplicity of food.

Came back a few days later, this time for dinner. I even booked under a pseudonym and all. They didn’t seem surprised to see me again. We had generous ribbons of dried trout, the color of orange sherbet, intertwined with thin slices of pickled cucumber, sprinkled with capers and seasoned with an olive oil so tangy it almost tickled the nose. There was more asparagus, served hot with a wedge of butter mixed with the salty touch of grated bottarga. Toklas also has a very fine bakery in the same building, where their dense crust sourdough came from, so none of that bottarga butter was wasted.

'Orange sorbet ribbons': trout crudo with cucumbers.
‘Orange sorbet ribbons’: trout crudo with cucumbers. Photography: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Pieces of grilled chicken were served boneless, with the kind of crispy, dark, dense skin that suggests a bird that’s had some life before it ends up here. It came with a mixture of chickpeas, roasted fennel and a dollop of salsa rossa, that condiment of pureed sun-dried tomatoes and peppers. A perfectly grilled slice of brill was accompanied by leafy tangles of monk’s beard and large cherry tomatoes roasted until they burst from their skins. With that, as I might have said, we had a bowl of their fries. Or two.

Nerdily, we discussed which individual chip was our favorite. I put forward the idea that a perfect bowl should be a combination of long sturdy fatty bowls and small broken pieces, and those that are just crispy shards. Maybe that’s when, reasonably lubricated by a few glasses of a Fattoria San Lorenzo from the Italian Marches, I decided that asking the kitchen about their fries method was a good idea. I thank them for their patience. Standing at the collar, I also learned that it was a kitchen with a nice collection of cookbooks on a high shelf. I find this reassuring in any kitchen.

'Fourré': almond tart.
‘Fourré’: almond tart. Photography: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The first time we finished our lunch with these ice creams: the soft, creamy tones of pistachio; the lemon zipper and flare. The second time, it was a night-colored dark chocolate cake, like a mousse, with fresh cream, and a filled almond tart, with a syrupy mixture of kumquats. Then, have a mint tea served in exquisitely refined Japanese ceramics. It would be great if I could now say that eating here is as cheap as chips, but since these fabulous chips aren’t exactly cheap, we know the rest won’t be either. However, it is not exorbitant and it is very good. Plus, unlike Alice’s fudge, it’s completely legal.


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Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1

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