Toklas, London: ‘Serves fabulous chips’ – 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 Cook Book, first published in 1954, includes among its many recipes the instructions for making a hashish fudge. The confectionary, Toklas says, is easy to prepare, but she warns that it may encourage hysterical laughter and grandiose thoughts “on many simultaneous planes”. When the London restaurant that carries her name first opened late last year, the owners, who are also the founders of frieze magazine and art fairs, said they were very much inspired by Toklas, writer and partner of Gertrude Stein. Together, Stein and Toklas staged many intricate 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 be using any of the recipes from the book. So that’s no hashish fudge then.

No worries. Because instead, Toklas has their chips, which are more than capable of inspiring an awful lot of grandiose thoughts on many planes at once. Such as: “Blimey they’re 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 portion, I bowled up to the semi-open kitchen and badgered the mid-service chefs for answers. I’m sure they were thrilled to see me.

'Served with a dollop of salsa rossa': chicken with chickpeas.
‘Served with a dollop of salsa rossa’: chicken with chickpeas. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

It turns out they use a version of Heston Blumenthal’s triple-cook method. The potatoes are cut into thin chips (as against the chunky shape favored by Blumenthal), then steamed for 20 minutes (rather than boiled). They are chilled, fried at 140C, chilled again, then finished at a higher heat. The result really is the Platonic ideal of the chip: golden, creviced, soft inside, but crunchy. Oh so crunchy. And salty. And unlike some, they never seem to murder appetite. They cost £5 for a heaped bowlful. I challenge you upon eating them, to begrudge that price.

“Serves fabulous chips” risks sounding like the proverbial damning with faint praise. It is nothing of the sort. Given its art world origins, you would be forgiven for fearing that Toklas might be some conceptual reimagining of the very notion of the restaurant. True, it does manage to be very cool. It is tucked away down a quiet sidestreet running down to the north embankment of the Thames, by Waterloo Bridge, and occupies a brutalist building that apparently was once a car park. Witness the use of carefully molded concrete. It could be a sibling to the National Theatre. I say that admiringly. Now it is a broad utilitarian space of parquet flooring, with flourishes of modern art, alongside curving banquettes in shades of teal. It has about it the air of a well-heeled modernist canteen.

'They use a version of Heston Blumenthal's triple-cook method': the exceptional chips at Toklas.
‘They use a version of Heston Blumenthal’s triple-cook method’: the exceptional chips at Toklas. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The menu, however, is simply a set of great ingredients, presented to the very best of their advantage, much like those chips. No wheels are reinvented. No envelopes are pushed. There is no concept at all, beyond, “Do you fancy something to eat?” You are just fed very well. I went twice. The first time was a quick lunch with a friend: asparagus, roast chicken, some of those chips, pistachio ice-cream and lemon sorbet. As I was leaving, the manager pulled me aside and told me that their new head chef had only started that day. Could I bear that in mind if I was planning to write something? I told him he needn’t have said 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 CV. This fits with the virtuous simplicity of the food.

I returned a few days later, this time for dinner. I even booked under a pseudonym and everything. They didn’t seem surprised to see me again. We had generous ribbons of cured trout, the color of orange sherbet, interleaved with thin slices of pickled cucumber, dotted with capers and dressed with an olive oil so pungent it was almost nose-tickling. There was more asparagus, served warm with a wedge of butter mixed up with the salty hit of grated bottarga. Toklas also has a very fine bakery in the same building, from which came their densely crusted sourdough, so that none of that bottarga butter went to waste.

'Ribbons the color of orange sherbert': trout crudo with cucumbers.
‘Ribbons the color of orange sherbert’: trout crudo with cucumbers. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Pieces of grilled chicken were served off the bone, with the sort of crisp, dark and dense skin that suggests a bird that had a bit of a life before ending up here. With it came a mess of chickpeas, roasted fennel and a dollop of salsa rossa, that butch condiment of puréed sundried tomatoes and bell peppers. A perfectly grilled slice of brill came with verdant tangles of monk’s beard and fat cherry tomatoes roasted until bursting from their skins. With this, as I might have said, we had a bowl of their chips. Or two.

Nerdily, we discussed which individual chip was our favourite. I put forward the view that a perfect bowl needed to be a combination of the long robust fat ones and the small broken ones, and those that are merely crisp-like shards. It may have been around this point that, reasonably lubricated by a few glasses of a Fattoria San Lorenzo from the Italian Marches, I decided that interrogating the kitchen on their chip method was a good idea. I thank them for their forbearance. While standing at the pass, I also learned that this is a kitchen with a fine collection of cookbooks on a high shelf. I find that reassuring in any kitchen.

'Deep filled': almond tart.
‘Deep filled’: almond tart. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The first time, we finished our lunch with those ices: the soft, creamy tones of pistachio; the eye-widening zip and flare of lemon. The second time, it was a dark mousse-like chocolate cake the color of night, with crème fraîche, and a deep-filled almond tart, with a syrupy mess of kumquats. Then have mint tea served in exquisitely refined Japanese ceramics. It would be great if I could now say that eating here is cheap as chips, but as those fabulous chips aren’t exactly cheap, we know the rest of it isn’t going to be either. Still, it’s not extortionate and it is very good. Plus, unlike Alice’s fudge, it’s entirely legal.

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