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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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  1. Toklas
    Photograph: Ola o Smit
  2. Toklas
    Photograph: Ola o Smit
  3. Toklas
    Photograph: Ola o Smit

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

It was a torrentially rainy Wednesday evening when I visited Toklas. My mate and I were the first customers to arrive. There was no music. Clattering from the open kitchen and the chatter of staff as they geared up for the night’s service were the only sounds to break the awkward silence. The restaurant remained empty until our starters arrived. By the time I was dunking homemade sourdough into glossy olive oil with fat, meaty green Italian olives, I was convinced that a) the place was haunted, b) I had accidentally booked out the whole space or c) we were in the wrong restaurant. Then, finally, some company. An artsy crowd walked in with an older-looking gentleman who I was convinced was Andy Warhol back from the grave, complete with his signature black turtleneck and floppy white hair. There was no mistake, this was the right place. 

Toklas is the first restaurant venture from the founders of Frieze art fair and magazine, Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover, and it sits within the brutalist 180 The Strand building, also home to their offices and a cutting-edge art gallery. The main dining area resembles the kind of fancy mid-century space you might see on The Modern House website: the warm reclaimed parquet floor and iroko wood counter and table tops are paired with grey, concrete curved walls. A large, sunny Wolfgang Tillmans photograph of tomatoes and aubergines by a swimming pool takes centre stage on the back wall and sits smack bang in the middle of two cosy, emerald green booths. The wall in the bar area is covered with recent and vintage posters from significant art exhibitions.

The restaurant is named after Gertrude Stein’s life partner, Alice B Toklas, who famously popularised cannabis-infused food in the ’60s thanks to accidentally including the recipe for a hash fudge brownie in her memoir-cum-cookbook, describing it as something ‘anyone could whip up on a rainy day’. But don’t expect any space cakes here – this place is all about Mediterranean fare: French, Spanish and Italian with a touch of Greek. Chef Martin Lyons, who was previously in European-flavoured kitchens at Moro and Spring, puts his culinary background to good use on the light, unfussy and fresh menu.

As the restaurant started to fill out, so did our table, with dishes coming out of the kitchen in quick succession: tangy broccoli with farro, cow’s curd and black garlic; luxurious fettuccine with girolles; and grilled sardines with garlic, parsley and lemon. My favourite was the flaky white and brown crab meat served with zesty leek and sweet herbs that got me questioning what kind of sorcery was used on this dish, as it seemed like it was barely cooked, yet packed so much flavour. The pasta was also a big highlight: thick belts with plenty of bite and bright orange girolles speckled throughout. The small mushrooms added a fruity and peppery blast that cut through the buttery, silky sauce the dish was coated in. Dare I say, this was one of the best pastas I’ve eaten in London?

Next, heartier, bigger mains. Despite being pretty full already, we ploughed through a rustic mussel and chickpea stew and crispy, succulent chicken served with olives. Both were beautifully cooked warming embraces and exactly what we needed on a day of such dreary weather, but they didn’t particularly wow or stick with me. As for the extra sides we ordered: they stole the show. The bitter greens were pleasantly tangy and the chips transported me to a Greek taverna overlooking a sun-kissed beach with their top-tier skin-on crunch and fluffy insides: pure holiday vibes. They were served with a punchy aioli that was so garlicky it made us wince, but also immediately want to eat the whole bowl in one sitting.

We settled on the mango and passion fruit semifreddo to finish. I wanted a creamy, fluffy frozen mousse, but what I got was an icy block, with large shards of ice crystals, that disappointingly, lacked the mango punch I was looking for. 

Despite the dud dessert, our trip was a hit. Perhaps because the food was unpretentious. Sometimes it’s a case of why reinvent the wheel when you can do basic things spot on? And that’s what Toklas has done here. It’s opening a bakery and food shop in mid-November where you’ll be able to score all manner of breads, pastries, and sandwiches, plus fresh fruit and veg, cheeses, charcuterie, tinned and dry goods and a small range of homewares. Again, just to reiterate, there won’t be any weed brownies. 

The vibe A proper grown-up dinner with an arty crowd that’s a little intense thanks to the lack of music.

The food Simple, unfussy food as might be served at someone’s house for a dinner party, but slightly more refined

The drink A small but mighty core list of natural wines, but be warned, they can be spenny. A bottle of house red starts at £36.

Time Out tip Come back when the sun decides to ever show its face again and head for the lovely big garden terrace and bar that extends out and overlooks the old Aldwych underground station.

Angela Hui
Written by
Angela Hui


1 Surrey St
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