… and a smart new chef.
Matthew Slotover, 54, and his business partner Amanda Sharpe (whose age I am too much of a gentleman to ask) first discussed opening a restaurant when they were 18. Over the subsequent 32 years they applied themselves thoroughly to researching their subject while at the same time creating Frieze, the art exhibition and art magazine, in which they sold a majority share in 2013 to the Hollywood-based Endeavor entertainment group. Their chosen subjects were St John and the River Café in London and Via Carota in New York, plus numerous others (their former offices were very close to Rochelle Canteen in east London).
Four years ago they decided to become restaurateurs, with very firm ideas about what should not be on the menu. There would be an absence of red meat, for example. The wines would be mainly natural. And they felt strongly that their customers should be treated in as friendly a manner as possible. There should be a dialogue between equals at the table.
I met Slotover and Sharpe on several occasions during this process when I played my usual role of providing encouragement while pointing out some of the pitfalls of this new way of life. They found the site of their dreams at the newly renovated 180 Strand, where, encouraged by the building’s owner Mark Wadhwa, they finally opened their restaurant Toklas in October 2021.
It is easy to see what enthused them about the site, which doubles as an event space. It runs down the side of this central London redevelopment which will include apartments at the rear. The building already houses a branch of Soho House as well as Frieze’s offices. And, perhaps most importantly, it has a lovely open-air terrace as well as plenty of natural light via the glass doors which separate the terrace from the main restaurant. There is also plenty of concrete inside, which clever design work has gone a long way to mitigating.
Slotover has admitted that he would rather not confess how much capital they have lavished on fitting out Toklas but at least it has been money well spent. The tables and chairs are extremely comfortable; the lavatories are plush – certainly by restaurant standards; and the lighting is not only flattering but also memorable in that it cleverly combines an industrial feel with a strong focus.
I ate there for the second time early on the evening of last Tuesday, encouraged by two factors. The first was the possibility of eating on the terrace, shown above, the second was a very recent email informing me that they had just appointed Yohei Furuhashi, who has spent nine years at the River Café, as their new head chef. And while the end of a storm meant that the terrace was wet and deserted, I was taken through a very crowded restaurant to table 21, where I had a good view of the open kitchen with Furuhashi and his team in action.
Armed with a Campari and soda (they had no orange juice!) I enjoyed the spectacle of a full restaurant being kept extremely happy by a busy kitchen and extremely friendly service. Furuhashi was at the pass, looking very calm and collected, as he worked taking in the orders, receiving the finished dishes and making sure that they did not spend too long with him before being delivered to the correct table.
Toklas’s menu is conventionally modern: it is dated; it is on a single piece of paper and begins with offerings of their own bread, olives and charcuterie. Then it lists half a dozen first courses and five main courses – two fish, a clam risotto, one chicken dish and a wonderful-sounding thick Roman soup of courgettes and summer herbs. Four desserts and cheese are on the other side of the menu along with a range of digestifs, including one based on English quince which I ordered with my dessert. What came was less than a full serving but was all that remained, and was offered gratis.
I began with a terrific first course of fritto misto, the small pieces of fish and vegetables lightly fried but in an extremely appetising batter so clean that it allowed me to enjoy this dish with my fingers. Then I ordered a lemon sole with peas and spinach, the same dish as I had eaten here on my first visit. This dish – neatly trimmed fish without its head – demonstrated the marked changes in the kitchen. Lemon sole is an awkward fish to grill as there is not that much flesh on it. It must be cooked very precisely, otherwise the flesh, once overcooked (as it was the first time I dined at Toklas back in February) turns soft and mushy. The second time, however, there was nothing to fault. The fish, nicely trimmed, arrived criss-crossed with grill marks and had been precisely cooked. The peas and spinach made an excellent accompaniment. Strawberries and crème fraîche complemented a delicious almond tart (my bill came to £72.01).
Whether the considerable improvement in the cooking can entirely be attributed to Furuhashi’s arrival, I doubt. Much more likely is the timing. I have long maintained that it is unfair to go too early to any new restaurant. It takes time for any brigade, however experienced, to get to know the workings of a new kitchen. Equally, it takes time for the pristine machinery in the kitchen, as well as the equipment in the chefs’ hands – the pans, the knives, anything and everything – to lose their shine and to develop extra flavour. Whether this comes from butter, oil, seasoning, the odd splash of wine does not really matter. But the cumulative effect is, to me at least, obvious and here proved to be impressive.
Before my second dinner, I had an email conversation with Slotover, who was in New York at the time. I began by asking him why he seemed to have made his new life doubly difficult by building a brand-new bakery next door to Toklas.
‘We take great pleasure in excellent bread and pastries, and wanted to provide an amenity to the local area. Everyone should have access to great bread – it’s essential! Being able to work with amazing talent like Adam Sellar and Janine Edwards has been a great education and pleasure’, came his confident response.
To the more obvious questions of what has been the hardest part of his new career, as well as the most pleasurable, his responses were equally direct. ’The Omicron period was very difficult. Everyone talks about staffing then but it’s true that we are always looking for people, though we have been very lucky to be working with a great team. Everyone says it’s a tough business – and they are right. There are a lot of moving parts and it’s sometimes hard to keep perspective. It is unrelenting.’
As to the pleasure? ‘When people like it … we have had some lovely comments from guests and press and it makes all the effort worthwhile. It has also been exciting to see people after the COVID-19 period. Bringing people together again has been a real pleasure.’
Finally, there came a very open and truthful answer to my final question as to whether, knowing what he does today, he would do it all again. ‘It would be very tempting’, came his reply.
Toklas Restaurant and Bakery 1 Surrey Street, London WC2R 2ND; tel: +44 (0)20 3930 8592.