We have long been used to the idea of high-street banks being transformed into chain restaurants with their canned atmosphere.
Yet 110 years ago, the opposite was true: the medieval taverns of London were converted into banks.
The first British restaurant critic, Lt-Col Nathaniel Newnham-Davis, recorded in early 1914, ‘The most famous of all the Johnsonian taverns, the Mitre, was another of the old houses to fall a victim to bankers ... and was finally pulled down that on its site Hoare’s new Banking-House should be erected.’
However, a new and more pleasing phenomenon is nigh. The ground floor of the Byzantine pleasure dome that passed itself off as the headquarters of Andersen Consulting has become Toklas.
Andersen, the boys behind the Enron scandal of 2002, became just a little too handy with their paper-shredder: their worldwide clients and name disappeared overnight. Good news for us because those management consultants at
1 Surrey Street enjoyed the most enormous terrace looking down to the river.
I took Mandy, my art-dealer friend, for her birthday and she was blown away by the paintings. Little wonder, given that Toklas is owned by the people behind the Frieze art fairs. They chose the name after Alice B, who unbeknownst to me (and you?) used to host lavish dinner parties with her lover, Gertrude Stein, and published a cookbook in 1954, complete with a recipe for hashish fudge.
I never had our Gertrude down as a gourmand. It’s as unlikely as The Oldie’s discovery that ‘Bomber’ Harris was a fastidious amateur chef, prone to chastising Constance Spry about her soufflés. Mandy and I launched with their pitch-perfect starters: artichokes alla Giudia, agretti with tomato and sea bass crudo (all around £10). Mandy eats like a bird. After their best-in-London sourdough, she couldn’t help me out with my rabbit and pancetta. Book a table outside tomorrow and bring a wheelbarrow to load up with their fantastic bread.
My other great find is Yeni, in Beak Street, Soho, whose mother ship is in Istanbul. Its chef/owner, Civan Er, reopened it a while back – but I always cycle by in a rush to Oldie meetings at Polpo. It serves the very best Turkish food you can get in London, in a very sexy, brick-walled, high-ceilinged room, complete with an open fire, over which they’ll roast you some Welsh lamb for £37 for two.
The small plates are where they excel, boasting the longest dish names in menu history. Anyone for ‘bulgur fritters, fresh herbs, macerated grapes, cumin, date molasses’? I certainly am.
Like so many restaurants, they boast a ‘constantly changing’ menu. Of course, I understand the desire for seasonal produce, but some of me (most of me?) yearns for the never-changing menus of yore, albeit with a special (or two) of the day, which gave us our own playlist of favourite dishes across the capital.
The anticipation of cottage pie at the Ivy or spaghetti carbonara at San Frediano would heighten the prelude, and the certainty of the menu also saved loads of time on ordering, especially on a large table. Many punters used to wave the menu away.
The look of those stained, handwritten menus is still with me, the text in a bluish black from over-photocopying. And those glorious Franglais names: ‘mussels marinière’, ‘gâteau cake’.
Sadly, my nostalgia belies the truth: Yeni and Toklas are in a different gastronomic league, and that is largely due to their passion for invention.