Toto’s, the Italian between Sloane Square and South Ken, was one of those places that existed on the periphery of my brain. I knew it had been around for yonks and I should probably try it, but it never quite seemed like enough of a destination to justify the trek all the way from the east end. Then a couple of years ago it closed and that was that, another restaurant in the pantheon of restaurants that have completely passed me by, never to return.
Except it has. The story goes that when the original Toto’s was about to shut back in 2012, the owner confided to a couple of his regular customers – rich overseas types, as you’d expect Knightsbridge locals to be – that this would be the last time they would eat there. The customers – already owners of a hotel or two – thought owning it sounded like a right lark and snapped it up, with the place finally reopening a couple of weeks ago under the same name, albeit having undergone a considerable re-fit.
The result is modern and traditional at the same time, and it’s a slightly uneasy marriage. Not necessarily an impending divorce, but there’s definitely some domestic bickering. The dark mahogany, off-white panelling and hidden lights give it a slightly Japanese feel that’s at odds with features like the towering 16th century Belgian fireplace. There’s a slightly cramped bar upstairs and a terrace that I couldn’t make out thanks to the torrents of driving rain that are always so welcome at this time of year.
The manager assured me the place is a hit with the aforementioned locals, who have been banging on the door since the original Toto’s closed; it was certainly lively enough when I rocked up at 9pm on a Monday, filled with the expected cast of suits and trendies and facelifts.
I took an old university friend, Tas, who used to work in an Italian restaurant and promised he could bring something to the table. “It’ll be like The Trip to Italy,” he said. “You’re Rob Brydon.”
The service is of the incredibly, incredibly attentive variety, so polite that the waiters speak in hushed tones, as if in a monastery, which means you can’t hear what they’re saying. If I had a pound for every time I was asked if everything was okay, and is there anything, absolutely anything I can do for you, I’d have made enough to pay the bill, which was £168 (not cheap given only one of us was drinking). And if I had a pound for every time I got kicked by someone walking past, I’d have three pounds – space between the tables is tight and the staff still seem to be finding their feet, which I can just about forgive this soon after opening.
First up was the classic Venetian dish sarde in soar, which we both agreed was very nice – neither the sharpness of the vinegar not the sweet of the raisins overpowering the sardines. The thinly sliced asparagus salad with egg yolk and black truffle wasn’t so good, the flavours all congregating in a kind of soggy mulch. The seared tuna with red onion jam, though, was top notch.
In my ongoing quest to satisfy my personal trainer’s insatiable desire for me to eat vast amounts of protein, I opted for baby chicken for my main. It was fatty and delicious, with a light gravy and some perfectly acceptable grilled vegetables. Tas had three nice, fat prawns, although his expression said he’d have prefered the chicken.
To round things off we shared a perfectly fine tiramisu, which was lifted by an excellent, lightly spiced ice cream.
There’s no doubting the quality and, while it’s a tad expensive, it’s not wildly unreasonable (£18 for my chicken felt like good value, £24 for the prawns not so much). It needs a bit of breaking in, especially regarding the over-attentiveness of the staff, but that will inevitably be ground out of them soon enough. I still don’t think it’s worth the trip from Stepney but if you’re an oil baron on your annual visit to your Knightsbridge flat, I could think of worse ways to throw around a bit of spare change.
First published in City A.M.