Restaurant Story by Tom Sellers

So Restaurant Story is all about telling a story is it? Their “dream is for all guests to leave a book at Story, which will remain there to evoke the inspiration in others that we hope our food will evoke in you? In which case I’m going to start this post off by telling a short story of my own then. One about the history of food. Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I’ll begin…

In the beginning when cavemen wandered the earth chasing dinosaurs and throwing spears and the such like, food was a means to an end, it filled their tummies and gave them energy. At some point some bright spark must have realised that some foods taste nicer than others. Later on, along came chaps like the lovely Antonin Careme who decided that wouldn’t it be splendid if food could also look pretty? After all, the human senses are very closely linked; if it looks nice we’re more inclined to believe it tastes nice. In more recent times there are those that advocate the need for a concept or meaning behind our food. Whether it be elaborate tales of the source of the ingredients or the chef’s story as to how he conceived the dish to remind him of something in his past. All very interesting. 

So, in summary, evolution of food can be (very) roughly divided into four sections:
1) Fill belly
2) Taste nice
3) Look pretty
4) Have a meaning or concept. 

From my (albeit very amateur) perspective, when dining out numbers 1) & 2) are absolutely vital 3) is always nice and 4) well, concept I can take or leave. Its an added bonus if its clever or funny but it comes waaaaayyy behind 1) & 2). 

Bear with me and keep that little list in mind as we go on a journey into Restaurant Story…….

I think its pretty fair to say that Story has received its fair share of publicity recently. From weeks before it opened journalists and foodies were all buzzing about how good it was going to be. Therefore, it came as something of a surprise that our first challenge was actually finding the restaurant. The website uses a very oldy-worldy font and pencil drawing skyline of London which brings to mind a modern take on Samuel Pepys’ diary so I was, incorrectly as it turns out, expecting somewhere old and cosy. What I was definitely not expecting was a newly built, glass front, wooden one storey building in the middle of a traffic reservation on the site of a former public toilet. From the outside it resembles a lakeside cafe in the park. After circling it and finding no identifying features we hazarded a punt and went in (if only to avoid walking any further down the interminable Tooley Street).

We were indeed in the right place and yes they do know its hard to find. We were informed that apparently “the chef likes it to be discreet“. There is nothing wrong with discretion but it is usually a positive if your customers can find you. Here’s hoping that the real reason for the anonymity is that the new door sign is still on order and hasn’t turned up yet, any other reason could be deemed rather pretentious in a new restaurant.

Canapes arrived at a lightning pace, before we had managed to even take a gander at the drinks list or the menu in fact.  I was left juggling napkin, wine list, menu and bits of food. Fish skin with an oyster puree and carrot tops had an incredibly strong flavour but was quite pretty I suppose. Unadventurous on my part maybe, but something very dry and strong with the occasional scale still attached was a step too far and one and three quarter portions went back whence they came. What turned out to be the real highlight of the meal emerged next; a polenta coated deep fried “rabbit sandwich’ topped with slices of heritage carrots and a tarragon puree. Crispy outer giving way to layers of moist, succulent rabbit flesh were a joy; I could have eaten a whole plate. Nasturtiums filled with an oyster cream were, well, just rather odd. 

Two options are on offer; either 6 courses for           £45 or 10 courses for £65. It seems churlish not to go the whole hog once you’ve gone to the trouble of getting your hard fought for reservation and managed to find the restaurant. Mmmm hog, I wish there had been some hog…..

Perhaps the most talked about dish Story is presently offering is the beef candle with bread rolls. As the candle burns it creates a pool of thick, molten dripping in a metal dish at the bottom of the candlestick holder.  The dripping has a fabulous meaty flavour and the bread a really good texture. It arrives accompanied by a pot of pickled vegetables and cubes of veal meat that contrast nicely with the grease of the dripping. Despite it pretty much being posh bread and butter it is tremendously clever. We’re off to a great start.

Beef candle. Hand modelling by A. 

What remains apparent throughout the entire meal at Story is that an incredible level of imagination, culinary skill and effort has gone into conceiving, preparing and presenting each dish and it is very clear that all the kitchen staff are very passionate, coming out and presenting dishes to diners themselves explaining the origin of ingredients and dishes. The youth and earnest passion exuding from every last sinew of the kitchen crew therefore makes it hard to say you didn’t like something. It feels a bit like kicking a puppy.  

The wine list is accompanied by a very detailed description (or “story”) about how they did lots of tastings with their friends and picked only the best ones and how they will go brilliantly with the food etc etc. To be honest we didn’t find anything that appealed on the main list but went for a carafe of Riesling and a carafe of Bordeaux. Both were decent quality and the Riesling was indeed a good match for the first few dishes. At around £25 for a half bottle carafe they are not super cost effective. The cocktail list is comparatively short but decent, an Old Fashioned was well made.

Burnt onions consisted of a variety of different types of onions (Lyonnaise, Roscoff and baby onions) cooked in different ways; some roast, some pickled. An apple & gin vinaigrette brought a fresh zing to the burnt bits of the onions and wild garlic flowers added depth of flavour. Tasty stuff.

Scallop was well executed ceviche style but unfortunately A is afflicted by a rather annoying seafood allergy. The plate was first delivered with scallops so had to go back, when it returned it was essentially a plate of cucumber, ash and dill. Yes the scallops had been replaced by some dill snow but “snow” of any variety does not a main ingredient make. Replacing ingredients to address allergies is a challenge that any restaurant offering a fixed tasting menu is always going to be faced with and one that Story didn’t meet for us.

The ash is produced in a kettle barbecue contraption kept out the back of the restaurant and apparently its the job the kitchen staff all compete to do. 

Pressed pear with leek, kelp jelly and white crab had very clean contrasting flavours. I could definitely done with some more crab though.

The next course was, contrary to expectation, my favourite savoury one of the whole meal. 

Early season English asparagus chargrilled was served with a beautifully smooth, cheesy creamy mash (made from some “exceptionally rare, special potatoes from Wiltshire that the restaurant is really lucky to be supplied with but the farmer is mates with Tom” I’m given to understand) surrounded by coal oil. I have to admit that I didn’t derive a great deal of flavour in the coal oil but it was aesthetically interesting. Basically if I could have had a giant version of the rabbit sandwich with plenty of this mash and asparagus I would have been a very happy camper.  

The only meat dish of the 10 course menu was a lamb dish. My picture was blurry and I forgot to write it down. Sorry.

Confit beetroot was served with more snow (horseradish) and sliced raspberries with another vinaigrette (raspberry) and more oil. 

Yep, you’ve guessed it. More snow. Lemon nitro sorbet this time.  This dish involved meringues, lemon custard ice cream. It was very refreshing and kind of a very elaborate deconstructed lemon meringue pie. 

The chef is trialling a new prune dessert and wondered if you would like it instead of the rhubarb?”  Maybe I’m expecting too much here but if I’ve selected a menu then I’d like what I ordered. If the chef needs guinea pigs to test new dishes on then shouldn’t it be served in addition to the listed courses not instead of? I got the feeling that perhaps I was supposed to feel grateful to be allowed to try this new morsel before the masses clamouring for a table, sorry, no. We stuck with the rhubarb dessert and were glad we did as the little milk bottles served with a stripey red and white paper straw in an old fashioned wire milkmans crate were delicious. A layer of rhubarb puree was covered in liquid custard and topped with cream soda, I could have drunk a giant one!

Then came the turn of the porridge. A cartoon of the three bears was silently placed in front of us, each image marked “too salty”, “too sweet” or “just right”. The waitress came over and placed three small bowls in front of us and announced rather imperiously that we were to “try and see if you can work out which is which and we will discuss afterwards“. Call me grumpy but anyone commanding me that I will discuss my dinner with them afterwards to see if my taste buds are working is highly likely to get short shrift.

It doesn’t take the most sophisticated palate to work that one is really very salty (almost inedibly so), one is very sweet (and quite nice as a very small portion) and the other? Well, its “just not right“. Its more of a mixture of the other two resulting in an odd sweet and salty combination that only works on popcorn but definitely doesn’t have a place in porridge. Neither, for me, does porridge have a place on an evening dessert menu. Who in their right minds willingly serves a dish to diners that is “too” anything? If it wasn’t good enough for Goldilocks then it’s a fair guess that I’m not going to like it either.

The bill came totaling £230 so £115 each for what was predominantly a very pretty, extremely laboriously prepared and imaginative arrangement of vegetables interspersed by occasional protein. I also think the £2 for water is a bit much. Yes its only £1 a head but we ordered tap water, surely if you’re going to charge for it you should tell people? As the Critical Couple blog once pointed out with regard to another establishment, all those £1 fees add up to quite a handsome sum over a year.  Serve was good but still lacking a little in experience in some quarters but that will come with time. I did sense that they must already be used to people throwing superlatives around about the food since although I asked lots of questions, they became gradually more disinterested in me as the meal went on. 

The bill was accompanied by two chocolate teacakes (or giant chocolate nipples depending on your viewpoint). They were flavoured with rose which was a little overpowering but fitted with the nostalgic theme of the meal and the pervading strong clean flavours throughout the menu.

Sellers clearly has an impressive pedigree and the restaurant is a fabulous achievement for someone his age- it does make you question what you have achieved in your own life. Having worked alongside chefs such as Tom Aikens, Rene Redzepi, Adam Byatt and Thomas Keller, the influences are apparent in his cooking but Redzepi and Keller are the two that seem to have made the greatest mark, both in terms of emphasis on raw food and fish and also the conceptual side to the food. Story is a success in that it gets people talking, I’ve had more to say about this meal than many others I’ve eaten recently. That said though, I don’t think I’d be recommending it to anyone any time soon, the whole “Story” concept just feels forced. Ultimately there is too much style over substance and although I didn’t leave hungry, I wasn’t exactly full either. Vegetables far outweigh other food types as the main element of dishes which doesn’t exactly enthrall me.  Oh and enough with the vinaigrettes already, my insides must have been pickled by the time we left!

Reverting back to my mini history of food and the 4 types of food – told you to bear with me! Somewhere along the line Story lost sight of points 1) and 2), that is the bit about tasting good and keeping your belly full which is a great shame as both of those elements are still of paramount importance for me.  I love all the alchemy and gadgets and ooh and ah at the spectacle of dry ice and a beautifully conceived and constructed plate but for me to really rate a meal it would have to taste amazing blindfolded and that is where Story fell short.

Towards the end of the meal the waitress asked what our highlights had been and on mentioning the rabbit cake canape she commented that they get that response a lot- maybe this shows that people like something a bit meaty with some substance!

Will I go back?  I don’t think so, unfortunately. That’s the thing with placing the emphasis on experience and concept over taste, once you’ve done it, it loses its impact a second time round. I shall leave the last word to A who shared the meal with me. At the end I asked her verdict. Her response? “Well I didn’t not enjoy it“. 

Restaurant Story 
201, Tooley Street, 
SE1 2UE.
020 7183 2117

 Story on Urbanspoon

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1 Comment

  1. Anonymous
    June 5, 2013 / 6:29 am

    Good review. Could equally apply to supposedly one of the world's top restaurants Mugaritz. Thanks for the review. I prefer to spend my money in restaurants that understand tasting nice is far more important than any concept or story.