The comparison most often levelled at Tom Sellers’ Restaurant Story is that it’s another Fat Duck, albeit cheaper and located in Central London. To write Sellers off as just another Heston copycat is to offer him a great injustice I think and not to appreciate what he’s achieved with Restaurant Story on its own merits. Sure there are similarities, both subscribe to the science experiment method of cooking and both like to tell a story through their food in more literal terms than all those dreadful ‘let me tell you the concept of my sharing plates’, but they have their own touches of genius. Read on and see if you agree.
Rumour has it that you’re asked to bring along a book to ‘share your story’ or some such nonsense when you make a reservation, but since I didn’t make the booking, I can’t comment on whether they still persist with this silliness. Hopefully not as I’ll only think less of them after such an effusive introduction.
Story is located within a mere stone’s throw of London Bridge, once the site of some public loos but now an airy and light space where you can watch the hustle and bustle of the world go by, while choosing to go either the full hog with the ‘Full Story’ at £80 at lunch or a ‘Half Story’ for £39 at lunchtime. Clearly, I’m never one to turn down a fully fleshed tasting menu and so I am all about the Full Story.
Before your story arrives though, a whole selection of snacks start winging their way out of the kitchen. Chef Sellers is not making life easy on his chefs, every single one of these little morsels is intricately carved and presented and actually for the first few, we’re convinced that we’re eating ‘Course 1 – Gifts of the Sea’, only to be a little confused when the more meaty snacks started arriving.
Each are more delicious than the last, but my favourite would have to be the Cod skin with smoked cod roe and the Shrimp with red pepper sauce. The much lauded Storeo (The Story Oreo biscuit… geddit) didn’t have the strong flavours of the smoked eel that I was expecting, but I do have a strong tolerance for the fishy tastes and so perhaps it passed my palate on by.
The most spectacular course was next – Gifts from the Sea, arriving in a flurry of dry ice, this is seafood at its absolute freshest. Langoustines, scallops, razor clams, each fresher than the last with a subtle fragrance direct from the sea, this had the dual effect of cleaning the palate for what was to come.
On the side, I got a little extra treat – a potted plant of all sorts of vegetables buried within. The novelty alone would have persuaded any child to eat their vegetables but all of these came with an extra special taste twist. The peppery rocket flower came with an almond cream, the wye valley asparagus was filled with the most subtle miso group. The English radishes needed to be scooped up to get the full effect of the malt crunch and the herb emulsion at the bottom and all of this just to offer an alternative to the seafood on display. Too many restaurants offer a second-rate vegetarian offering, but you need not be worried here.
If you’ve been following the Restaurant Story tales via blogs and reviews, then you know about this dish. A little while ago, an unobtrusive little candle appeared on the table. My lunch date paid it no attention, not being slightly obsessive about restaurants as I am and so I repressed my natural urge to give the game away too early. And then, the magic happened. A basket of bread and a little tub of beef extract to liberally spoon into the candle drippings and some tongue pickle to make yourself a fatty bready liquid dripping sandwich.
Am I making it sound weird? It is. But it’s also fantastic. In the interest of fairness, my lunch date wasn’t quite as enamoured as I, but I ignored him. All the more for me. As it later turned out, eating all the bread in Course 2 of a Full Story menu was a bad idea, but I still can’t bring myself to regret it.
As the flower pot course showed, this isn’t a place to shy away from the vegetarian/vegetable offerings. Onion, Apple and Old Tom is a Burnt onion concoction with crispy onions and served with an Apple and Thyme consomme. It was good, very good, just not as good as the Dripping, which shall remain my marker the entire rest of the meal to come!
The cucumber, scallop and dill ash was light and airy – the dill ash was probably a bit too subtle for me, but the clean flavours of the cucumber and scallop went so well with the Dill ‘snow’, ice cold and with a delicate flavour to it. Snow, in all its flavours starts to make some regular appearances to the table soon though!
As if I hadn’t got through enough bread, the next little course is Brioche with Foie Gras and/or a Cucumber butter. This doesn’t feature on the menu either, it isn’t doing my pacing of courses any favours at all!
Another vegetable for a main course – a hunk of buttery mash served with asparagus, beurre blanc and coil oil. The coal oil is intriguingly delightful and lends a richness and flavour to the dish far beyond what the humble potato can deliver!
A more meaty main comes in the form of lamb cooked three ways, with a bit of sheeps yoghurt and what is probably the best thing on the plate – a spoonful of garlic risotto. Happiness in a garlicky mouthful.
After the ravings you’ve been subjected to for the recanting of these last endless courses, it was dessert that will probably see a tailing off in my levels of excitement and joy. A palate cleanser of a celebration of lemon with Lemon ice cream, lemon snow, lemon parfait and verbena did the trick but there was just too much of it to really count as a palate cleanser and felt more like a dessert in its own right. I know right, how first world am I, complaining about too much dessert?!
The chocolate, oyster and lovage just didn’t work for me – I just couldn’t face more than a mouthful of this. I could see what was trying to happen with the chocolate and lovage, even though it was weird, but the inclusion of the oyster leaf was a step too far. Apparently there are these leaves that taste exactly like oysters and for reasons unknown to me, they were paired with my chocolate and lovage. No. Just No.
The almond and dill fared a little better with my tastebuds, but I was fast losing patience with the snow theme and the vast volume of bread ingested to date was catching up with me and all I could really think of was resting my weary carb-filled head down on a pillow for a nap. Now it’s true that this is not Tom Sellers’ fault, but actually…. well it kinda is. If he didn’t want people to fill up on bread, he shouldn’t have created that dripping!?
Petit fours do come out of the kitchen and for possibly the first time ever, I give the staff a stern ‘Do not bring these here’ look and they meekly put them down anyway and scuttle off – leaving the lunch date to take them home to his family. It just couldn’t be done, but there are some kids out there who were very happy with their chocolatey post lunch treats.
This isn’t perfection in a restaurant – there were courses I loved (HELLO bread and dripping) and courses I really didn’t (Weird Oyster leaf thing) and a course or two I struggled to remember without the aid of the handy iphone photos, but all in all, this is a restaurant I would not hesitate to recommend. For a tasting menu with the volume of food I’ve just described, I think it’s good value for central London, especially central London that commands a Michelin star and you are stuffed with enough high quality food to not require you to eat again for a day or two. Especially if you ignore my warnings and eat all the bread.
Restaurant Story can be found at 199 Tooley Street, which is about a 10 minute walk from London Bridge station. Do not even think about attempting to come here without a reservation, but they helpfully outline their reservation policy on their website.