It’s all about the food at Restaurant Story. It has been ever since it opened over a year ago under the watchful eye of chef Tom Sellers. Attracting reviews at either end of the gastronomic spectrum, it is a restaurant that one simply cannot ignore.
It’s certainly not about the location. Situated just south of Tower Bridge, in a narrow space between Tooley and Druid Streets, two noisy and busy carriageways, it is easily missed by taxi drivers, even when stationary at the traffic lights with Tower Bridge Road.
Nor is it about the design. This single story building, costing an amazing £2,000,000 and on a site of a Victorian public loo, has a slatted wood and glass frontage, modest entrance and a tiny name plaque. This understatement is not unique, but it lacks the attraction of some of its nearby competitors housed in converted warehouses with river frontages oozing industrial chic. The well lit Scandinavian style interior, with its partially open kitchen behind a glass screen, well-spaced wooden tables, leather backed chairs , spotlighting and lanterns, is not displeasing, but nothing out of the ordinary. Indeed, there are few distractions if the view of the Shard from the floor to ceiling glass wall is ignored.
So it’s all about the food. And what food it is! Having opened Restaurant Story at the relatively young age of 26, Tom Sellers displays an ambitious, inexhaustible creativity. At the cutting edge of the gastronomy, his CV includes stints at Per Se, Noma, Trinity and Tom Aiken, the last being where he really cut his teeth. This varied experience has produced a veritable cornucopia of dishes reflecting the influence of his mentors but indisputably bearing his unique stamp. Behind the snazzy modern techniques, novel combinations, whacky descriptors and playful interpretations there lies a culinary intelligence which respects the seasons and ingredients, blossoming into dishes which reveal precise execution, minute attention to detail, exquisite presentation, clean tastes and harmonious textures. Mercifully, foraged ingredients play a relatively minor role in the repertoire.
The brigade of 11 young chefs produces two tasting menus – 6 courses for £65, 10 for £85. There is also a set lunch at £35. Given the number of pre course “snacks”, the labour intensity of preparation and the quality of ingredients, all these represent very good value for money. The multiplicity of courses requires the front of house team to be both efficient and knowledgeable. In this capacity, the mainly young team had been well trained and briefed in detail on the dishes. They coped admirably with a demanding service.
The wine list of just over 200 bottles, with prices ranging from the mid £20s to £700 pays homage to the classics, especially big red, without ignoring the New World.
Fine Dining Guide visited Restaurant Story on a busy weekday lunch, finding much to admire in the food offered.
No chef takes as much care over its amuse bouches, here called “snacks” as Tom Sellers. Both in quantity and quality these visually stunning mouthfuls made an impressive start to this culinary adventure.
Crispy cod skin, almost a sine qua non of Scandinavian menus, came on crisp bread with piped dots of gently smoked cod roe emulsion, frilly carrot tops and a dressing of gin botanicals (juniper) which gave a herbal lift to the dish.
A “snack” of orange Nasturtium flowers with oyster sabayon was an inspired lively combination of produce from earth and sea.
An elegant study in green and black saw impeccably fresh English peas, with their slight nuttiness, alternated with piped dots of fragrant truffle mayonnaise. These sweet and earthy flavours complemented each other well.
In a playful savoury interpretation of a popular American confection, Storeo biscuits comprised squid ink wafers dusted with vinegar powder sandwiching smoked eel mousse. Meltingly soft, this imaginative dish scored more on texture and presentation than on flavour.
Razor clam, crispy barley and champagne “snow” proved a veritable mini explosion of temperatures, textures and tastes.
Rabbit sandwich, packed with flavoursome leg meat, had a stuffing of tarragon cream and a dressing of paper thin slices of three different carrots pickled with bergamot. These aniseed and citrus notes enhanced the mild gaminess of the meat.
Tiny, crisp sweetcorn beignets worked well both in flavour and texture with a creamy buttermilk emulsion.
Of the ten courses proper, Bread and Dripping, which has become Tom Seller’s signature, was truly original in conception and execution. The edible candle, lit at the table and left ot burn, left a rich pool of beef dripping in the base of the candlestick, providing a dip for the dense rye sourdough. The warm bread, presented in a leather pouch, arrived with a bowl of finely cubed veal tongue, jellied chicken consommé, celery and pickled horseradish which proved an earthy mix of strong and piquant flavours and soft, fatty textures. What a bold statement to start the succession of main dishes!
Onion, apple and old Tom, saw baby Roscoff onions cooked in three contrasting ways: caramelised to bitter sweetness, braised to a melting softness in stout, and crisped to wafer thinness. Decorated with chickweed, which it did not need, the dish was completed with a dressing of apple consommé flavoured with Old Tom gin and lemon thyme. Again, all the flavours and textures were carefully judged to produce a fragrant, well balanced dish.
Heritage potato, peas, broad beans and coal was another star vegetarian dish. Pureed to a velvety smooth puree, this rich dish probably had at least equal amounts of butter and vegetable, although the potato flavour shone through. Topped with hollandaise made with sharp dandelion vinegar, and balanced by a signature anointment of oil infused with hot coal, these dressings complemented rather than overwhelmed the sweet and nutty qualities of the potato. Fresh peas and broad beans provided an appropriate seasonal garnish.
Tale of a quail was a composite dish served in three stages. First came a sparkling clear, fully flavoured consommé. Next, served in a casserole lined with hay and heather, was a trio comprising soft boiled eggs, legs coated in a barbeque sauce and a kebab of the liver, heart and thigh. As if this was not enough, we were surprised by a final serving of the breast paired with corn puree. The sheer playful inventiveness of this dish, coupled with the precise timing of cooking which did full justice to each of the components, elevated this usually dull game bird into a spectacular, mouth-watering dish. It did, indeed, tell the “story” of its habitat, food and culinary preparation.
Raw beef, apple and summer truffle was a preparation that had the least cooking but most in terms of levels of flavour. A hollowed out apple encased layers of truffle mayonnaise covered with creamy, well flavoured beef tartare. This was mixed with tiny cubes of apple which cut through the richness, and crisp bacon which added flavour and texture. These in turn were topped with apple jelly, rye grains and grated white truffle. This luxurious element, which commanded a hefty supplement, was not an expensive superfluous flourish but an essential element, totally integrated into the composition, adding a heady fragrance which lifted the other elements. The choice of apple, with its balanced sweetness and acidity, neither of which overwhelmed the beef, also contributed to the success of this simply presented but wonderfully flavoured dish.
Lamb, grilled salad and sheep’s yogurt, as with the quail dish, showed the deft use of various parts of the animal. These comprised a strip of loin, cooked to a blushing pink which captured its tender, succulent qualities, crisp skinned, slow cooked belly – surely the most under rated parts of the animal – and a ballotine of head cheese. The richness of these elements was cut by the grilled salad and sheep’s yogurt, the latter piped alternately with an intense lemon balm puree which complemented the lamb well.
A platter of artisan cheeses, all in perfect condition, included Cornish Blue, Langres, and St Nicholas. Damson jelly, melba fruit and mini white loaf loaves were appropriate accompaniments.
Four desserts showed the same levels of skill, precision and creativity as the preceding courses. Fruit paired and dairy products or herbs reflect a Nordic influence, whilst ice creams and sorbets are a particular strength, revealing intensity of flavour, silky smoothness of texture, and dexterity in being shaped into perfect quenelles.
English strawberry, camomile and sweet cicely, matched ripe fruit, jelly and sorbet with traditional herbs judiciously used as garnishes. Another dessert with a more familiar combination of flavours comprised a “soil” of dark chocolate, an intense cassis sorbet, and wild berries covered in “snow” of buttermilk. A “snow,” this time of white chocolate, also garnished an accurately set lemon parfait and milk ice cream. Perhaps best of all was Almond and dill, which saw well flavoured almond ice cream, almond crumble and flaked almonds, set against a vibrantly coloured dill “snow”, dill oil and violet flowers. The subtle milky and strong herbal flavours, along with the stunning presentation, made for a memorably refined dessert.
Good coffee and even more food – raspberry coulis and rose meringue teacakes – completed this remarkable culinary journey.
This was a meal which was the result of painstakingly skilled preparation, artistic presentation and gastronomic vision. Clearly, Tom Sellers is a chef who doesn’t do things by halves, his food revealing a depth and breadth of creativity tempered with a realistic sense in extending the frontiers of contemporary cuisine. Having achieved a Michelin star in less than a year, with high marks in the other major guides, one senses that he has far more to give, that he has not reached the height of his powers. The Michelin Guide comes out at the end of September 2014, and Fine Dining Guide will watch his progress with eager anticipation.