“You’re wasting your time mate, booked up till July…” – One of the enduring myths that swathe the hottest new gigs to open in London is that you can’t get a booking for love nor shekel. Breezing into Story on a whim saw us trump the naysayers and sit down for an unplanned lunch on a Monday afternoon — a walk-in is every restaurant’s best friend.
So here we are with the super sharp edges of The Shard glinting away like the knife in American Psycho, on the site of an old Victorian bog (now completely rebuilt like a Thunderbirds hideaway, wondering about the brutal lying whisper mill of restaurant hype which seems to be spouting the rumour that this restaurant is stuffed to the gills and doesn’t need (or want) any more business thank you very much. It’s a tricky balance to maintain between hype and business realities, but no rumour mill was going to convince me that this fledgling restaurant was going to turn away two covers bang on 12pm (£45 for a set menu of six courses), with the competition for Londoners dining pounds having never been as fierce. Two of London’s top destinations are moments away on Bermondsey Street, with Zucca serving top-draw Italian dishes at a relative snip, and the raucous and joyful tapas at José always a siren call when in the area. Even closer is the quietly consistent and excellent Magdalen; no one is in a position to be turning diners away.
We know Tom Sellers has the moves as he’s made shapes at Tom Aikens (joining as a commis chef at 16), and worked alongside some of the names synonymous with some of the top dining destinations in the world, including Rene Redzepi of Noma, and Thomas Keller of Per Se in New York. Working alongside his current backer Adam Byatt at Trinity in Clapham, he waited for his time to run his own operation.
A flurry of first morsels come out: crisped cod skin with little splodges of cod roe emulsion; a nasturtium and courgette flower with oyster mousse; then the RABBIT FINGERS. The rabbit bites set the lunch motoring and we’re wowed by these polenta crumbed ‘fish finger’ imposters, decorated with brightly coloured discs of carrots pickled in bergamot on tarragon emulsion; they would make a superstar canapé. There’s playfulness going on already.
BREAD AND DRIPPING – Beef fat fashioned into a candle and placed in a pewter holder of the kind that Scrooge grasped in his miserly hands in that silly floppy bed-time hat and night-dress combo. The fun of the fair is muted a tad when we slather our bread with fat and it doesn’t taste mightily “beefy”, although as it cools and solidifies at the bottom, the flavour cranks up a couple of notches. Great fun, smile on face, stall set out — they want us to have FUN, woohoo! We often lose sight of the idea of having fun in a restaurant. This is a welcome reminder.
BURNT ONION, APPLE, GIN AND THYME – A sprightly first course proper, onion segments charred here and there, dotted with garlic flowers, pickled lemon thyme and nettle flowers, and apple consommé with the punchy German gin Monkey ’47′ added at the last second. Tom likes hot dog onions they tell us, and there are some reminiscent of these in the mix too, a sweeter counterpoint.
SCALLOPS, CUCUMBER AND DILL ASH – Prettiest dish on the menu. A serene picture of creamy opalescent discs of scallop marinated in meadowsweet, green flashes of Nasturtium leaves (Tom likes these), and balls of cucumber (some coated in dill ash) and fronds of dill. The effect is cooling and sedate, sweet scallop punctuated with the bitter twang of Nasturtium and the odd whiff of dill. This has got to be damn healthy too. Surely.
BEEF CHEEK, STOUT AND CAULIFLOWER YEAST – An almighty salute to umami. Beef cheek sous-vided with hay and stout for 48 hours until bonkers tender, cauliflower purée with its ‘yeast’ is umami distilled. Pickled hops, crunch of hispi cabbage and a beef jus made with sloe vinegar that Tom’s father made. A great chunk of roasted cauliflower too.
RHUBARB AND CUSTARD CREAM SODA – Here’s a thing: an ickle milk bottle of primary school proportions complete with stripey straw, filled with their own cream soda flecked with vanilla seeds and layered with sherbet, rhubarb lurking at the bottom. Sweet and sour rhubarb, a frisson of sherbet, all calmed down with soothing vanilla on the finish. If this ensemble doesn’t make you smile with the thrill of childish memories then you’re a cold-hearted curmudgeon — palate cleansing with a cheeky accent.
THREE BEARS’ PORRIDGE – “Somebody has been at my porridge, and has eaten it all up!”, said the Little, Small, Wee Bear. So wrote Robert Southey, the first to originally record this extant fairy story in narrative form. Three little bowls, three differing combinations of salty and sweet whey soaked oats prompting: “Oooh that’s the sweet one”, “Oooh is that salted caramel?”, and “Is this the one supposed to be ‘just right’? It started a full blown argument on our table. Of the jovial kind.
One thing that stuck in the memory as much as the Three Bears’ porridge and the melting candlestick of beef fat, as much as the school milk bottles of eye widening rhubarb and custard soda, was the focus and razor sharp definition of the wine list: a list of real character. Sellers has had a big role in putting his own wine list together, and it’s still something of a rarity to see a chef who really knows and gives a fig what is on his list. There are genuinely interesting selections from a couple of growers you rarely see by the glass in London, such as Reinhard and Beate Knebel and their steep grey/blue slate terraces on the river Mosel in ‘Winningen Rottgen’, a domaine not afraid to let the funk of wild yeasts add layers and textures to their wines. Blaufrankisch from Ernst Triebaumer offers an Austrian red which will be a discovery for many, and the Rosso di Montalcino from Sesti is one of the more approachable wines from the growing mob whose winemaking is dictated by the phases of the moon. There is an unashamed bias towards Burgundy at the flashier end of the list, with the perfumed wines of Taupenot-Merme always a pleasure to see, Romain Taupenot one of the most meticulous winemakers I’ve met. They’re listing wines that they like rather than trying to cover the globe, always a marker of a confident list. Rochioli Chardonnay from Sonoma is spotted in the Eurocave before we begin lunch, a good sign, but the inevitable £72 is sobering and forces us to look elsewhere on the list. It’s a great list to navigate for the wine nerd (me), with Tom’s own annotations adding colour, although perhaps frustrating and tricky for many: there’s not much to choose under £30. I later learn that Gearoid Devaney Master Sommelier who Tom met at Tom Aikens, had a hand putting the list together. It all started to make sense…
If I have a worry about Story then it’s this dangerous whisper about it being impossible to get a table. It isn’t. Lots of cash has gone into it from the kick-off from the Noma-esque looking box of an open kitchen to the arty crockery created by designer Lok Ming Fung. The invoices must be stacking up. He’s not just setting his stall out with Story, he’s plonking a few deck chairs and a ruddy great umbrella into the middle of Tooley Street and giving it the large one. I hope enough people are curious enough to see what’s written on the opening page…
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