In 2011, Blumenthal opened Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge; In 2012, Ollie Dabbous’ debut effort quickly won universal acclaim from the zeitgeist (and continues to sell out every night) but in 2013, it seems London’s darling of the moment is Tom Sellers’ permanent entry to London. He’s trying to spin a effective yarn with his cooking and it appears to be drawing a crowd.
Tom is still under 30 and a part of the emerging golden generation of young chefs. Like his peers, he learned from the most recognizable in the business prior to his solo gig. From Aikens to Keller, Redzepi and Adam Byatt. I love Adam’s restaurants and it is shocking that Trinity continues to be starless given Adam’s storied rise-fall-rise career. The story is that Adam is invested in his former protégé’s permanent venture, Restaurant Story being the product of Tom’s two very successful preceding pilot projects. Two pop-ups starting with ‘Foreword’ in East London back in 2011 and followed by ‘Preface’ in NYC some time last year. There’s a pretty complete interview on The Staff Canteen if you wanted to get to know Mr Sellers better.
The menu is either a choiceless £45 six courser or £65 for ten courses, but before that, let’s talk about décor …or building design. A totally out of place pine cabin-like enclosure built on a traffic island in Tootley Street. We circled it several times not realizing that it was the restaurant. Depending on your favourite fantasy story, this setup is either Edward Cullen’s pad in the city or Hanna & Erik’s hut relocated to an urban jungle.
The restaurant purports to tell stories through its dishes which in itself serve as vehicles for customers to create their own stories upon. So eating Tom’s food grants you participation in some sort of a ‘story exchange’ between customer and restaurant. If you indulge the concept, they also ask customers to bring their own books to the restaurant to leave behind on their bookshelves, as a kind of memento for them to remember you by. On the practical side, I’m told that the books do serve a good cause and eventually go to charity. We spotted some interesting reads, like a 80s John Travolta photo-book, and a compendium of UK solicitors.
Anyway, I didn’t bring a book, but others in our party did. We left a copy of Tipping Point behind, apt in describing the Story’s reputation in the short time it has been open whilst already received a raft of positive reviews. We were a table of five for a birthday celebration and selected ten courses each. Before the meal began, we were bombarded with a bevy of nibbly things.
Others around me thought it was pleasant, but my portion tasted cold, bitter and was kind of like chewing on paper and so I didn’t like this. I think fish-skin is best eaten piping hot, fresh off a searing hot surface or torch-blown with sprinkles of rock salt.
Like fresh courgette flower with some seasoning. Yeah ok.
Radishes with seaweed butter
Ah, shades of Trinity. Byatt’s version with cod roe mayonnaise may be unmatched but Sellers’ seaweed butter does come close. I liked this.
Peas & truffle
Peas and truffle, umami and umami. Liked this one.
‘Storeo’ cookie with smoked eel mousse
Like a pickled savoury oreo cookie! Each of the amuse bouches came with long explanations, which means that I didn’t catch what the cookie bit was made from. It played tricks with my perception what with the cookie visuals and all. This was interesting.
This was the best of the nibbles. Lovely full flavor, juicy and warm flossed meat. Just yummy.
1st Course – Beef dripping candle ‘wax’ (!) , rotten apple jelly, own-made sourdough.
It did smell of burning fat when this was lit while we were being distracted by the nibbles. When the jelly and the bread were brought to the table and the function of the melted wax was announced, it was a nice surprise for us. The texture of the melted ‘wax’ was eerily realistic and quickly solidifying on the bottom of the candle-wax holder. It did feel like scraping actual candle wax onto the bread. The sourdough was just sublime. Great crunchy crust, but all soft and spongy on the inside with a beautiful coat of black to it. Aside from the dripping being a little too rich, this was a wonderful start, great fun.
2nd Onion and apricot, many ways.
There’s supposed to be different kinds of fancy onions cooked several ways and laced with apricot, also cooked in a variety of ways. I thought there was too much charred onions leading to much bitterness. The apricot was too sweet, cloying like jam, did not balance things up, rather I thought it made the bitterness even more apparent. For me, the textural bits were a bit out of whack. It felt like it might have been either an onion tart or a French Onion soup or both at some point, before dish design stopped in the middle of that thought process. Though personally, eating bits of barely cooked onion isn’t my ideal way to start a meal.
Getting back to what’s good about the dish, the onion broth – by itself, it was awesome. Rich onion flavours captured as a light broth, properly seasoned, served warming but not searing hot, even better when soaked with the excellent blackened sourdough. More soup, less of the chewy bits please.
3rd Scallop, cucumber & dill ash
Great scallops. It’s been cured somehow giving a briny, olive-oil like, vinegared flavor. The already silken raw textures seems to be further smoothened by this curing process. This could easily pass as a formidable course in say a Sushi Kanesaka or perhaps even Sushi Saito. The vinegared-brine flavor was spot on and there were no rough edges.
4th Mackerel with carrots, cooked many ways
Nice wedge of mackerel, really juicy and flaky… but unfortunately, all the effort which had gone into the carrots was completely lost on me. They just tasted like… carrots. But more unfortunately, I just didn’t think carrot was playing nice next to mackerel.
5th Heritage potato, broad beans, dandelion, charcoal oil
Little did I know that my disappointing sigh was to be followed with a thundering gasp …story mode and all.
Smashing mash. Pillowing, warming, creaminess with buttery broad beans giving the mash this fantastic structure, texture all adding another layer of something exciting to the overall umami. A hint of acidity lifted the aromas. Great. I was five again, experiencing mash for the first time, the fancy bits with the dandelion and charcoal were subtle but certainly added extra layer of detectable sheen to this.
This definitely rivals the few fellas who’ve had success turning potato into a course. It could be better than Dabbous’ version with roasting juices and truffles and might even be better than the Rogan’s version of heritage potatoes. It’s far simpler and this dish demonstrated Seller’s solid fundamentals and his super palate.
6th Beetroot, raspberry and horseradish
Sigh…please no more beetroot. It should be banned from these sort of boundary pushing meals. It’s like the perfect filler dish in a long taster menu. It might have been hip in the years gone by, but today, I just think it’s on far too many menus for it to be some sort of contemporary dining contradiction. Invariably it is either juiced, poached or simply raw, maintaining its un-denatured profile. For me at least, the ‘beetroot dish’ has become a cliché.
So with the whole story-mode going with each dish, we quizzed our waiter about the ‘story’ behind this. Poor fella tried to vamp about something, but ultimately he just gave in and came clean about this being nothing more than simply beetroot and desiccated horseradish. No story behind it. Some of us were slightly disappointed, and personally, I think they should get rid of the whole gimmick because it feels like either the waiters don’t believe it themselves or that they are growing weary of having to pander to the expectation of coming up with some fairy tale every night. It’s just cringe-worthy for diners and really why bother? Just keep it real and plate up good food, don’t bother with the intangibles. Unless of course if there really was a real story about how the dish came about or how it was inherited.
Contrast that to the Fat Duck, like the Mad Hatter course, where they go to great lengths to bring in the theatrics with the dry ice and lime perfume and disappearing gold coins. I still think it’s a little cringe-worthy watching the gold coin disappear in the tea, but you can really see that the waiters do believe it over there. We are all there to indulge in laugh after all right? We’re expecting the gimmicks, so at least make us smile after all this build-up.
Our waiter did ask us to test him on the story for the oncoming dishes, which he promised (prematurely) had more interesting backstories.
7th Veal loin, apple, peas, thyme
Which is what we did, seeing to how this was the main event. Sadly it was the same response, he started talking, but quickly gave up and just reverted to the default position of no story to tell either. Oh well.
Visually the dish is absolutely unbeatable, but it just didn’t taste as good. The photo is a little misleading as the veal was about the size of a knorr cube. I don’t have a problem with it being small (it was 10 courses after all), but I did think the meat was completely overcooked. It was leather tough, really dry and just …terrible. Maybe it spent too much time in the Green Egg. The apple sauce was pleasant, but I really do not see the fuss here. Sorry guys, just keeping it real, for a mains, I thought this was a massive fail.
8th Almond and dill
After the veal, the meal just went into a tailspin. Everything from this point forward was disappointing, in total contrast to the exciting start to the meal.
Powdered almond, milk almond ice cream, frozen dill… the ice cream was nice (seemed like it was made in a pacojet). The dish just seemed muddled apart from the sting from the dill and then it was just over. Not sure if this was meant as a palate cleanser, but it did not do anything for me.
9th Earl grey, prune, lovage, milk
Like a sort of herbal prune flavoured milk tea ice cream, with a curdled milk ‘skin’ … but again with the herbs like the pudding before this. It just felt like I was washing my mouth out with Molton Brown soap. I really tried, earl grey ice cream rarely goes wrong, but I just didn’t enjoy it.
10th Wild berries, chocolate, buttermilk
Here I thought there were two very good desserts unfortunately forced together. The raspberry sorbet was wonderful, piercing acidity, along with the other wild berries on the plate, amazing concentration of sourness… wow, I get it, the palate cleanser has finally arrived. Except it was sitting on top of another pudding.
Underneath, a kind of house made chocolate cereal, with a beautiful chocolate whip, rich and creamy, this part of the dessrt alone could better Clove Club’s oat dessert. This would have been a lovely end to the meal.
But together… I don’t know, I just think the raspberry sorbet’s laser acidity and the calming milk chocolate do not give balance, if anything, like the onion dish, it was the epitome of imbalance. For me, it just tasted too much like one of those horrible (to me) cherry syrup filled chocolates you find in a tin of Cadbury Roses.
Petit fours: Tea cakes, goats milk, strawberry
Yeah the petit fours were a nice touch, but after the massacre of the final act, I lost interest.
A strong start, but a meal of two halves. We paid £486 for five people, which included cocktails and a bottle of Oregon Pinot.
Well, the meal was certainly interesting, lots of talking points, some ohhs & ahhs, in general I think the cooking was of a high quality. What I didn’t necessarily agree with was the balance in some of the recipes. I think all the dishes composed of good bits, but just not plugged together in the right ratios, or rather, not the right pairings. I guess if you’ve been around the houses to try these derivatives of New Nordic cooking, then you won’t be so surprised by the style. It feels like a menu that’s deliberately reversed the role of ingredients traditionally considered for sides or garnishes elevated as lead ingredients.
On a more practical aspect, our table had some dietary needs (no fish), and the initial response from our waiter was ‘sorry, you just have to try it. Can’t change.’. They removed the scallops but only replaced it with more garnishing in its place, in effect it just seemed like the menu was all or nothing. Something for Tom to work on I suppose. I think the depth of service is important all of which contribute to real word of mouth. As opposed to bloggers like me who pretty much just lap up whatever new shiny thing the industry puts out.
Service while well-intentioned was a little tentative and came across as being cold. I think maybe the staff just need to be told to have a little fun and to relax. It just seemed like the waiters were pre-occupied with getting the detailed explanations of technicality of how each dish was put together correct and had forgotten to touch on the inspiration or fun side of things, contrary to the restaurant’s theme. Something about the way this cabin-like décor results in a highly echoing room. Our waiters either had to raise their voice or were just repeating themselves. Either way, we didn’t catch all of what they were trying to convey anyway. However, they took the EXCELLENT bread away mid-way through the meal which is unforgivable!! Such excellent bread should stay on the table until the very end. I hope they’re not doing it for other tables, they really should leave the good stuff on the table.
So hype over, I ate some nice things, but there were also things I didn’t like. I don’t mean to flame on anyone, but I just had really high expectations coming into the meal and maybe I’m just not exposed enough to understand what he’s trying to achieve. Ultimately, my first experience of Restaurant Story was mixed. I guess Sellers is bold and takes risks with recipes that are not necessarily crowd-pleasers. The current iteration of the menu is surely a triumphant visual tour-de-force but I think it has some catching up to do taste-wise for it to become a more immersive experience. For now, this story is a little disjointed and not quite the finished article. I’m sure he’ll get there someday as he strives toward refinement and there clearly is undeniable potential for Story to grow into something special in the very near future, so like you, I’ll be watching very closely…
£45 for Six, £65 for Ten.
201, Tooley Street, SE1 2UE.
Tel : 020 7183 2117
Tube : London Bridge