Monday, 3 June 2013
There is nothing wrong with a bit of ambition. In a town where most new places are aiming for no more than to be the next filthy burger joint or comfort-food slop-house ("hey guys, can we do what X are doing, only worse and with bigger profits?"), it's hard to get too irritated with anywhere with the opposite problem.
Hard, perhaps, but not impossible. Story tests our patience to such a degree, with its twee, pretentious concept laid on so thickly, that the whole thing threatens so dissolve into self-parody from almost the first moment we sit down. The menu is hidden inside a weather-beaten copy of Bleak House, dishes are introduced as if they were deeply personal emotional statements and not just a bit of food on a plate, and - the real kicker - diners are encouraged, for some bizarre reason, to bring their own book to leave at the restaurant. Or to put it in their words, "Our 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." It's almost enough to put you off your horseradish snow.
That our meal at Story ended up being so enjoyable, then, is thanks to one thing and one thing only - that ignoring all the ego and frills and affected flummery, the food is generally of an incredibly high standard. Which is just as well, because if it hadn't been I'd have wanted to shove that copy of Bleak House somewhere even the most determined of kitchen porters would not have not been able to extract it.
Not feeling brave - or flush - enough for the full ten courses for £65, we thought we'd settle for "just" the six for £45. As it turns out, though, there are so many little extra bits and bobs before and after the tasting menu proper that it certainly didn't feel like we were missing out. Crispy cod skin topped with creamed roe and summer herbs was the first to arrive, and was brave enough to taste very strongly of fish, unlike the kind of reimagined Quavers you might get elsewhere. And it was for this reason I liked them, while my friend wasn't so sure. This was one plot device that was going to reoccur throughout the course of the lunch.
Then nasturtium flowers filled with oyster purée, radishes filled with seaweed butter, eel mousse "Oreos" (Storyeos?), and deep-fried rabbit "sandwiches", all arriving in quick succession but just the right, and fun, side of enjoyable. I preferred the delicate oyster flowers to the rather soggy rabbit bites, but my friend thought the opposite so take your pick. The joy of a meal like this is that you're not forced to love everything; the relentless pace keeps you interested even as the individual elements don't.
Anyone with a passing interest in the London restaurant world will already know all they need to know about the famous Story "dripping candle". Briefly, it's a very ordinary-looking candle but is made out of beef tallow, and once lit slowly melts into the candlestick base where you are encouraged to dip the house bread. Yes, butter would have probably tasted better but it's a thing so inventive and so clever that only the most cynical would take issue with it. Much more fun than actually eating it, in fact, was watching it gracefully dissolve into weird and wonderful shapes during the course of the meal.
"Burnt onion, apple, gin and thyme" was a beautiful-looking thing, and if you can't enjoy a bit of caramelised onion there's something wrong with you. Perhaps the only real criticism to be levelled here is that it seemed very like something you might be given at one of the other current temples of modern British gastronomy, but then any novellist will tell you, there's always power in repetition.
There were things I didn't like about "Beetroot, raspberry and horseradish" - the beetroot hadn't been treated (pickled? marinated?) enough to remove that slightly unpleasant soily taste, and I didn't eat every last expertly carved lump of it. But the horseradish snow was as addictive as the substance it resembled, melting in the mouth into a kind of salty, umami-rich cream, and the superbly flavoured raspberries unexpectedly matched it perfectly. Again, horseradish snow is not a unique concept (see: The Ledbury, amongst others) but who cares when it tastes as good as this.
Then my favourite bit of Story - "Pigeon, summer truffle and pine", which was pretty much everything I like about this kind of food on one plate. The pigeon was bloody and wonderfully smoky (done in the Big Green Egg BBQ stood proudly outside the restaurant), the pine was I think represented by two blobs of shocking green purée which tasted of thick vegetation, and the truffles were liberally sprinkled around the place and were also packed with flavour. But even more impressive were the greens not mentioned on the menu, such as an utterly perfect example of broccoli and some seared root vegetables of some kind which would have been enough to cause a stir on their own. Technically impressive, visually stunning and immaculately realised, this was a world-class dish.
The tersely-described "lemon" was a few clever treatments of the fruit - some more of that snow, a sharp blob of sorbet and a bit of white chocolate mousse. Faintly familiar in that kind of Noma/Ledbury/Clove Club way but nonetheless very easy to eat.
And then another famous Story creation, the "Three bears porridge", where you are asked to guess which is "too sweet", "too salty" or "just right". Of course, none are really "too" anything; it would be a very strange thing for a restaurant to do to deliberately overseason a dish just for a somewhat laboured fairytale parallel. One is sort of a salted caramel affair, one is all toffee and nuts, and I've no idea what went into the "just right" but the fact it was my least favourite probably says more about me than the skill of the chefs. I still ate it.
With just a little chocolate teacake and sweep of impossibly delicate toffee ribbon of some kind, we were done. By now, I imagine you've made your mind up whether you think Story is an overthought pile of foodie-frottism or a fun and exciting to spend a couple of hours of your life, and you will have probably also guessed that I'm firmly in the 2nd camp. We went a bit OT on the booze (two bottles of £40 prosecco between two may not be how everyone will choose to start their Saturday) but there wasn't much on the wine list under £30 and I have a feeling this might be something approaching an average spend, so as with any of these things, if it doesn't look like your kind of thing and you balk at paying this kind of money for lunch, then Story probably isn't for you.
But crucially when you're spending a lot of money on food, or drink, or damn near anything, it all comes down to value. Despite not loving every bit of everything, my lasting memory is of the dizzying highs of that pigeon or horseradish snow or the fascinating organic shapes created by a slowly-melting stick of beef fat. There was enough care and skill shown, overall, for the odd irritation, in the end, to not mean so much. And so, even if this may not be the final, perfect Story, as a first chapter, it deserves our attention.