Tom Sellers seemed to come out of nowhere. Sure, he’s worked for a bunch of great chefs, but aged 26 he opened Story, which made a big enough splash in the London restaurant scene that the ripples are still going. Try getting a table there at the weekend and you’ll see what I mean.
The gimmick at Story – and it’s definitely a gimmick – is that it purports to use taste and smell to inspire memory, to tell a story through food that’s evocative of important milestones in your life. There’s a “childhood” section on the menu that, at present, includes bread and dripping, while the signature dish is a Wee Willie Winkie-style candlestick holding a beef-wax candle (there’s also onions and gin on there, although gin didn’t feature heavily in my childhood until I hit my teens).
When it came to opening a second restaurant, there must have been a temptation to replicate the formula, to open Story 2: the Sequel, serving variations on the dishes that made it so successful. But Restaurant Ours is a very different sort of place. There’s no theme, for a start. And there’s no tasting menu. And unlike the slightly awkward space at Story, a former toilet block, Ours is a real stunner. Housed in the former The Collection building on Brompton Road, it’s kept the long, curved entrance corridor with its under-lit glass floor and rows of Japanese Torii gates. It’s like a reverse uterine tunnel, shooting you in the fuzzy, enclosed womb of the dining room, where there are indoor trees wrapped in fairy lights, and a living wall creeping up to a lofty ceiling. It reminds me of The Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow, the first fancy restaurant I ever ate in and one that I still think of as a kind of culinary Platonic ideal, even though it’s apparently not up to much these days.
I invited an old university friend to join El Pye and I. He was sceptical because he’s only over for a few days and the last time I took him along to a review it was so harrowing that it’s become the measuring stick against which we now gauge the pain and suffering in our lives.
You lost your job? Well, it could be worse, you could be sitting under a canoe eating volcano shrimp.
You were in an industrial accident and all your skin was flayed off? Still…
I assured him that Restaurant Ours wouldn’t be like that.
And I was right: the food is mostly excellent, although you wouldn’t guess it from the broad, uninspiring modern European menu.
A coil of sliced avocado on a thin biscuit accompanies a tin of caviar, and it’s a delight. Razor clams in chilli and lime is fine, although there isn’t a great deal of it. Red mullet escabeche, though, is fantastic: a plump slice of fish that holds its own against a hearty saffron oil. Fish is a a good bet here: sea bass with pea and quinoa was the unexpected winner of the night, sweet and succulent with beautifully crisped skin; better than sea bass has any right to be. Both the monkfish with squid ink and the lamb with butter lettuce, meanwhile, were masterclasses in simple elegance. No messing around, no pandering to the Instagram crowd, just good food, well prepared.
It’s all very green and outwardly healthy, but you can compensate with a side of chips with foie gras and cheese – and so you should: they’re the best fried potatoes I’ve had all year.
There are also downsides: as soon as you walk in you notice every table cooing over impressive bowls billowing clouds of dry ice onto little mossy gardens complete with (inedible) pine cones. These are just crudités, and you should resist the urge to order them because they cost £6 per person. PER PERSON. So for us that was £18 for a piddlingly small bowl of raw vegetables.
“It’s like in a provincial curry house when they come round with sizzling tandoori just to get people’s attention,” sighed El Pye. Also, the bread costs £3 each, which is unacceptable. It makes you think that Ours is a money-trap, which it isn’t. Three of us had a three-course meal, various sides, a round of cocktails and a mid-priced bottle of wine, and it came to £280; hardly bargain of the century but I’ve paid more for less.
Another black mark was earned when the waitress fell foul of one of my dining hates: when I asked for a recommendation she looked panicked and said everything was good. Sure, OK, thanks… I didn’t expect you to say “well, the risotto tastes like ass, so I’d avoid that…”, but having an opinion shows a knowledge of the menu. The service was a bit nervy overall, in fact, but I was there on opening week, so I’ll cut them some slack.
All in all, Restaurant Ours is quietly brilliant. Dishes that sound just fine are elevated to something more. I’m already looking forward to restaurant number three.