In Kansas City, many of the most significant restaurants reside in the suburbs. One such eatery is Story, which opened in May of 2011 to immediate lionization. Residing in Prairie Village, the restaurant is one among many businesses in The Village Shops, a strip mall architecturally designed to resemble a small village. Story entered my radar after learning that chef-owner Carl Thorne-Thomson was nominated for a James Beard award for the Midwest this year, in addition to being named the 2013 Food & Wine People’s Best New Chef for the region. The Food & Wine award suggested that Story is quite popular, but we were still able to secure reservations one day in advance and so we dined there on a recent Saturday.
Before dining out, I always inspect the restaurant’s website; not only does this acquaint me with the chef’s culinary style, but it generally gives me a good feel for the tone of the restaurant. With Story, the website was crisp, white, and airy—one of the most neatly packaged I’ve encountered, with an extensive chef bio, images of the cuisine, and a link for online reservations. Viewing a website can’t reasonably be considered part of the actual meal, but I can say that the site played a major role in steering my expectations going into the meal—I was expecting clean flavors, with a cookie cutter menu strengthened by precise technique.
Perhaps this was an inevitable result of viewing the website beforehand, but my first impression of Story was that everything felt suspiciously familiar. The profoundly nondescript interior—white tablecloths, black chairs, and no focal point—reminded me of Blackbird in Chicago but wasn’t distinctive in any way. The setting could have been located anywhere in the country. Based on the sample size of our one dinner, I’m guessing that the restaurant caters to upper-middle class elderly folk, and we were easily decades younger than most of the other patrons. The other diners didn’t seem to be having a bad time, but they didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves very much either. I think a dichotomy is often drawn between fine dining restaurants and neighborhood ones, but Story doesn’t really fit into either—the setting doesn’t offer the visual spectacle of a luxury restaurant, but it also lacked the provinciality of a small-town eatery. As with most other restaurants in Kansas City (or Chicago), there was also an unfortunate clear racial hierarchy amongst the waitstaff, with white servers and Hispanic runners/bussers. In the end, the décor felt “safe” to the point of antiseptic.
Familiarity also manifested through the menu. Story offers 15 appetizers and 7 main dishes, with the starters divided between cold and hot offerings. Like so many restaurants, the menu descriptions emphasized the dominant element (either a protein or pasta) with the accompaniments relegated to subtitles. The menu offered nothing that one couldn’t find on any number of other restaurants, basically consisting of a greatest hits list of contemporary American cuisine, rounded out by ubiquitous nods to ethnic classics like ceviche and empanadas. Because the menu never listed how the proteins were prepared, I asked a number of questions of my server and she ably fielded each of my inquiries, but her monotone verbal delivery failed to really spotlight any of the dishes. The only odd dish was the foie gras, which was seared but served with fruit compote and brioche—the sort of accompaniments one usually finds with a cold preparation. I ordered the morel mushroom risotto and the wreckfish, while my brother played it safe and doubled up on beef, starting with tartare and progressing to braised short ribs.
Bread service included three different varieties, all baked in house. They were tasty but I forgot to snap a photo.
Before this dinner, I looked at photos of the cuisine on Yelp and it looked as though the portions would be small. Therefore, I was shocked by the grand scope of the risotto, easily large enough for a main course. If I were to identify the dominant element of this composition, I would select the egg and the spinach, and I was disappointed not to notice any morels. The mushrooms had been finely diced, a decision that fundamentally compromised the dish. I love morels but this preparation deprived me of the wrinkly mouth feel that I look for in my favorite mushroom. Broadly speaking, I think the aspect of the dish that is privileged in the menu description should constitute the main component of the composition, and so my expectations were not met. That said, if they had simply named the dish “risotto,” I would have been quite satisfied, as the rice was skillfully prepared.
My brother has had more tartare preparations than I could count, and I’m pleased to say he was satisfied with this textbook preparation.
The wreckfish arrived in another large portion. The kitchen served it with morels, gulf shrimp, new potatoes, and roasted turnips. Serving turnips and potatoes together was redundant, but nitpicking aside this was an outstanding dish. The fish was appropriately moist, with the crispy skin supplying textural contrast. For a restaurant with such a blasé décor I was pleasantly surprised by the plating, which stacked the ingredients into a succinct and efficient sculptural design.
The short rib was served with tempura fried onion rings, gnocchi, bacon, and green beans. The presentation was more in-your-face than the fish; this was because tempura frying the onion rings gave them an almost surreal appearance. The onion rings were in excess of what was necessary as the dish already included a long list of accoutrements, but without the exhibitionist touch the appearance would have been entirely forgettable. I don’t tend to like braised meats and so I didn’t try the short ribs, but my brother thoroughly enjoyed them.
There were several interesting desserts and so we each ordered one and added a third to share. I selected the lemon bar, my brother chose the doughnuts, and we shared the German chocolate cake. The lemon bar had the most manicured design of any of the courses we consumed; it looked a bit like a marsh and relied on this motif to compensate for a relatively ordinary list of ingredients. The citrus was evident without overwhelming, and while it wasn’t as tasty as the lemon dessert I recently had at Oakleaf in North Carolina, it was still my favorite of the three desserts.
I’ve been noticing doughnuts on an increasing number of fine dining menus, and my brother and I both enjoy them. We appreciated Story’s version, which is served with caramel tuille and passion fruit syrup. I still preferred the lemon bar since I don’t care for passion fruit and would have enjoyed the caramel more if it wasn’t in hardened form.
Ordering a heavy dessert like German chocolate cake is an odd decision in a restaurant that feels as weightless as Story, but we felt like ending on a chocolate dessert and the preparation was delicious. That said, I still think this dessert is better-suited to a restaurant that doesn’t have such an airy ambience.
I hope that the pictures from this meal have conveyed how well prepared the cuisine at Story is, and I think Chef Thorne-Thomson is the most skilled Kansas Citian when it comes to cooking technique. Portions were appropriate, compositions were well-balanced, and flavors were crisp without overbearing. It was a pleasure to consume such delicious food, and I don’t know whether it’s a blessing or a shame that the chef plays it so safe with regard to menu design and ingredient combinations. On the one hand, I wonder what he could accomplish with a more ambitious menu structure, but one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned since starting this blog is that some restaurants are simply more enjoyable in an a la carte format, and I suspect Story might become sloppy in a tasting format. The restaurant doesn’t take risks but it accomplishes everything it sets out to achieve, with the experience as neatly packaged as the website would lead one to believe.
One of the pitfalls of Kansas City dining is that there doesn’t appear to be a restaurant that offers the complete package and excels in both setting and cuisine. The “zero gravity” feel of the Story dining room limits the impact of the restaurant, and the dining room really does feel as though it is located in a strip mall. The main accomplishment of Story is that it feels “light” without being “lite”—there may be a weightless feel to the space, but the cuisine is so well-prepared that the restaurant still distinguishes itself from the competition.