You can't usually tell a book by its cover, but in the case of one-month-old Story restaurant, in Prairie Village, you might make a pretty accurate snap judgment about the place just by peering inside. The windows tell the story: white, sheer curtains pulled back to reveal tables cloaked in starched linens, set with shiny glassware and a single fresh flower. There's a line of black upholstered banquettes on the west wall of this cool, colorless box, all dramatically lighted, adding to the handsome starkness of the dining room
Chef Carl Thorne-Thomsen and his wife, Susan, have taken a former retail storefront in the Prairie Village Shopping Center and transformed it into a stylish and expensive little bistro. Story follows in the tradition of earlier boutique restaurants in Kansas City that opened with great dazzle and had the average life span of a hot Broadway play (or, in the case of the late Café Allegro, a long-running musical — say, The Lion King).
In the restaurant's first few weeks, the usual suspects came to pronounce judgment: wealthy lawyers and physicians escorting willowy, taut-skinned wives. None of them dressed up for the occasion; Story isn't a formal restaurant, despite its exquisite service, a tasteful wine list (mostly American vintages) and an imaginative menu. I made the mistake of calling the restaurant "elegant" when I described the place to a society matron. She lifted one carefully plucked eyebrow: "Elegant? It's in Prairie Village." She chuckled, as if the restaurant were some boozy roadhouse in the back 40.
If some of the customers at Story seem lifted straight out of an Edith Wharton novel, Carl Thorne-Thomsen (who once was a creative-writing student in Wichita State University's MFA program) finds inspiration from a more varied array of sources. One is clearly his former boss, Michael Smith, under whom Thorne-Thomsen worked at both 40 Sardines and Smith's namesake restaurant. Another is the beauty of nature: The glass panels that are used as dividers in the dining area are screen-printed with photos of birch branches from his grandfather's Wisconsin home.
The plates here are as beautifully composed as a garden: a foie gras terrine, creamy as cake frosting, is positioned on a white plate with a Wassily Kandinsky-like arrangement of roasted beets, sliced almonds, a streak of bacon honey, and a jumble of brioche crostini. And there may be no soup in Kansas City that matches the Zen-like composition of Story's English pea soup. It's a glorious, brothy (not creamy) concoction of vegetable stock (a base of simmered pea pods), chopped green peas, carrots, onion, potatoes and garlic that becomes a sexy jade-green with the addition of a subtle tarragon salsa verde. It's accessorized with two pork meatballs or, for vegetarian diners, two fried rice arancini balls.
Those arancini balls aren't listed on the menu, which at first glance is a vegetarian-unfriendly list. There are no meatless entrées here, though the kitchen staff will make something if you call in advance. My friend Bonnie made the call before we dined at Story — she gave no names or limitations — and we were served a satisfying bowl of meaty porcini mushrooms sauteed with gnocchi dumplings and various chopped vegetables. It was visually bland but very tasty.
The servers also suggest creating a full vegetarian meal by ordering double portions of the two meatless starters: a divine risotto primavera with spinach and pecorino cheese (and asparagus, on the night I tasted it) or pillows of ravioli stuffed with a house-made white cheese, parsley and morels.
The latter dish was disturbingly salty; I could finish just one of the pasta pillows before pushing the plate away. But it was the only oversalted dish that night from a chef who doesn't permit salt shakers on his tables (the servers will bring them on request) and serves his bread with a square of soft, unsalted butter sprinkled with a pinch of gray sea salt, for effect more than taste.