25 July 2013

killing it : restaurant bones, 75011

Good or bad, a meal never quite gets replicated, because too many variables are in play. Menus change, weather shifts, vintages turn, staff move on, tables break, bars get worn, hype evaporates - and so on. In Paris, where even basic hospitality remains touchingly uncommodified, restaurants are even more protean than the norm, with the quality of a meal often coming to depend overwhelmingly on whether one's server feels chipper on a given day. A critic's challenge is to arrive at conclusions that apply to more than one experience.

The most challenging subject, therefore, is a restaurant that unceasingly challenges itself. My friend James Henry's new-ish place Bones is one of these. Tucked on a side street off métro Voltaire, the northernmost border of the culinary renaissance currently occurring in the Faidherbe-Charonne area (Septime, Le Six Paul Bert, Rino, etc.), Bones was a barnstorming success from the get-go. I could have raved about the meal I had there back in January, a tour-de-force that crested with an unforgettable dessert of fresh almonds, coffee mousse, goat yogurt sorbet, and lemon. But had I done so I couldn't have reported simultaneously on the subsequent expansion of the bar menu far beyond pulled-pork sandwiches; the restaurant's brief flirtation with à la carte service; and the flourishing of its by-the-glass list, which bests most restaurants in Paris in both breadth and quality.

I also would have missed the steady improvement in Henry's bread-making skills. He has good reason to want his bread to succeed: as Americans are to scrambled eggs, so are the French to bread, a subject on which even the dullest nitwits feel entitled to nitpick. When one sits down to dine at Bones, one is treated to a hat trick of forcefully flavourful house-made products - charcuterie, butter, and the bread - that serve as a kind of clarion, a wake-up call to any guests who, perhaps on the basis of Bones' bare décor, were expecting a simple bistrot meal.

Enough can't be made of the wonderful irony that to create Bones - by any measure, among Paris' most ambitious restaurants - Henry partnered with the owners of Au Passage, his former employers, some very chill guys with whom he'd helped create the latter groundbreaking restaurant almost by accident. They had intended to open a simple wine bar, probably in line with numerous other dirt-simple establishments they own or co-own around town. (L'International, Populettes, L'Orillon, etc.) Henry had intended to leave France. He thought he'd help them set up the kitchen first...

East Paris is richer for having kept Henry. I have little criticism to offer of the kitchen at Bones. What comes out of it is almost uniformly superb: from smoked oysters, to scallops with horseradish, urchin and nuts, to duck with burdock, onions, and heliantis.

Oddly, for a restaurant whose name evokes a charnel house, the majority of a meal at Bones is composed of fish and shellfish. My pescatarian friends from New York had no trouble whatsoever navigating the menu, which at time of writing is either four or five courses (depending on whether one takes cheese), not including amuse-bouche or occasional surprises from the kitchen.

Some Japanese friends I took to Bones on an other occasion seemed slightly less impressed, and it occurred to me that what Henry does to French cuisine is not totally dissimilar to certain delicate Japanese interpretations. (I ought to have taken those friends for steak frites at Bistrot Paul Bert.)

On yet another occasion I met a crowd of vegetarian friends at the bar, where they shared some asparagus and, probably at my behest, too much wine, and then promptly asked me, "So where can we go for dinner after this?"

Suffice it to say that Au Passage remains a better bet for anyone planning to stick to piles of beets and ricotta. Which is a shame for them, because from a social perspective, Bones' free-wheeling bar area offers perhaps the city's best overall vibe outside of Le Mary Celeste.

The natural wine list at Bones is respectable, and wine buyer Pierre Derrien has succeeded in getting admirable allocations of certain sought-after natural producers (Pfifferling, Ganevat, Cornelissen, etc.). Mark-ups are mostly fair for Bones' genre.

Derrien; Rousillon négociant Anne Paillet, chilling after a tasting at Le Six Paul Bert.

Derrien also deserves a lot of credit for actively expanding the list, pushing boundaries, and offering clients more than what they might otherwise demand. I hope he'll forgive me if I still suggest that the list at Bones could use slightly better oversight, more staff training, and faster service.

After all, I say that about every natural wine bistrot in Paris... In this case, I once paid too much for Domaine Belluard's entry-level Savoyard sparkler "Ayse" (which I suspect someone at the restaurant had confused for his superior and more expensive "Mont Blanc" sparkler, also from Ayse).

On two occasions (the second to verify the first) I got served a badly oxidised lot of Domaine Lambert's Chinon Blanc. On another occasion, on what I was told was among the restaurant's slowest nights since opening, the bottles of wine my party ordered at the bar were just plain forgotten, twice.

It's all run of the mill for Paris. But Bones' kitchen isn't, which makes for an uncomfortable disparity, if not so wide a disparity as at, say, Le Chateaubriand, where service is not only inept but somewhat cruel. The team at Bones are good guys.

And Derrien will tell you when something is showing well, as in the case of Frank Cornelissen's "Susucaru 5," a tense, wolfish skin-fermented Etna Rosato my friends and I drank in two seconds flat the other night.

So I forgot to take a picture. Sue me. 

It might have been the heat. Bones, like almost every Paris restaurant, is defiantly un-air-conditioned, something I approve of in theory but detest when sitting through a six-course meal. The right bottle of rosé, at the right temperature, at the right time in a meal is a ray-of-God moment of pure nourishment. With the "Susucaru," I suspect it's also crucial have to have the right vintage at the very perfect time in its existence - in my experience the Sicily-based, Belgian-born winemaker's wines can be vexingly inconsistent and overpriced.

Cornelissen at a tasting at Le 104, circa 2010. 

(For me, the white is a washout, the "Contadino" an occasionally rewarding crap-shoot, whereas the "Magma" is consistent in its inutility. I am almost never in the mood for anything that broody and supergravitational.)

I seem to order Cornelissen wines at Bones quite often, come to think of it. This is from a different occasion. 

When the wines are on, though, they're on. The "Susucaru 5," corresponding to the 2012 vintage, was grippy and mineral, with curranty fruit and vitamin crunch and a majestic, pre-ordained sort of balance, like one of those Andy Goldsworthy rock sculptures, which are no less impressive for being fundamentally fleeting iterations of one great idea.

43 rue Godefroy Gavaignac
75011 PARIS
Métro: Voltaire
Tel: 09 80 75 32 08

Related Links:

Au Passage, 75011

A note on Bones by Sarah Moroz at NYTimes T Magazine.
A terrific review of Bones by Alec Lobrano at HungryForParis. He and I seem to agree on everything except that almond-lemon-coffee dessert.

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