Friday, October 11, 2013

The Bones of Paris

Bones Restaurant and Bar in Paris' 11th arrondisement is spectacular in every way. The chef is a young Australian, James Henry, who worked at Spring then was hired as opening chef at Au Passage, where he showed his magic, quickly becoming one of the hottest chefs in Paris. Last January--a year or so after leaving Au Passage--he moved in to a former Irish pub to open his own restaurant. The opening of Bones was highly anticipated and as expected an instant hit. Getting a reservation needless to say is tough, especially from the States. I persevered and got in days before I arrived in Paris.

I read that the name "Bones" is a reference to the old stone structure of the Irish pub. I could easily imagine the name as affirming Henry's ingredients-obsessed cooking and for his emphasis on homemade. Bones churns its own butter, makes its own sourdough bread from a starter, and cures and smokes meat for its delicious charcuterie. I find this practice artisanal, as well as frugal, which I believe is the key to good coking. Minutes after my order was taken, the first of three amuse-bouches landed on my table. Glistening ribbons of housemade pancetta that looked too beautiful to eat and tasted like a dream. I was told the source of the pork was a farm in southern France.

The front half of the space is occupied by the bar à manger and the back is where the dining area is set. If you can't get into the restaurant, the bar looks like an excellent consolation. Although I didn't check the menu, I imagine the food at the bar to be pretty good, too, and very likely the dinner menu is available for the counter seating. Whatever the case might be, the winning wine list makes it all worthwhile to be in any seat in the house, especially if you love discovering obscure natural wines. But more on wine later.

The restaurant offers only dinner service twice a night: 7pm and10pm. Menu is prix fixe at 47 euros for a four-course, including three surprisingly good amuse-bouches. The optional cheese plate is an extra 8 euros. I was told, though, to come in at 7:15-7:20. When I showed up fashionably at 7:30pm there were a few folks hanging out at the bar, but I was the first one to arrive for dinner. The staff is friendly and engaging, and helped me with all my questions about the dishes and the wines. I was seated where the bar and the restaurant separates, right next to the charcuterie station.

The wine list is more compact than I expected, but filled with many wines that I'm not familiar with. I eyed the by-the-glass selections and ordered Emile Hérédia's 2009 Domaine de Montrieux Coteaux du Vendômois. I've had his Le Verre des Poètes, a pure Pineau d'Aunis from the Loire as this one, but this is from younger vines. Simple and not as impressive as the verre des poètes but it is refreshing and fruity.

The second amuse-bouche was just as amazing, grilled crevette impériale from Charente.

I love offal and I've been eating chicken hearts since I was a kid. The third amuse-bouche, either sauteed or grilled duck heart was a bit unsettling at first. It was so rosy red. I ate it in a couple of bites--delicious, especially washed down by the Pineau d'Aunis.

Bones has really good housemade butter and sourdough bread.

When my first course arrived, I realized what a value Bones is as I've already been eating for a while and still there were three more courses to go. The plate was a bonito sashimi, red onions, and prune in a puddle of light sauce. The combination was hard to imagine in my head but it was tasty in my mouth.

Domaine Alice et Olivier de Moor in Chablis produces at least three different kinds of Aligoté, one of them is the "À Ligoter". It is made from young Aligoté vines and is bottled in its youth in April the following year. Crisp and intense, not just for an Aligoté but especially for a young Aligoté. I love it, like all of de Moor's wines. With the bonito and the skate wing and pork to follow, it was satisfying.

The second course was a rich seafood dish of skate, which I always love but seldom get to enjoy. I never see it on menus of San Francisco Bay Area restaurants. The classic preparation is with brown butter. Henry's version is the best I've ever had.

The fried skate floated on a light crab bisque with champignon mushrooms and red basil leaves drifting around it. This was mindblowingly good. The autumnal colors also looked beautiful. My dish of the night. It was like two great dishes combined. The skate by itself garnished with the champignon and red basil would already be pure pleasure. But the soup d'etrilles was to die for. I mopped up the bowl clean with the bread.

The meat course almost sounded American, as the ingredients were pork shoulder, corn, and snow peas. The echine de cochon is a rarely seen specialty pork cut in the States; it is the blade shoulder from the upper end of the boston butt. As anyone who loves barbecue knows the pork shoulder is very flavorful but chewy, so it is tenderized by slow-cooking. I'm not sure what Henry did. At first I thought it was sous-vide because it looked pale and pink, but my waiter checked with the kitchen and said that, no, it was roasted. The echine was tender with a bit of resistance and the flavor with the corn-based sauce was mild and tasty. In the States one seldom gets to enjoy pork prepared with this purity, as it is usually glazed, smoked, braised in broth, or rubbed with spices.

I skipped the optional cheese course as I was getting full. Before the dessert came a little palate cleanser of red raspberry in shaved ice. It was as simple as figs on a plate. For some reason Bones reminded me of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA.

The purity of ingredients of the dessert of roasted peach, almond and peach sorbet, and fresh mulberries was so Chez Panisse in brilliance.

During dinner I've been chatting with the waiter who is also the restaurant's main wine guy (they don't have a somm or wine director), Pierre Derrien. At the end of the meal Pierre asked if I want another glass and challenged me with a wine he picked out to see if I was going to like it. It was the (2010) Vino Bianco Dinavolino from Denavolo in Emilia-Romagna. He wrote down the blend for me: 25% each Marsanne (I didn't know it was planted in Italy!), Malvasia di Candia Aromatica, Ortrugo, and an old native grape variety. The wine obviously had skin contact (4 days according to information I dug up later). I've never had any wine from this producer before but it was certainly quite a jolt at the end after dessert. It's bone-dry, earthy, pear-skin, and funky flavors were so incongruous to everything I've put it in my mouth so far. It was a step in another direction.

The Dinavolino was a great ending as it left me hanging, like a "to be continued" postscript. When would my next meal at Bones be? And where would the wines and food take me next time?

Bones Restaurant and Bar
43 rue Godefroy Cavignac, 11ème
75011 Paris
Tel +33 09 80753208
Tues-Sat from 7pm
Call 2pm-7pm for dinner reservations, bar is open for walk-in from 7pm

p.s. here's an excellent video on Bones on youtube

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