Last summer I had the insane good luck of going somewhere I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d see in this lifetime: Tasmania, the stunningly beautiful island which looks like a piece of Australia that snapped off and floated 150 miles south. Flying down to Hobart, Tasmania’s largest city, from Sydney to meet my friends Peter and Mike for a week’s exploration of this heart-breakingly gorgeous place, I sat next to a chatty lady who poured a tiny bottle of gin into her orange juice and told me she’d moved to the island from Melbourne a year earlier for ‘private reasons.’ And when I didn’t touch that bait, she changed course and went on and on about the island’s wonderful food and wine. I had, to be sure, heard friends in Sydney rave about Luke Burgess at Les Garagistes, but nothing prepared for me for the unselfconscious and sinewy genuis of the head-to-tail farm-to-table ethos of brilliant little restaurants like Ethos or the wonderful Pigeon Hole Cafe, which served me one of the best caffe macchiato I’ve ever had. To wit, the best young Australian chefs not only source as carefully and locally as possible, they grow and make as much of what they serve as they possibly can, and its the pervasive seriousness of Tassie’s artisinal food culture that ultimately makes the island such a superb place to eat.
Curiously enough, I found myself replaying these summer meals as I walked through the snow near Place Leon Blum in the 11th arrondissement the other night on my way to Australian born chef James Henry’s new restaurant Bones. Following my trip down under, I had a keener understanding of exactly why I’d liked Henry’s cooking at Au Passage, where I’d first come across him after he’d moved on from a stint at Spring, so much–he’s a quintessentially Australian chef in terms of his relationship with the produce he uses and his cooking and hospitality style, which is warm, direct, and completely unpretentious.
Settled in over funky good bottle of La Peur du Rouge, an unsulphured natural white wine from Domaine Le Temps des Cerises in the Languedoc, a lot of familiar food-and-wine faces popped from one of the hippest crowds in Paris these days, and yet there was nothing about this massively popular place that suggested it was a scene or would become a scene. Oddly, but sort of wonderfully, it’s almost as though Henry built-in some sort of circuit breakers which will put off the poseurs who charge after every hip new address in the weekly style supplements.
For one thing, the lighting, such as it is, is harsh, with two old factory lights casting everyone in sort of a cold metalic rail-siding-in-the suburbs of Birmingham light. And then there’s the fact that the young staff here are just plain nice. In fact it’s pretty clear they’re all working here for the same reasons that are pulling customers through the door–they’re seriously committed to Henry’s sincere hearty locavore cooking and natural wines and they’re hoping to have a good time. Or in other words, there’s zero attitude here, which gives this place a laidback, democratic quick-with-a-smile vibe that has a lot more in common with Hobart than Paris (to say nothing of Brooklyn, and can we please say nothing about Brooklyn and Paris in the same sentence again for at least a decade? Thank you!).
So in Parisian terms, this place is actually sort of eccentric. Sure, they’re a couple of other local restaurant people who are deeply into coining a new idiom for casual good-times good eating in Paris–Pierre Jancou, Charles Compagnon, and Samuel Urbain notably among them, but without giving it too much thought, Henry is really pushing the boat out even further, since Bones may be many things, but it’s not a French restaurant per se. And that’s one of the reasons that it’s so interesting, so irresistible as a totem of Paris still teething its way into the 21st century.
James’s food is very nice, too. For all of the forearm tatoos, dude strut and punk-rock sound-track (fun!), Henry is a damned serious eye-on-the-ball chef, which is why his constantly evolving prix-fixe menu is a challenge he lives up to.
I really liked this flirty little hors d’oeuvre of shaved celery bulb with smoked trout and trout eggs, was happy to taste his griddled squid with baby onions and squid’s ink again (a version of same was on the menu at Au Passage), and his yellow pollack (lieu jaune, in French) with candy-cane carrots from potager princess Annie Bertin was very good eating, too, as part of his 40 Euro prix-fixe menu. The dish that really bore Henry’s signature, however, was the pigeon with kale–a big crinkly leaf of this still little-known in the Old World vegetable that was a sight for sore eye, and salsify with a punch-you-in-the-nose-mate sauce of blood, bird juice and gizzards; I loved it.
In fact I think Henry really likes giving his clients the bird, as it were, and when we had a chat, he told me that once he knows his following here better, he’d love to serve a lot more offal and other bits and pieces that might rough up a young French crowd that’s been slowly sucuumbing to one of the most heinous of all American vices–chicken breasts. The only reason I learned to eat–and love, snouts and feet and innards of all sorts is that I moved to France, so the idea that a younger French generation is becoming disaffected with barnyard eating is an honest heart-ache for me.
Since my date was flu-ish we skipped the cheese course from the Auvergne, and side-swiped dessert instead. A composition of almonds, coffe and lemon, it was just fine, but nothing memorable–I’ve never asked him, but I just don’t feel Henry to be someone who cares very much about the sweet end of a meal. Instead he’s all about the energy and agitation of getting the feed started and the almost literal blood-and-guts of making sure you’re well fed. So despite the fact that his cooking isn’t very precise and lacks the cool-operator suave of Louis-Philippe Riel at Le 6 Paul Bert, this place matters most as the launch pad for a young man who is quite certainly fated to become a very successful and well-known chef, whether this future unfolds in Paris or elsewhere. It’s also just a big sweet gulp of fresh air for anyone who wants Paris to ignore the 3 Bs–Berlin, Barcelona and Brooklyn, and coin its own idea of a grandly Gallic good time at the beginning of this new century as surely as it did the last one.
43 rue Godefroy Cavaignac, 11th, Tel. 09-80-75-32-08. Metro: Charonne or Voltaire. Open Tuesday-Saturday for dinner, bar up front is open from 7pm-1am. Prix-fixe dinner 40 Euros for four course, 47 Euros with cheese. www.bonesparis.com