“It was easier for me to open a place in Paris than in Sydney or Melbourne,” says chef James Henry nonchalantly of his new restaurant, Bones, in Paris’s 11th arrondissement. It’s a jarring statement that sounds almost absurd and a little like hubris — for how can a young Australian chef with a small (admittedly, growing) reputation speak so casually about opening a restaurant in the citadel of gastronomy? Henry is, in fact, soft-spoken, thoughtful, relentlessly humble and referring only to his own ‘right place, right time’ trajectory — but whether intended or not, his comment alludes to a shift in the Parisian food scene.
For a time, dining in the City of Light had lost its sparkle. The ‘grand’ restaurants continued to jump through the hoops of an ever more out-of-touch, out-of-reach system of merit while the ubiquitous corner bistros contorted themselves to the tastes of tourism. What was lacking in Paris was what was happening everywhere else: the growth of a young, original and increasingly democratic dining culture where the purity of what was on the plate trumped the trappings. That has changed, with a cast of young chefs like Henry redefining the Parisian bistro and ushering in another important evolution for the culinary capital.
Unlike generations of chefs before him, Henry never had Paris particularly in his sights. Canberra-born, Brisbane-raised Henry had planned to cook and surf for a year in France after finishing up at Andrew McConnell’s Cumulus Inc in Melbourne. Fate intervened, as it so often does, and he found himself in Paris, working on the line at American Daniel Rose’s high-end restaurant Spring.
That experience proved an entry point into the city and its notoriously hostile kitchens. From Spring, Henry was invited to cook temporarily at the newly opened Au Passage in the 11th arrondissement. It was there, serving inexpensive, inventive shared dishes created with quality ingredients, that his style began to emerge. He flirted with returning to Australia but with an enthusiastic response from the city’s powerful food cognoscenti and a steadily growing following, logic dictated that he should open his own place. It is not uncommon for foreigners to lead kitchens in Paris (often quasi-anonymously); it is unusual for them to open places of their own, and an extraordinary feat for a 30-year-old Australian (challenges of language and bureaucracy aside) to open his very first restaurant there.
Henry opened Bones in January; this somewhat macabre name not only has a general aura of hipness and demands attention (it’s in English, quelle horreur!) but it also reflects Henry’s approach. Everything about the restaurant, from the menu to the spare ␣t-out, is “pared back, with no unnecessary flourishes”. Henry clearly believes that the old architectural adage of ‘good bones’ similarly applies to food. Like many of the reinvented bistros around the 11th, Bones combines a commitment to sourcing produce from the best farms, fishermen and foragers in France with precise and inventive cooking that allows the quality of the raw materials to reveal themselves.
Every night, the small crew offers up a prix-fixe four-course menu for 40 euros (around AU$50) that changes according to what produce is best at that moment. In the few months since Bones opened, it is clear that Henry has particular ␣nesse with seafood. The meal served might begin with an amuse-bouche of smoked eel, carrots, radish and sea urchin, sea bass carpaccio with meyer lemon or hand-dived scallops. From those delicate beginnings, things progress into earthier, meatier territory, peaking with, perhaps, pigeon served with sturdy kale.
At Bones, off-cuts and offal are celebrated and the menu is likely to feature gizzards, duck hearts and other parts of animals too often discarded. This approach is consistent with Henry’s style, utilising everything and maximising flavour, and is also likely to be a nod to the thriftiness necessary for a first-time restaurant owner. This conscientiousness is an aspect that distinguishes him from his peers. Henry is not only the chef, he also creates all of the necessary Parisian dining accompaniments; bread, butter, charcuterie and fresh cheeses are all made by hand.
Bones is housed in the former site of a dumpy Irish pub that was stripped back to nothing but exposed brick, wood and tile and divided into two spaces: a small restaurant seating 25 and a bar that also serves simple appetisers and an intelligent selection of natural wines. The bar menu has already become popular with the hip, food-oriented crowd of the 11th who take their place nightly at the concrete bar to enjoy raw ␣sh and smoked duck breast, oysters and suckling pig sandwiches in the rowdy surrounds.
With its no-frills décor, punk-rock soundtrack and crew of swaggering, tousle-haired and tattooed sta, Bones seems to owe more to Brooklyn than it does to the Bastille. That might seem to some as a slight. It is not. Nor is it merely a cosmetic comparison. Henry personi␣es much of what is good about a movement driven by integrity, simplicity and the democratisation of the dining experience. Bones and its ilk represent a kind of culinary Trojan horse in Paris, junking tired conventions while respecting others, but more broadly helping to evolve Paris from within so that it is the best of the old world and the new.
Explore the 11th arrondissement with David Prior’s pick of restaurants and bars.
If you were to name a figure who popularised this haute-cuisine-at-reasonable- prices movement (or ‘bistronomie’ as it is often labelled), it would be Inaki Aizpitarte. Don’t let the nostalgic tiles and wood panelling of the 1930s-style bistro fool you; they are producing directional food, which makes it a destination for chefs. 129 Avenue Parmentier, (+33) 1 43 57 45 95; lechateaubriand.net.
In late 2010, Aizpitarte collaborated with architect Rem Koolhaas to create this wonderfully shiny natural-wine bar directly next door to Le Chateaubriand. 131 Avenue Parmentier, (+33) 1 55 28 78 88; restaurantledauphin.net.
Chef Giovanni Passerini’s Med-Nordic-influenced plates are a favourite amongst his peers. 46 Rue Trousseau, (+33) 1 48 06 95 85; rino-restaurant.com.
Beautiful food, gorgeous room, friendly waiters. Chef Bertrand Grebaut and his partner Theo Pourriat deserve the further international accolades I suspect are headed their way. 80 Rue de Charonne, (+33) 1 43 67 38 29; septime-charonne.fr.
Septime La Cave
An ex-shoe repair store has been recently transformed into the fun little wine bar brother of the elegant Septime. Go any time of the day (and most of the night) for excellent wine and simple small plates. 3 Rue Basfroi, (+33) 1 43 67 14 87.
Aux Deux Amis
The exterior might not look like much but come here for a great wine selection, pan-European tapas and the sexy crowd. 45 Rue Oberkampf, (+33) 1 58 30 38 13.
Bistrot Paul Bert
We aren’t talking innovation here and there are plenty of tourists but none of that matters, as this is the kind of classic bistro you wish all the classic bistros would be. 18 Rue Paul Bert, (+33) 1 43 72 24 01.
Le 6 Paul Bert
The owners of Bistrot Paul Bert have recently opened this more innovative new spot down the street to an extremely warm reception from the food press and diners alike. 6 Rue Paul Bert, (+33) 1 43 79 14 32.
READ… To keep up to date with the ever-evolving scene in Paris, it is always a good idea to check in with Alex Lobrano, contributor to the New York Times and author of the book Hungry for Paris. He writes with authority and knows the culinary comings and goings. Visit alexanderlobrano.com.
© Vogue Living May/June 2013