The first time I set foot inside Bones, I was drunk. I went there to meet a friend, eat some noodles and sober up before driving home. Nancy had beaten me there by a good twenty minutes, found a couple of seats at the bar, gotten a drink for herself and a tall water for me. Politely, she'd managed to hold off on ordering food until I arrived — stepping in out of the cold into the lovely warmth and steam of Frank Bonanno's tiny space at Seventh and Grant. We meant only to have a quick little snack.
701 Grant Street
Hours: lunch Monday-Friday, dinner nightly
Steamed buns $9
Bone marrow $10
Two hours later, we'd eaten almost everything on the menu. And we would have happily kept eating except for the very real fear that, like Mr. Creosote, if we had just one more bite of anything, we might pop.
Bonanno had first told me he was opening a new restaurant, "a noodle bar," back in October. He'd talked about the space (the ex-Sparrow Cafe, gone dark when Sparrow left the neighborhood) and how, since he'd put his office on the second floor of this building sandwiched between Mizuna and Luca d'Italia, he'd been trying to buy the spot forever. He'd talked about industry nights and patio season, about sourcing noodles (because he was smart enough not to try to make them himself) and, of course, about David Chang's Momofuku restaurants in New York — at that moment, some of the hottest, most talked-about joints in the country following a killer piece in the New Yorker. And he'd talked about losing money: "Why would I want to follow one huge, successful restaurant [Osteria Marco] with another? Instead, I'm gonna open a small, fun one that's gonna lose money every night."
Bonanno does that a lot — loses money on purpose. Back in the day, he'd serve foie gras at a loss at Mizuna just because he wanted to give customers a decent portion without charging forty bucks. At Luca, the loss leader was black cod, a hit he was willing to take in order to serve a nice piece of fish below market, knowing he'd make it up again on the apps, at the bar, somewhere. Because Bonanno is a man who knows how to make money (when he's working on his own, at least, without the interference of partners outside his tight circle of Praetorians), he's a man who's never worried about losing it. Work hard, do good work, never doubt, never fail, and it all comes back in the end.
Mostly, though, Bonanno had talked about food, and about how the food at his noodle bar would work. First, it wasn't going to be an Asian restaurant. It wouldn't have an Asian name (Bones is a nickname of Frank's from back in the old neighborhood) and it wouldn't have an Asian menu. Not really. It would have a menu with Asian things on it — Chinese and Japanese and Thai and Vietnamese — but it would also have French things. Mediterranean things and Spanish things. Inarguably American things. It would be a menu sans definition, which meant a playground where Bonanno and his crew could cook whatever they felt like cooking for customers who'd appreciate that sort of freedom — namely, other cooks. Roasted bone marrow as an app? Yeah, baby. Crab cakes and shumai. Fried black cod (again) and escargot done in different ways. Chinese char siu bao made with roasted suckling pig. Jesus, I was dying just sitting at my desk and listening to him talk.
So was every chef and line cook in town, along with the hard-core eaters who would gladly step on each other's necks to get through the door of a place serving suckling-pig steamed buns and bone marrow. Surprisingly, Bonanno got the doors open early, at the end of December — and then he surprised everyone again by taking up post behind the counter and cooking straight through the first month himself. Those steamed buns? Those were Bonanno's steamed buns, served from his hand. The ba mee noodle bowl came from his head, from his line, from his kitchen, to your table.
And this, of course, nearly killed me.
I've met Bonanno a couple of times. Never deliberately; I've never sat down for a beer with the guy or anything. But over the past half-dozen years, we've occasionally crossed paths at events and such, and if pressed, the guy could probably pick me out of a crowd. Picking me out at a counter from just a couple of feet away would be a lot easier. I didn't want Bonanno to know the first time I went to Bones. More than that, I didn't want to eat his noodles or buns — even though I might have been the only one in the city who didn't. I wanted Bones's buns and Bones's noodles and Bones's best work, but nothing more than that. I wanted what everyone else was going to be getting, which meant I had to wait.
And then another month, when I'd walk up to the door, spot Bonanno making an unscheduled appearance at Bones, and veer off to another spot in the neighborhood. Through all this, I was getting messages from Bonanno. Taunting me. He'd text me — "Haven't seen you at Bones yet" — and I'd be sitting at my desk, drooling over the menu like it was porn, listening to friends and friends-of-friends raving about the tempura black cod and marrow and udon.
Then my day came. I'd already been out for a working lunch, out for drinks, then out for more drinks. Stopping in at the office, I got word that the James Beard Foundation had announced its semi-finalists for the restaurant and chef awards, and that Bonanno was on the list. The announcement had come that day; I knew there was no way in hell he'd be at Bones that night. He'd be out celebrating or something, making it a light night, maybe only dropping in at three of his four restaurants, whatever. I had my window. And since I knew I'd better wait a bit before trying to thread my way home through the cops and traffic anyway, I figured I'd sober up over some noodles. Just a quick snack. I called Nancy.
Two hours later, we staggered out of Bones after having eaten nearly everything the crew could throw at us. And it had all been amazing. We'd eaten pillowy, perfectly textured steamed buns folded like marshmallow tacos around a filling of either roasted suckling pig or delicious pork belly, both varieties topped with nothing more than a touch of hoisin glaze, a delicate fall of green onion. We'd eaten marrow, scraping it out of the hollows of big beef bones with special marrow spoons and spreading it on toasted bread, scouring the big knots of bone clean and then kinda wanting to chew them like dogs. We'd had the cod, tempura-fried, and dumplings with coconut-milk sauce that were a little stiff, a little chewy. But these were followed by noodles so good it was like they were spiked with a soupçon of sodium pentothal, enough to make you forget everything bad that had ever happened in your entire life and focus you fully on the beauty of this one, pure moment.
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I've been to Bones three times now. On each visit, someone in my party has had the lobster ramen with edamame and miso broth. Their descriptions of that broth have been priceless. Nancy loudly informed me (and everyone else sitting in the small, twenty-seat dining room) that she wanted to go home and bathe in the broth, it was so good. Joel wanted to fill a camel pack with it so he could walk around all day taking sips of the broth, knowing full well that on a hot day it would probably kill him and being completely okay with that. The broth is actually less a broth than a perfectly mounted sauce, pale gold, poured from a decanter over the ramen noodles and poached lobster and edamame already in the bowl. It's silky and smooth and rich as Croesus, with a depth of flavor that makes me want to dive straight in and never come up. Bonanno is a whiz with lobster no matter what he's doing with it, so the lobster in the ramen bowl (big chunks of tail and claw meat) is always immaculately poached and lovely. The edamame adds a nice textural counterpoint, and the noodles (slightly undercooked once, perfect twice) are excellent. But the broth is what everyone remembers. That broth is one of the best things I've ever tasted.
Amazingly, the udon with roasted, shredded pork and a single poached egg bleeding yolk into the broth is almost as good. And while the cold soba with monster prawns and peanuts and vinegar-sharp dressing one night, with lamb and curry and almonds another, isn't in quite the same league, it's still the best buckwheat noodles I've had anywhere in this city.
So while Bonanno deliberately set out not to create a profitable restaurant, not to create an Asian restaurant, not to create anything but a fun little neighborhood noodle joint that might please a bunch of pleasure-seeking cooks and chefs and a few of the more adventurous gastronauts in the city — a restaurant that would be fun for him and those like him — what he actually created is a wildly successful Asian-American restaurant that's fun for just about everyone who steps through the door.
The man who was already running three of the best restaurants in the city now runs a fourth. But as I waddled back out into the cold after that first, best meal at Bones, drunk now only on food, all I knew was that I was lucky to have finally gotten to taste it for myself.