What is fair to expect of a neighbourhood restaurant? If a lot (but not all) of the food is very good, the service is caring and the prices are cheap, does it matter that the room feels cold and boomy?
If it’s pretty great in spots but mediocre in others, is that good enough when you’ve got a babysitter at home and it’s your first night out in a month, and you’re paying $130 per couple? Or should we demand that if some neighbourhood places can do cooking, wine, atmosphere and value well – places like Le St-Urbain in Montreal, and Al Di Là in Brooklyn and Enoteca Sociale and Queen Margherita and a dozen-odd others in Toronto – then all neighbourhood restaurants ought to?
I’ve been wrestling with those questions for the last few weeks, since my first visit to Skin + Bones, a new restaurant and wine bar in Leslieville. Skin + Bones is the project of Daniel Clarke, a front-of-house veteran who until last year was a partner at Enoteca Sociale, and Harry Wareham, who was an Enoteca Sociale manager. They’ve hired chef Matthew Sullivan, most recently of Maléna, a now-shuttered seafood place in Yorkville, to run the kitchen.
With the help of Peter Boyd, a well-known city sommelier and wine consultant, Mr. Clarke and Mr. Wareham assembled an excellent 40-selection by-the-glass list, available in budget-friendly three-ounce servings. The staff are well-trained. One night, the kitchen sent out an amuse-bouche of nice little arancini. The servers fold your napkin when you get up from the table. They try hard here.
Mr. Sullivan’s Red Fife pain rustique comes crisp and hot, baked in-house, in a softly charred crust. It tastes the way you imagine bread might have tasted 150 years ago, before the mechanization of craft and flavour. It is some of the best bread in the city right now.
If you like fresh trout, you won’t find many better versions than Mr. Sullivan’s: He just barely sears it, so it stays vivid pink and silky in its centre, and then serves it with sweet and punchy braised kale and a pair of perfect fried clams.
I liked the foie gras with quince jam and little crostinis, and loved the stracciatella and dandelion salad, which was sweet-tart and refreshing – creamy cheese on bitter greens, with grapes and radicchio leaves that had been transformed on a grill, as if by magic, from single-note bitter to bitter-smoky-sweet.
More praise, because it’s warranted, for the Nova Scotia smelt escabeche with lemon, for its mild licorice pop of fennel, for just the right amount of acidity, for the mellow, garlicky pappadum of sorts that crunched against the fish’s softness.
The beef cheek bourguignon with red-wine onions: excellent. The rolled, slow cooked chicken with the pureed rutabagas and wine sauce: also excellent, and only $19, though the chicken portion was gargantuan. (Too much of anything can devolve from glorious to boring – that chicken was Gangnam Style’s life cycle on a plate.)
The sticky toffee pudding was a model of restraint, sticky without the over-sweetness, with Chantilly cream that tasted like cream instead of confection. I liked it. What you’ve just read is a very solid two- to two-and-a-half star review.
It’s the other stuff that I can’t square with Skin + Bones’s better attributes. The main dining room, for instance, which was an auto-parts warehouse in its former life and still feels too much like it, with its big-box scale, its concrete floors and high, exposed ducting. There are few soft surfaces to speak of. There’s little art on the walls, and there are no rugs, or floor lamps – the everyday artifacts that make a place welcoming and cozy, especially in the dead of winter. (The much smaller area up front, on Queen Street, feels more human-scaled and intimate. It would be worthwhile to request a table there.)
Where much of Mr. Sullivan’s cooking feels confident and well-considered, his menu – farmhouse-y, fresh-and-local-ish fare for the most part, with a few fantastic ingredients from Quebec’s Société-Orignal – doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from other on-trend city menus.
And a few too many of Skin + Bones’s dishes fail to accomplish their mission. The beef tartare – a gimme for a professional kitchen, reliant only on good beef and a smart palate for seasoning – didn’t taste all that beefy. The marinated squid cut into curly noodles was a fun idea that tasted bland.
The pork with “octopus salad” and bone-marrow arancini promised big, but under-delivered. The rice was soggy and bloated and I couldn’t taste the marrow. The octopus, shaved into paper-thin rounds and interleaved with radish shavings, got lost in the mix.
The best-sounding dish on the menu, “celeriac gnocchi with uni bottarga, fried tomato preserve, chili and garlic,” was a vastness of brown both times my tablemates ordered it. The uni bottarga – that’s cured, air-dried north coast Quebec sea urchin roe, one of the greatest, most instantly transportive Canadian food products I’ve tasted – couldn’t compete with the jammy fried tomato sauce. Both times my friends ordered it, they took a bite, then looked up, confused, as if they’d somehow been tricked.
(Some early customers complained there was too much bottarga, so Mr. Sullivan said he pulled it back.)
Is Skin + Bones worth going to? If you live nearby and order right, it is, absolutely. Is it worth the repeat visits that turn a restaurant in a neighbourhood into a neighbourhood restaurant? That depends on how you answered the questions at the beginning of this column.
I felt frustrated after my second dinner there. Why couldn’t the place be better? It ought to be, particularly given how hard the staff were trying. But friends of mine who live near the restaurant had a totally different reaction. “For the east side, that was practically worth a Michelin star!” one of them enthused.
They’ll be back for sure.
No stars: Not recommended.
One star: Good, but won’t blow a lot of minds.
Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.
Three stars: Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
Four stars: Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution.