701 Grant St., 303-860-2929, bonesdenver.com
The Draw Steaming—and affordable—bowls of hot noodles served with unexpected gourmet touches; a hip-casual vibe; stellar, there-when-you-need-it service.
The Drawback If you don’t plan ahead, tables can be tough to come by in the small space.
Don’t Miss Steamed buns with suckling pig; escargot pot stickers, udon noodles with slow-cooked pork shoulder; ramen noodles with poached lobster.
Price $$ (average entrée price $13)
I know. It’s January. You’ve made all sorts of promises to eat healthier this year, to cook more at home, to finally make friends with kale or açai berries or whatever the latest antioxidant fountain of youth might be.
You know what’s good for you, especially in January, especially in Denver? Noodles. Wide, steaming bowls of soul-warming, belly-filling udon or ramen or egg noodles. Noodles swimming in fragrant hot broth, enticing you with the smell of ginger or soy or lemongrass. Noodles that can chase away a cold, or usher in a more beatific mood after a grueling day. Noodles, in short, like those restaurateur Frank Bonanno is serving at Bones.
Bonanno, 44, whose ever-expanding restaurant footprint includes the established successes Mizuna, Luca D’Italia, and Osteria Marco; the newly launched Lou’s Food Bar; and cocktail bar Green Russell, not only has impressive range as a chef, but he’s also a prescient, market-smart entrepreneur. He opened the affordable Bones (the name refers to Bonanno’s nickname as a child), in December 2008 in the midst of a down economy. Several months later, Bon Appétit named Bones one of a handful of trendsetting modern noodle bars across the country. Whoever the patron saint of restaurants may be, Bonanno is clearly on good terms with him…or her.
Bones is located in a tiny corner space between Luca and Mizuna in the Governors Park neighborhood. With an open kitchen, street-facing windows that steam over on frosty nights, and fewer than 30 seats, including several at a long counter, Bones reminds me of the inviting, wedged-in Asian joints I used to frequent in San Francisco. But unlike those spots, many of which were just a notch above street food, Bones nudges noodles into a new dining category. Think of it as street food that got lucky in an arranged marriage with haute gastronomy.
Yes, that’s earthy escargot and herb butter you’re tasting in the pot sticker, a dish nicely offset by a zippy ginger, garlic, and chile sauce. Yes, that’s plump and succulent lobster in the giant bowl of ramen noodles and miso broth. Yes, that’s roasted bone marrow on the appetizers menu—four salted bones brimming with the creamy delicacy and served with a sweet fig mostarda and grilled semolina bread.
Despite these uptown touches, Bones is a casual neighborhood place, the kind where you meet friends, forget about what you’re wearing, and turn your attention to twirling and slurping and spotting the paper menu with flying spheres of broth.
Giant round noodle bowls may form the centerpiece of Bonanno’s menu, but don’t skip the starters. The warm steamed buns, served open—like a pork-bun taco—with a mound of succulent pork belly or suckling pig, is an addictive dish you’ll be thinking about days later. The aromatic shishito peppers, flash-fried and served warm with sea salt and Korean pepper, are a culinary experiment in intermittent rewards—some are sweet, some are spicy, and you won’t know which until you take a bite. Then there are the aforementioned escargot pot stickers and roasted bone marrow, dishes worthy of ordering again and again.
The deconstructed, jumbo lump crab wontons aren’t quite as successful. Creatively speaking, the dish is impressive. Instead of hiding all the ingredients inside a wonton wrapper, Bonanno’s dish looks like the exploded view of a mechanical wonton drawing: a stack of crisps, a smear of cream cheese, a mound of crab, and a ring of sweet-and-sour sauce. Unfortunately, the soft richness of the crab collides with the rich softness of the cream cheese to create a dish where the flavors and textures compete more than complement each other. But this is a rare misstep on a menu that tends to get it right.
Which brings me back to the noodle bowls. There are five on the menu, and, having worked my way through all of them, I’d be hard-pressed to single out a favorite. Close to the top would be the thick udon noodles served with juicy hunks of slow-roasted pork and bitter greens, all swimming inside a luscious broth redolent of soy, ginger, shallots, and harissa. Or maybe it would be the lobster ramen, thanks to its buttery French influence. In the dish, thin noodles and lobster chunks are coated with beurre blanc, tossed with shelled edamame, then topped off with a lobster-miso broth poured tableside. The savory miso plays well with the rich lobster to create a balanced dish that has become a Bones crowd favorite. Another surprising winner: the cold soba noodles served with tuna and hamachi sashimi. I admit, I was wary of the chilled noodles at first. But the dish, which comes with strips of fresh avocado and edamame, won me over with its superfresh fish and a light but layered dressing that combines subtle notes of horseradish, soy sauce, red-wine vinegar, and Dijon mustard. Finally, when it comes to mid-winter noodle dishes to keep the flu at bay, my money’s on Bones’ version of chicken noodle soup: egg noodles, tender-roasted Red Bird Farms chicken thighs, and a robust, perspiration-inducing broth.
The noodle menu also includes one vegetarian selection that changes regularly. (In fact, many dishes on the menu change regularly—usually under the direction of executive chef Jared Brandt.) The times I visited, the Ba Mee (Thai egg noodles) were served with roasted squash, mustard greens, and horseradish-mascarpone cream. Perhaps it was the lack of meat stock, and thus, the accompanying flavor-carrying fat, but the broth in this dish lacked richness.
Whichever noodle dish you decide upon, save room for the soft-serve ice cream. Bonanno chose the soft-serve machine because Bones’ kitchen is too small for a full-blown pastry operation—and it works. Mixing a warm, comforting flavor like maple with the smoky taste of bacon and swirling them both inside ice cream makes for a surprising and satisfying conclusion.
When you blend all the elements—servers who are attentive but not annoying, the cozy-casual ambience, a creative but comforting menu—Bones should clearly be on your list of New Year’s resolutions, not competing with it. I mean, you weren’t really going to stick to that list anyway, were you?