If, like myself, you happened to pass by Skin and Bones while it was under construction, you may have witnessed the staggering amount of blood, sweat and tears that went into just finishing the surface of a very long wooden bar. In between wiping the beads of sweat from his manly brow, an unknown figure gestured with friendly waves from within. You just knew that the folks behind those doors were going to give this place their all.
And they have, offering up more elbow room and seating than three typical area boÃ®tes combined. Now this latest Leslieville haunt may be a bit too roomy and loft-like for some tastes, sacrificing the cozy for the cavernous. But hey, the room, a former garage, fills up pretty quickly so its hockey arena quality is less of an issue. Besides the chilliness is easily remedied by sipping on one of 40 wines by the glass, curated by full-time sommelier Michelle Ratzlaff and consulting sommelier Peter Boyd (Scaramouche), including one from a very under-appreciated Greece.
As intriguing as the wine selection is the carte; it's fresh take on the molecular more Playskool than chemistry lab. Chef Matthew Sullivan is nothing if not innovative. Take his Palmex Farm's foie gras ($11) for instance. The salt-cured opener is obscenely smooth and silky without being too rich. Served with quince cooked in the very expensive L'effet Papillion honeydew, derived from tree sap and created in very few places on earth, it's a rare and decadent culinary moment - and you get to spread it on toasted brioche.
When you run out of that bit of heaven, you'll want to dig into a basket of homemade bread with Maldon salt-topped butter. Even the bread at Skin and Bones fascinates, without a trace of sweetness or butteriness. It's almost like eating bread for the first time. Even an amuse is a labour intensive take on a virgin Caesar, with deep fried squid on a celery root chip with horseradish and tomato. Swoon!
Chef Sullivan is not only to be commended for his generosity using luxe ingredients, but for his bravery. When was the last time you saw crispy chicken tails ($8) on a menu? Commonly referred to as the "pope's nose", this often discarded piece of poultry gets as pampered as a pregnant princess here. Cured for 12 hours, from which springs forth a confit cooked in chicken and pork fat that's pressed and deep fried to order, before being tossed in a burnt grapefruit salt. An extraordinary effort, but chef doesn't stop there. Serving this lily on its own would certainly suffice for most, but Skin (of the grape) and Bones (the meat of the menu) gilds it further, serving it atop a potato salad of fine roasted hash browns tossed in an addictive sauce of reduced cream, buttermilk, lime juice and chilies. Because, ya know, why not.
But it is Sullivan's rethinking of squid that is truly award-worthy. Like a molecular chef, his Rhode Island marinated squid ($14) noodles are a fit of genius, julienned, blanched and marinated in brandade and buttermilk. Served on a wonderfully dark gem lettuce (from Soiled Reputation) with kalamata olives, pork crackling and fried shallot, it's one of the most inventive, well-balanced dishes in recent memory. More dishes like this and you'll be the number one destination restaurant in town. You heard it here first. You're welcome.
An oldie, but goodie, the beef tartare ($13) is a brilliant 70/30 blend of sirloin and heart which gives this classic an added depth and richness. Mixed with shallots, cucumber and a robust sauce of soy, mustard, tabasco and olive oil, it's an unearthly delight that shouldn't be tampered with a sprinkling of grated Monforte Toscano.
Even something as simple as a chicken with wine ($19) is much more than meets the eye. Firstly, it's a roulade where the chicken is butchered off the bone and put back together, then wrapped in its own skin and pan roasted until the skin is crispy. Probably the most timid in flavour thus far, this is a dish meant to satisfy even the most unadventurous eater. But it is also the weakest compared to what we've been served so far. And the rutabaga puree accompaniment is just too darn sweet.
But a joy not to be missed is the celeriac gnocchi ($15). The blend of potato and celery root is so light and airy I'm surprised they don't levitate off the plate; its sauce of confit tomatoes, garlic and chilli hits all the right flavour notes. But another minor problem emerges with a heavy-handed smattering of uni bottarga (used with only sustainable Canadian uni) that makes this dish of perfect pasta pillows way too salty to finish.
Even if there are a few misfires, cleverness is never in short supply. Like in a beef cheek bourguignon ($23). Slow cooked for 9 hours, the meat is appropriately soft and tender. But it's also a tad dry. And did they ladle out the red wine and beef stock with an eye-dropper? Sides are a bit up and down as well: roasted yellow and orange carrots ($6), tops on, are lovingly finished with slightly sweet dried cherries and house made lardo. But I wish we weren't talked into the thrice treated fried potatoes ($10): braised in a potato stock, blanched in a deep fryer, and finally fried to order at 375 degrees, they're hard as hockey pucks and look like pig's feet. Furthermore, its fresh oyster, white wine sauce with a compound butter made from uni and fennel yields an off-putting acrid taste. This $10 would be better spent on another glass of wine.
Desserts are phenomenal. Brioche donuts ($6) are fresh and light and tossed in a burnt white chocolate ganache, finished with dried white chocolate. And a sticky toffee pudding ($6) may just be the "healthiest" of sweets made with fresh beets and figs, even if it is fried in butter and its caramel made with bone marrow. Finished with a chantilly cream, it's absolute perfection.
Owners Daniel Clarke and Harry Wareham (both from Enoteca Sociale, Pizzeria Libretto) have created a food and wine bar for an area that only really does one or the other really well. Skin and Bones puts food on the same pedestal as their fine varietals. When you boil it down it really is just about creating that go-to place whether you're a wine snob, a fussy foodie or just an area resident who wants a neighbourhood night out.