Bare Bones’ chef has a few signature tricks when it comes to barbecue
By Greg Cox
Originally published 5/10/17.
RALEIGH Over the past decade or so, Eschelon Experiences has earned a reputation as one of the area’s most prolific and diverse restaurant groups, with properties covering the spectrum from Mura (Japanese) to The Oxford (British gastropub, now closed).
The common thread linking these ventures was the striking visual drama of their decor. Recent years have seen the group dip its toe in the waters of domestic cuisine with the acquisition of Cameron Bar & Grill and Edwards Mill Bar & Grill.
With the conversion late last year of Zinda (pan-Asian) into Bare Bones (“Burgers, Ribs, Beer,” per the website) in downtown Raleigh, the group takes the full plunge. It’s tempting to say the new restaurant’s name is an apt description of its decor, but that would be a slight exaggeration. TV screens ringing the perimeter of the sprawling dining room, augmented by dart boards, shuffleboard and a pool table in the back, give the place a sports pub vibe.
Apart from an eye-catching communal table made of boards salvaged from the old Zinda bar, the most noteworthy decor element is the collection of souvenir felt pennants on the walls – dozens of them, from sports teams and tourist attractions all over America, from Yellowstone National Park to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Unfortunately, the pennants aren’t the only things that are all over the map. The wait staff, for one, vary widely in terms of warmth and attentiveness, though food is consistently delivered hot to the table. The kitchen is a happier story, by and large, though it too can be hit or miss.
Pulled pork, cooked in a gas-fired smoker over pecan wood (as are all the smoked meats here), gets a qualified thumbs up: juicy and flavorful with a restrained smokiness that would satisfy a native Carolinian, though he might point out that it’s a little over-sauced. Pork ribs are meaty and succulent beneath a caramelized glaze that will have you licking your fingers.
Beef short ribs, offered only on Friday and Saturday nights, will set you back $22.50 a bone. But the meat on that bone is tender and deeply smoky, and the ribs weigh in at an average of a pound-and-a-half each. Hefty all-beef hot link sausages pack just the right spice and are so juicy they spurt when you pierce their snappy casing with a fork. Beef brisket, on the other hand, can be gratifyingly fat-moistened one night, disappointingly dry the next. And smoked free-range chicken is both at the same time, the dark meat moist and the breast dry.
You can always alleviate the dryness with one of chef Taion McElveen’s renditions of regional barbecue sauces: Piedmont Red, Texas Rouge and So-Co Gold, a South Carolina-style mustard-based sauce (the chef is a native of that state) that this North Carolina boy has to admit ain’t half bad.
The chef has a few other signature tricks up his sleeve, among them a playful Southern riff on tostones that replaces the plantains with sweet potatoes. Also under the Shared Plates heading, you’ll find General Tso’s pork belly with broccoli in a Cheerwine-tinged China-meets-Carolina sauce. Another option: burnt ends “Fritos,” a huge nachos-style platter of house-fried corn tortilla strips loaded with crusty outer bits of smoked brisket, gooey Tex-Mex-spiced cheese sauce, lettuce, pico de gallo, candied jalapeños and avocado crema.
Quarter-pound burgers are too thin to be reliably grilled medium-rare, but the high fat content (a house-ground 70/30 blend of brisket, chuck and short rib) makes for a juicy burger nonetheless. They’re well-seasoned, too, and so tasty that – even with tempting topping combinations such as Bear Claw (brie, cherry mostarda and bacon) and The Grizz (gouda, pineapple, Jezebel sauce and sorghum-cured ham) – I’m more than satisfied by the Bare Necessities (lettuce, tomato and onion). OK, maybe I’ll add cheese. American seems a natural choice for this style burger, but cheddar – the closest alternative among the half-dozen options – will do in a pinch.
Alternatives to the restaurant’s top-billed burgers and barbecue are limited but varied and include a handful of sandwiches (hot link, pulled smoked chicken salad, turkey pastrami) and entrees (shrimp and grits, grilled salmon). A meat-and-three fan could happily make a meal of cider-braised greens, baked beans and red bliss potato salad from the selection of sides.
Vegetarian options (vegetable pot pie, a veggie sandwich on ciabatta, and a few salads and sides) are noted on the menu, as are gluten-free dishes – a commendable move for a restaurant with a meat-eating target audience. The menu will inform you, for instance, that the greens are fine for the gluten-intolerant but not, sadly, for vegetarians (ham hock is the culprit).
The bar offerings include a passable selection of wines, an obligatory nod to the craft cocktail movement, and an impressive selection of bourbons. But the main draw is the selection of 24 North Carolina beers on tap (and a similar number in bottles and cans from all over) that account for the “Beer” in Bare Bones’s motto. Get a growler of your favorite to take home if you like.
The logo on the growler – and on the menu, and on servers’ shirts – is the restaurant’s name in the shape of a pennant. Like some of those pennants on the walls, Bare Bones is not a championship team this year, but it has lots of potential.
301-120 Fayetteville St., Raleigh
Cuisine: American regional, barbecue
Atmosphere: sports pub
Recommended: burnt end “Fritos,” General Tso’s pork belly, pork ribs, hot links, burgers
Open:Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sunday.
Reservations:accepted for large parties
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking on street and in nearby garages.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.