HEALTHY EATING is getting to be a national obsession. Medical journal pronouncements about the value of fiber and fish oil compete for headlines with Star Wars and the stock market, and even the fast-food chains have discovered salads. But there seems to be a countercurrent, too, judging from the increasing popularity of barbecued rib restaurants. Maybe it's a kind of gustatorial yin and yang: While people are virtuously nibbling on sour creamless baked potatoes, they're still dreaming the carnivore's dream of gnawing on a crustily fatted bone.
If you want to live the dream and splurge on some saturated you-know-what, Bare Bones is as good a place as any to do your sinning. The ribs and side dishes are mainly very good, the portions generous ("Bare Bones" is hardly an apt description), the prices reasonable, the environment attractive, and the young servers quick and efficient.
The dining room is standard restaurant-modern: pale wood with framed posters on the walls, hanging plants, cane chairs, bare polished table tops. It may not be original, but it works. The tables are spaced nicely, good acoustics make the room quiet, and the lighting is soft and friendly.
For starters, there are meaty, remarkably succulent, lightly fried chicken wings in a peppery, faintly vinegary sauce. With eight big wings per platter, this makes a nice nibble for several people. Another good item for sharing is the nacho salad, with a bit of melted cheese (it could use more), jalapen o peppers and sour cream. An order of chicken wings, a nacho salad and a couple of drinks would make a satisfying light meal for two. (Forget the regular salad, tired and with gloppy dressings, as well as the soups. We had chicken noodle that tasted as if it had come from an economy-size can.)
Speaking of light meals, the chili is excellent. Certain chili fanatics will object to the use of tomatoes and ground (versus shredded) beef, but centrists will appreciate this chili's solid virtues: firm kidney beans, plenty of lean, rough-ground beef, bright, lively tomatoes and restraint with the sugar. This is a slightly sweet blend, but it doesn't have the obnoxious candy quality that's so prevalent these days. The crock of baked lima beans, on the other hand, is so overdosed with sweeteners that it tastes like one of those breakfast cereals designed to lure 4-year-olds into a life of sugar addiction.
For reasons unknown to us, onion rings fried in the form of a loaf seem to be de rigueur in rib restaurants. It's hard to overcome the heaviness of a mass of stuck-together fried onions but, given that obstacle, the loaves at Bare Bones are as good as can be expected -- and, as expected, a half loaf will satisfy a small army. And they really know their potatoes here. The baked ones, despite aluminum foil shrouds, have a fresh taste and a beautiful, unsteamy texture, and the french fries -- irregularly cut and with the skins on -- are just as good. Extra-large baked potatoes are also available with tasty minced barbecue toppings -- another idea for a light meal. Good marks for the bread, too: crusty, unfailingly fresh loaves of seeded light rye that are several cuts above what's usually served in barbecue places.
Now for the really serious business: the ribs. The baby back ribs are excellent -- lean, meaty and with the requisite combination of crusty surface and juicy interior. Barbecued chicken (available in combination with baby ribs) is very good, too; the meat nicely soaks up the char-grilled flavor, and even the breast is commendably moist. We've found the St. Louis-style ribs to be bigger and somewhat fattier than the babies, and without their crackly delicacy. The beef back ribs have lots of meat, but they don't seem to absorb the barbecue flavor as well as the pork does. All the barbecued items have the same pleasant but undistinguished sauce -- tart, a bit sweet and somewhat timid with the pepper.
A rib restaurant is the wrong place to order seafood, right? In this case, wrong. The swordfish, although frozen, according to the waiter, was unexpectedly good, a thick, flavorful slab that had been timed well on the charcoal grill so that it was properly firm and reasonably juicy. The big, plump shrimp were nicely done, too, deep-fried in a thick, tender batter reminiscent of good hush puppies. Don't expect tempura and you won't be disappointed. Sirloin steak, on the other hand, which should be more at home in a rib house, was a disappointment, short on flavor and juiciness, and with the oddly mealy texture that seems to characterize so much beef lately.
None of the desserts are made on the premises, but most are worth a try, including a couple of reliable Baskin-Robbins ice cream pies and good, chunky carrot cake with visible evidence of carrots (something of a rarity). But watch out for the key lime pie, memorable only for its grittiness and Day-Glo coloring.
Restaurants like Bare Bones prove that there's still a place in the American heart for a good baby back rib. Since there's also a place for cholesterol, a barbecue binge can engender nearly as much guilt as forgetting to call your mother. Not to worry. You can punish yourself the next day with a celery stick.