Bonfire of the Vanities
By Jeremy Noble
God-fearing people don’t seem to have a good word to say about Bon, the temple designed by the high priest of style, Phillipe Starck; where the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah come to indulge in every imaginable excess. That is much how Bon has been painted in the press. Bon, however, is, in fact, an Italian restaurant decorated in the style of a Catholic church (with some later additions), which will not surprise anybody who has been to Florence.
Michelangelo would have loved it here; what with the massed wrought-iron stands of dripping candles, the massive, extravagantly- carved chairs placed in corners, and the frescoes. About those frescoes; much has been made about the genitalia, but take another look at the Sistine Chapel.
The service starts when the bread (made and blessed on the premises) is offered up to the congregation (city merchants and their mistresses); the bread is divine, especially the olive bread with soft tomatoes; in accordance with church practice, it’s complimentary. The wine is decanted, and the waiter holds out his arm, covered with a white napkin; you might think that you’ve come to take communion (you have). The wine list is wide-ranging; a bottle of Chilean 2003 Sol de Sol, Vina Aquitania will set you back 4,800 roubles.
We are eating in a church; a sacrilege, yes, but that, surely, is the whole point. If we are here to worship, then this is also about sinning and sinners. In Florence in 1497 Savonarola stoked up a “bonfire of the vanities” - ‘dirty’ pictures of the Madonna, gambling tables, books and art, all went up in smoke. Fast-forward to 2006 and Starck has graffiti on the walls in the bathroom; lampshades made of Kalashnikovs. Starck, however, is not in the business of preaching, but of making money; the lampshades are for sale in a downtown furniture shop at 4,200 euro. There is nothing wicked here, only another comment about the cult of materialism. Starck’s own bons mots describe it as a “dark shrine to the Moscow excesses of sex, violence and food.”
Bon, for all its gangster chic, is more bourgeois than Borgia; the food tells you that. In the kitchen is Fabio Testa, from Bologna, a city with a long culinary heritage, which he updates with little or no surprises. There is nothing sinful about the food; it is well presented, albeit a little bland, strangely lacking in salt and pepper. The portions are generous; my fellow worshipper had excellent breast of duck (1,300 roubles) which took up half of the plate. My sea bass (1,400 roubles) was flaky, soft and moist; the accompanying mashed potato (350 roubles) and grilled vegetables (600 roubles) well-cooked; more homely than nouvelle cuisine.
For dessert, there is sorbet (150 roubles a scoop), also made on the premises. The tarte tatin (500 roubles) is made with bananas, rather than with the usual apples; it is served piping hot and comes with ice cream in a basket of burnt sugar. You can describe it simply as one of the pleasures of sinning. Starck would be pleased; a diner who knows that he has sinned.
The food, however, is not the point. In Bon belief is what matters; the belief that you have come to the most fashionable place of worship in town. Bon is for the Believers; Non-Believers have no business going inside, except maybe to light a candle and offer up a prayer for the sins of the world.