Sometime between opening the menu and patiently waiting for the appetizer, a basket may arrive at your dinner table. It might be filled with hot-from-the-oven slabs of sourdough accompanied by chive-flecked butter, or, under more unfortunate circumstances, ho-hum whole-grain rolls that aren't worth their calories. At the apex of the Atkins Diet craze, some restaurants ditched tempting (and costly) bread services altogether. Today, however, chefs are re-embracing the humble carb, lending it the fanfare it so richly deserves.
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Patrons queuing up at white-hot Rose's Luxury, on Washington, D.C.'s Barracks Row, are first rewarded with brioche-like potato rolls smeared with potato skin-whipped butter. And while the pastas at Commerce, Harold Moore's neighborhood joint in New York's West Village, are lovely, it's hard to finish a bowl after gorging — an inevitability — on the bread basket, piled high with petite-sized pretzels and sausage-studded spheres.
At Volvér, Jose Garces's tasting-menu destination inside Philadelphia's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, six or 12 courses are prefaced with a flaky, fresh thyme bread reminiscent of a savory croissant, paired with butter churned from smoked cream. "People go out to eat to indulge and feel pampered, not to count calories," says Garces. "If a restaurant has good bread, you can bet that what will follow will be good, too."
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Walter Manzke agrees. Every morning, baguettes that rival those found in the best boulangeries of Paris are made in the French deck oven of République, his bistro-inspired restaurant in L.A.'s Hancock Park. For a $5 upgrade, diners can dunk a chunk into juicy pan drippings from the wood oven. "I think it's a nice gesture to give something to a customer when they first sit down," he explains. But it's not always easy: "Complimentary breads seems so simple, but it takes a lot of time and resources, and the sourcing of flour is getting more expensive." So he multitasks with the baguettes, which also serve as a vessel for duck liver mousse and peppercorn sauce.
For some chefs, bread is an opportunity to reinforce cultural connections. It's not served gratis, but the disc-like baked potato bing bread Beverly Kim and John Clark make at Parachute, in Chicago's Avondale neighborhood — laced with bacon and scallions and served with sour cream butter — reflects the chefs' Korean-meets-American ethos. Likewise, Victor Albisu puts the spotlight on thick, griddled chapa bread at Del Campo, the South American grill in downtown Washington, D.C., to channel the Argentine countryside. There, it's traditionally a companion to grilled meats and vegetables; here, Albisu's distinct spin on the specialty calls for smoked flake salt and olive oil. "The first bite is incredibly important," he says. "Bread service introduces you to a dining experience, which should be a journey."
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Here's to many more beginning with the words, "Please pass the butter."
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