With bread on the brain, I find a dated eGullet.com bread-service thread, wherein members mock the pretense of bread service in fine dining. They refer to it as a “rigmarole” of pretentious questionnaires and underhandedly mention a fictitious entity known as the “bread sommelier.” Members tell of the famed butter trolley at Thierry Marx’s Michelin-starred French restaurant, where servers perform elaborate table-side butter service that involves dampened muslin cloth, table knives and verbose descriptions of the exotic spread of spreads.
“The future is BYO Bread,” a Texas member writes. “My pantry at the local steakhouse where I conduct my business dinners is stocked with a ’97 pumpernickel from Dresden, and I’ve recently added a fresh loaf of brioche from Bourgogne as a dessert bread.”
What really raises the hackles of other members is table practice. “Above all [butter] should be sliced and deposited on the broken off section of bread, rather than spread. Though in general, the traditional French way, no butter at all, is better.”
The tradition of bread service, and by this I mean bread presented as an ostensible precursor to a meal, is rife with intrigue and variations. It may seem odd—considering how opinionated people are about bread and how integral bread is to meals all over the world—that the bread served in restaurants seems so often to be an afterthought.
The late writer Laurie Colwin wrote that things at room temperature taste like their true selves. My preference is for room temperature bread and butter just slightly chilled but still easily spreadable. There is no disputing that warmed bread can conceal poor quality and, perhaps, that is part of the appeal—for restaurants, anyway.
As John Vollertsen (aka Chef Johnny Vee) writes, warm bread is so often “used as a ploy to re-warm stale bread.” Also, warming drawers have a tendency to dry out bread.
Chef Brian Knox, who serves his own fresh-baked bread at room temperature in the dining room of Aqua Santa (451 W. Alameda St., 505-982-6297), says, “I’m not of the school that believes that warm bread necessarily means stale bread.” He adds, “In fact, any sliceable table bread, not including a classic French baguette, needs a certain amount of time to sit and rest. Like steak, its essence and moisture will escape if you cut into it too soon.”
As a teen, I never tired of eating cold slabs of tangy Normandy butter dispersed with crunchy flakes of sea salt set on thick slices of nutty warm bread, which still steamed from the heat of the oven. Afterwards, I’d lie clutching my belly in pain. Those were the days! So, why does warm freshly-baked bread cause tummy aches? Because bread continues to cook for up to an hour after it’s removed from the oven, eating hot bread while it’s still “cooking” can make you gassy. Warm bread also fills you up faster, which causes you to order less food—not so great for a restaurant.
Santa Fe’s Sage Bakehouse (535-C Cerrillos Road, 505-820-7243) is the city’s largest local bread supplier, with 22 restaurants that depend on its production. The question is, why aren’t more local establishments motivated to make their own bread? The altitude argument falls flat; many restaurants that serve desserts made in house order out for bread. The Compound (653 Canyon Road, 505-982-4353) produces its own focaccia to serve alongside crisp lavash for lunch, then serves slices of Sage bread with dinner because it’s cost and space effective.
Why make your own bread?
“Why wouldn’t you?” Knox asks. “Bread is fundamental.”
Can man live on bread alone? Knox certainly thinks so. “One could actually build a restaurant around bread—bread and salad. But, because restaurants don’t typically charge for it, it’s often an afterthought. I see it as an introduction to what is to follow and an expression of concern for the most elemental aspects of dining.”
So what sort of bread service do people expect when they dine? Food writer Andrea Lin’s dream delivery is simple: “[An] ideal bread basket is one slice per person, room temperature, of restaurant-appropriate loaf.”
Creative powerhouse Chef Rob Connoley’s palate requires more to entertain him. He calls focaccia “a cop-out” and corn bread “an excuse to eat cake with dinner.” He writes, “Each meal deserves a different bread. Parker House rolls are only good for holidays or if I’m eating KFC (which is once every three years). Brioche is dead on arrival unless it’s just out of the oven—which it never is. My fantasy bread service would be artisanal breads made with freshly ground grains from around the world, with butter to match from the same regions.”
As for me, I’m with cookbook writer and Slow Food doyenne Deborah Madison on this one: “Choose one thing and do it well.”
What I love now: The Poilâne-style loaf from Le Zodiac Café, Salon de Thé and Bakery (311 Old Santa Fe Trail, 505-984-8500) with Pamplie, a delicious artisanal European-style butter from the Charentes with fleur de sel from Ile de Re in the Camargues region of France, available from Whole Foods (753 Cerrillos Road, 505-992-1700).