Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Breaking Bread

Sometimes it's really easy to forget about the bread course that gets served at nice restaurants. You don't actually order it, most of the time it's complimentary, and comes to your table quietly. But sometimes it can have an enormous impact. I've been thinking about the best bread I've been served at restaurants, and have had a wide range of bread experiences lately. I thought I'd throw the spotlight on this portion of the meal, to give kudos to those restaurants that take some extra care and offer something special. Perhaps I can also encourage some places to put a little more care into what can be a wonderful start to a meal. Also, I'd like to hear about your restaurant bread experiences. It's wonderful how joyful something as simple as bread can be. Spread some happiness with some nice, warm, fresh bread with a bit of real butter, served at a spreadable temperature.

I had the best foccacia in my life recently at a Seattle place called Restaurant Zoe, and the constant flow of this wonderful bread made up a huge part of my overall impression that I received spectacular service that night (along with things like their amazing ability to keep my water glass filled. I was dehydrated that night, and you would have thought I was a beached cetacean with the rate at which I was taking in the water). I think the bread alone makes the place worth going to, but it was an all around great dinner. It looked like they had one server dedicated to just walking around doling out bread out of her basket with her tongs. I was loving the bread, and as soon as I made the foccacia disappear, it was magically and immediately replaced. It was irresistable - light and fluffy with just the right amount of chew, tasty, savoury, and served with nice olive oil and balsamic vinegar. In contrast, I checked out Savory Coast, on Robson Street, a couple of times, during and after Dine Out Vancouver in January, and while they seem to be quite proud that they make their own foccacia in-house, I don't think they really have much reason to be proud of the overly dense, charred, cosmetic sponges they served us. If only I could get them to taste Restaurant Zoe's foccacia. However, Savory Coast does serve their bread with a very nice little hummous.

Another wonderful basket of bread that sticks in my memory is the beautiful assortment of little buns at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts at the mouth of Granville Island. Served with good, old plain butter, the bread there is likely the result of having on staff a very skilled baking instructor, and the luxury of having other reasons for putting so much effort into the bread (namely, the teaching of baking classes, as well as operating a bakery counter just outside of the restaurant).

One big bread disappointment came surprisingly from a highly touted restaurant in town, Chambar. With main dishes ranging in price from $19 - 23, there should be no reason for them to not offer a complimentary bread course. Especially since many customers are ordering the moule frites, which, as the name indicates, comes with fries (a little bitty dish of them compared to the huge vat of mussels), but would be lovely with some bread to sop up the broth. Instead of an automatic bread course, they offer a $2 side dish of bread with smoked paprika butter. The flavoured butter is a nice touch, but come on, just skip the twoonie charge. That $2 they make is hardly worth the cheapo factor that comes from charging it. Even though I know that two bucks is really not much money, it just leaves me feeling like the service is stingy. I don't really mind a charge as much when it is a lower end restaurant, like La Bodega. Their bread was pretty good, and they charge for it.

There are several examples of low budget type restaurants that do serve complimentary bread though. I think Sami's at Oak and Broadway is gone now, but I used to love their flatbread served with two richly coloured sauces - a sweet tamarind, and a spicy sauce. I love the corn tortilla chips and salsa served in Mexican restaurants in general too. Burgoo in Kitsilano has a really tasty corn muffin. The Portugese buns kept coming to us at Senhor Rooster, since we kept using them as vehicles to sample their wonderful sauces. And in the U.S., isn't the only real reason that people love the Olive Garden is the unlimited bread and salad? I have a vague memory of being quite fond of the Keg's bread too. On the middle price range, Fiction and Aurora both went the extra step of presenting flavoured butters to accompany their bread when I visited.

I'm sure I've had very nice bread at places like C, Lumiere, Bishops, The Pear Tree, and Diva, but I don't really recall right now. At Lumiere, I do remember appreciating the prettiness of the square butter plate with it's square of butter sitting perfectly on it. And was it the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts Restaurant who decorated each butter portion with a single elegant sage leaf?

All I'm really saying is that each component of a restaurant meal is one more opportunity to impress with some special detail. A restaurant can either make use of that opportunity or miss the boat. And the possibilities really are endless with bread. Just ask my all-time favourite (food) superhero, Anpanman, from Japan, his baked good colleagues, and his arch enemy, Balkinman, a germ man who plots with his evil henchmen to mold and mildew Anpanman's head.


Angela said...

The bread at Rare was excellent :)

Dumpling_Girl said...

Thanks, Angela! I want to try Rare soon!

SaabKen said...

What a great post, DG. Not something that many people think about I suppose, especially on food blogs where the focus is more on restaurants' main courses and their service. But I guess bread (or some other type of carbohydrate that fills the same purpose) at the beginning of a meal or as crucial accompaniment to saucy/juicy dishes (ie: stews, moules marinere), bread should be provided free of charge "by law", hehe. And pats of butter, where provided, should *never ever ever* be chilled solid.

Burgoo comes to my mind as recent example of free bread that is integral to the meal. I've had good focaccia at Griffin's years ago when they came with a roasted garlic/onion balsamic and olive oil dip. Habibi's had good free bread if I recall. So do most East Indian restaurants (some free, some not) with their requisite rotis, naans and parathas. Even in Chinese (Szechuan/Hunan) restaurants I need to order the steamed or fried rolls to go with spicy dishes.

I digress. Back to breads, yes it is a part of restaurant meals not to be taken lightly, nor how they are served !!

Felicia from sweetgeorgia said...

Mmmm, I have to agree with you on missing the bread with mussels at Chambar... That would be something easy for them to fix, you'd think.

From what I recall, Lumiere/Feenie's get their divine bread from Terra.

Oh! And in addition to the laws of not chilling pats of butter should be the law that bread should be served warm. Yum.

Dumpling_Girl said...

Thanks, Ken and Felicia! I love those deep fried Szechuan rolls that you mentioned, Ken! Oh, just thought of another bread that's great, but a little off topic, as it's an actual dish, rather than a complimentary starter. The Bin 941/942's Navajo fry bread, served with either goat cheese house dried tomato salsa ($8) or kalamata black olive homous ($7). Worth mentioning because it's SO good. But fried breads could be a post on its own.

The Writer said...

Hi DG - I don't know if you ever get over to Victoria, but if you do, visit Pagliacci's downtown. It's legendary for it's incredible bread. It has a perfect velevety perfect texture and big-ass hunky salt pieces on top. To die for.

Dumpling_Girl said...

Hi Claire! I do remember having an excellent meal at Pagliacci's in Victoria years ago (but don't remember at all what I ate). If I get a chance, I'll check it out again! Thanks!