Bread is now a rising star

More restaurants have stopped outsourcing break-making and are coming up with their own.
More restaurants have stopped outsourcing break-making and are coming up with their own.PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

From $27 loaves to five-volume masterworks, one of the world's most basic foods is hitting new highs

NEW YORK • At the fine-dining restaurant L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, where the 16-course tasting menu goes for US$425 (S$570), an unlikely product is coveted by high-rollers: bread.

"All the billionaires who come to play request bread for their private jets on the way home," says Robuchon, who has over his career amassed 31 Michelin stars for dishes that go far beyond the bakery.

In autumn, he brought those loaves to New York, when he and his head baker of 20 years, Tetsuya Yamaguchi, opened a L'Atelier in Chelsea. Robuchon thinks this might be the best bread in his empire. "The water in New York City is the best," the chef says.

Among the selections in the basket on tables are mini-baguettes, cheese bread and branch-shaped epi loaf. Yamaguchi's breads are exquisite, airy and sturdy,  with an unusually intense flavour of fresh wheat.

It is a momentous time for bread in the United States. That is especially satisfying, given the years it spent as a bad word in the diet vocabulary: High carb. High gluten. Unhealthy. 

Sure, plenty of foods are reaching new heights these days: From coffee to  chocolate, the country's level of culinary connoisseurship continues to rise, as does the amount of money people are willing to pay for them. Yet, it is bread that is standing out right now.

For one thing, more chefs have stopped outsourcing bread. One of the big restaurant headlines this year was the reopening of Union Square Cafe.

Along with a new address, the Union Square Hospitality team added a cafe, Daily Provisions, where they sell the loaves called sprezzatura  that they bake  in a 600 ft space. The bread is also served at Union Square where, for the first time, customers routinely ask for seconds.

Their bread has a toasty brown, tantalisingly moist centre, with a contrastingly crisp crust. It is on my shortlist of best breads in New York.

"Freshly milled flour has been on the rise for the last five years. Put raw flour on your tongue and taste it alongside commercial flour and note the difference," says Union Square Cafe chef Carmen Quagliata.

Now, he is figuring out how to make enough bread to sell to restaurants which have asked him to supply it.

There has also been an expansion of notable bakeries across the country. San Francisco-based Tartine announced it is launching a 38,500 sq ft bakery/food hall in Los Angeles that will open in Spring.

The bakery covers more than 8,000 sq ft and includes a grain mill to meet expected demand. Sullivan Street Bakery, which introduced artisanal bread to New York in 1994, discerned a need for its product in Miami and opened a wholesale operation there earlier this year. A retail component is coming and the company plans to expand to other cities.

Also big this year, literally, was the five-volume, 2,642 page Modernist Bread (Cooking Lab) compendium by Microsoft tech guru Nathan Myhrvold and chef Francisco Migoya.

Mr Myhrvold wanted to show just how deep you could go on one of the world's most basic foods.

"We know more about grains now. We have better technology to make great bread than ever before and more and more people are interested in not just eating good bread, but also how to make it," he says.

For those less technical in their bread obsessions, food blogger Alexandra Stafford also published her book, Bread Toast Crumbs (Clarkson Potter), based on a wildly popular and simple recipe for peasant bread she posted to her blog, Alexandra's Kitchen, a few years ago.

The book takes that easy, anyone-can-do-it loaf and adds layers of recipes on top of it - for sandwiches, toasts and other creative, bread-based confections. 

One quarter that takes bread especially seriously is Brooklyn, New York.

It is the home of She Wolf Bakery, a place where US$20 loaves fly off the shelves. At Four Horsemen, a funky Williamsburg spot, chef Nick Curtola has gained acclaim for the crusty mini-loaves he serves torn into irregular pieces.

Yet, in my opinion, the best bread in New York is hiding in a beer bar in Brooklyn's Greenpoint.

From a tiny kitchen in the back of Torst, Max Blachman-Gentile turns out phenomenal loaves - from a dark Russian rye to pumpkin porridge made with kabocha squash.

My favourite is the Greenpoint Sour, a loaf true to its name, with an exceptionally tangy, chewy centre marked by good-sized air pockets and a flavourful, charred crust.

It is invariably part of a US$9 bread plate on a menu that also includes beer-friendly hot dogs and burgers.

Chef Blachman-Gentile credits the general switch from white flour to grains (sourcing his from small, Northeast farms) and  from commercial, supermarket yeast to natural leavening from wild yeast mixed with flour and water.

I recommend a bread crawl and urge that you make your last stop here.

The Greenpoint Sour is excellent with Evil Twin's Limits Of My Language Are The Limits Of My World Indian pale ale.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2017, with the headline 'Bread is now a rising star'. Print Edition | Subscribe