Why The Revived Bread Course At Today's Top Restaurants Deserves Its Place In The Limelight
Famously hailed as the most gratifying of all essential foods, good bread is hard to beat. It’s at the heart of every culture, from those humble slices of local Pullman loaf in Singapore’s favourite breakfast of kaya and butter on toast to the painstakingly made, naturally fermented sourdough that has come to define the tastes of countless millennials across the globe.
It’s also easy to see why our love affair with good bread remains but a flawed attempt to find the perfect one. Honestly, who’s to say what’s right when you’re in the mood for fluffy Hokkaido bread or even some fresh-out-of-the-tandoor Armenian lavash?
We can, however, affirm that even the quality variety of the once-trivialised dinner roll can have a profound effect on one’s perception of the overall dining experience. It’s the reason why the best restaurants take pride in being able to proffer an eclectic breadbasket selection that sets them apart from the rest.
At modern European establishments, these can range from crusty French baguettes, pillowy brioche and pain au lait, and buttery croissants, to more seasonal offers, such as cornbread and chestnut rolls. At top brass restaurants like Les Amis, for example, breads and pastries are baked twice daily for lunch and dinner—a toasty offering of up to a dozen varieties, no less.
Suffice it to say, the bread course has outgrown its role as mere padding between courses. And while it is then easy to appreciate why the wheeling in of the bread trolley at the likes of Vianney Massot Restaurant never fails to incite a chorus of oohs and aahs, other restaurants do surprisingly well with a singular variety.
Contemporary French restaurant Saint Pierre, for one, offers a house-made sourdough served with three kinds of butter. Others, like Preludio, have embraced the opportunity to feature a style of bread designed to complement its changing transborder cuisine. Inspired by a theme that changes every 12 months or so, last year’s dinner menu didn’t feature a bread course. This year, chef-owner Fernando Arévalo and his team decided to include a delicate yet moreish rye bread. Coated in a honey-bacon glaze, the bright flavours are given a subtle boost of umami with the addition of water from a process of fermenting cremini and portobello mushrooms. The bread is paired nicely with butter infused with the flavours of caramelised red onions.
“I think an essential part of our philosophy is to constantly question our own ideas and grow as we listen to our customers’ feedback and suggestions,” Arévalo admits, noting how they eventually decided on a roll that’s more “comforting”. It also needed to feature a mix of ingredients that reflects the restaurant’s current chapter, which is inspired by the concept of time.
Why just one variety? “In my opinion, it mostly has to do with wastage; bread is a very delicate thing to have in a high-end restaurant and we chose to go with a signature bread that represents our style,” he explains. “We have full control of the baking process to minimise wastage and control the quality. Additionally, we get to create an exclusive product unique to our restaurant.”
Another bread you’d not likely find anywhere else is Cloudstreet’s version of a deceptively simple rye bread, made unforgettable with a coating of sticky molasses glaze flavoured with locally brewed stout and liquorice.
“We were having lunch at a restaurant in Sweden where they served a soda bread in a cast iron pan,” recalled chef-owner Rishi Naleendra, who first made his mark on the competitive local dining with his fine-casual concept Cheek by Jowl (now rebranded as Cheek Bistro). “That’s when I thought, instead of doing a sourdough, it would be nice to do something different,” he points out. Naleendra was confident the idea would work, having found success with a version of cheese bread for Cheek last year.
“I think, especially when you have a tasting menu, it’s nice to have a bread that’s not just there as a filler, but a memorable course on its own,” he stresses. Contrary to tradition, the bread is only served just before the meat course.
(Related: What Michelin Guide Singapore’s Newly-Minted Chefs Think About Our Changing Fine Dining Scene)
Tweaking or elevating a classic recipe is a sure way to create the desired flavour and texture. It’s especially necessary if you’re looking for something specific yet unique to complement an equally complex cuisine style or menu. But if you’re looking to do as little as possible to an already ideal variety of bread, there’s the option to import a truly exceptional time-honoured variety. This is exactly what chef-restaurateur Beppe De Vito decided on when faced with the task of selecting the best bread for Braci.
“Bread is an essential part of the Mediterranean diet for millennia and an important part of the meal,” he stresses. “It might not play the flashiest role at the table, but it is the foundation of every meal; good bread paired with superb olive oil is key to me, as it sets the tone of a meal.” The cuisine he serves at Braci is progressive Italian. It also draws upon primitive cooking methods, utilising the Josper charcoal oven and the shichirin (a small Japanese charcoal grill). So, it would seem the ideal choice to go with a lighter bread, one that’s finished in the oven for a beautiful crusty char.
“We only use the very best bread, the prized Altamura bread that we import from Puglia,” De Vito asserts. “Paired with olive oil from my own olive farm in Italy, the taste is magical.”
To be sure, this is one of the best one can get, a naturally leavened bread made only from durum semolina wheat from Altamura, located in the province of Bari in the Apulia region. It follows an ancient recipe (dating as far back as 37 BC) that’s been passed down through generations of local bakers and is the only bread in Europe to be granted a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, shares Braci’s chef de cuisine Mirko Febbrile. Not only is production and the source of wheat and water used regulated, even the featured yeast and salt must be from the region. What all these translate to on the palate is a delicate, fluffy crumb that boasts a slight sourness at the start, which gives way to a hint of nuttiness. Divine as it already sounds, it is its precise three-millimetre crust that elevates the experience.
(Related: Why Third-Wave Breads Matter)
It’s a luxury not to be taken lightly. And while some can necessitate such an indulgence, chefs like Dannel Krishnan of The Nomads, a contemporary Central Asian dining concept, have chosen to adapt.
“Aside from paying homage to traditional dishes and ingredients found along the Silk Road, the menu also represents our sojourn in Kazakhstan, where we were fortunate enough to have tasted some incredible food and experienced wonderful hospitality,” shares Krishnan. One such representation comes in the form of the “nomads’ nan”, an adaptation of the restaurant’s Kazakh founders’ family recipe. It uses flour that is fermented overnight with yogurt to intensify the flavours. Finished with a light brushing of lemon glaze, this aromatic bake (also referred to as patir or lepeshka) pairs perfectly with butter churned with rendered Wagyu beef fat.
“We’ve retained some aspects of the traditional methods and ingredients but have made it relevant to the local palate,” Krishnan reveals. “We’ll also be doing different variations of the tandyr nan (a tandoor-baked flatbread native to Uzbek and Afghan cuisine) in the near future, as it is in line with the flavours you’ll find in that region, so we can tell our story.”
What delicious tale will you be chewing on the next time your bread is served?
*Editor's Note: Most of these breads are also currently available for takeaway or delivery.
- Photography Jason Ho