The bread basket that used to arrive at restaurant tables was mainly an afterthought. Remember them?
Thickly sliced white bread or bland, colourless buns that were even a bit stale at times. It was accompanied by a few pats of butter, often too cold to spread without tearing the crumb to shreds. We took them for granted, expected the servers to put them on the table.
The bread basket rarely, if ever, showed up on the cheque. We needed something eat waiting for the actual food.
Now, the $21 bread basket: “two fresh rounds of butter-drenched naan, nestling a pair of warm Parker House rolls.” 1
Teff buttermilk biscuits and sweet blue cornbread
You’ll find that at Nura restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, according to a recent article in the New York Times. Or at Hav & Mar, in the Chelsea neighbourhood of Manhattan, $19 will get you a basket of Ethiopian-influenced teff buttermilk biscuits and sweet blue cornbread.
Each comes with an assortment of dips.
These baskets may well be the actual food — the bread course. Have entrées lost ground?
I’m not very current on modern dining trends. Still, I haven’t encountered anything quite as “bread-centric” in Victoria or Vancouver as you’d find in New York.
Or have I?
Several years ago, we dined at Victoria’s Agrius restaurant on Yates Street, a showcase for a revolving array of locally-sourced organic ingredients and wines. It was a feast for the senses while not being pretentious, such as something you might find at Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant.
You could have house-made charcuterie, crudo with fermented vegetables or chanterelles pizza with Vancouver Island goat cheese. There were shelves of large jars with pickled fruits, vegetables and kimchis.
And there was the bread menu.
When we went, servers made the rounds with large platters of bread slices, artfully arranged, along with small dishes of Extra Virgin Olive Oil or hummus for dipping. The waiters would tell you the grains used in each slice or what oils or seeds complemented their flavours. They encouraged you to try them all and have seconds if you wanted.
Greedy with the bread platter
I’d never seen anything like this, making mere bread the centrepiece of a restaurant experience. And I confess I became greedy with the bread platters, wanting to try several pieces of each slice.
The bread wasn’t free. My memory suggests we were charged $6 for the bread. But it was well worth the price. Like wine tasting, bread was the focus and a worthy precursor to the rest of the meal.
Agrius was associated with Fol Epi, the superb Victoria bakery and one of a handful of bakeries that put the city on the map of baking renown. And here was a chance to show off Fol Epi’s breadmaking virtuosity. 2.
Alas, Agrius closed its doors this past January, unable to recover from the effects of the pandemic. And more recently, Fol Epi’s Yates Street location was also closed. The bakery’s flagship café and bakery in Victoria West is thriving.
Leaving its mark
But the “nouveau bread basket” introduced by Agrius left its mark on Victoria. And the trend has appeared elsewhere, according to the New York Times article.
The pandemic famously inspired home-bound families and workers to try making their own bread.
Amateur bakers obsessed over their hydration levels; Instagram became a slide show of comparative boules. And while the mass passion (or mania) for home baking may have waned, our collective connoisseurship has not.
There’s nothing new under the sun, and people understand, on an unconscious level, the communal experience of “breaking bread.” It’s warmth, joy, and human connection.
COVID broke that connection for a time. We stopped going to restaurants and having potluck dinners. Sharing food felt dangerous.
Now I sense an eagerness in people to jump back into the sharing. The nouveau bread basket is the perfect antidote to the months and years spent apart.
And a convincing explanation for why many are OK with paying upwards of $21 for a bread basket.
Naan is a soft Indian-style flatbread traditionally made in a cylindrical clay tandoor oven. Parker House rolls are feather-light rolls infused with butter inside and slathered with melted butter from the range.↩
Richard Miscovich described our part of the world as “the filigreed coast of British Columbia, one of the world’s wood-fired oven hot spots, like Vermont and the mountains of North Carolina.”↩