Bread is such an important part of a restaurant meal. It's the first solid thing to hit the table, the first impression made, the first clue as to what we might expect about all that's to follow. If it's stale or cold or dry or just plain lousy, we're not only disappointed but worried. Bad bread never bodes well. It means the kitchen is careless or -- worse -- doesn't know any better.
Fifteen years ago, the best we could hope for from independent restaurants was that they bought bread from a terrific local baker. There was cachet in that (in fact, bakeries were one of the first sources restaurants ever cited) and there still is. But nowadays, more and more restaurants are baking their own breads, showing their commitment to "made in-house" and taking their cool quotient to a whole new level. Here are eight local restaurants who've made bread a DIY project.
Chef Claudio Urciuoli's father milled flour in Italy, and his family baked bread at home, so you might say bread-baking is in his DNA. He gained even more baking experience as a member of the original kitchen crew at bread-centric Il Fornaio, later working as right-hand man for Nancy Silverton at La Brea and finally pushing dough with Chris and Marco Bianco at Italian Restaurant here in Phoenix. The guy knows bread. At Noca, he makes two traditional Italian breads: a Tuscan flatbread called schiacciata and a round Tuscan loaf called pagnotta. For both he uses two different flours (one Italian, one organic Californian) incorporated with softened heritage grains -- farro from Italy, kamut from Montana, and einkorn (which may be the world's first domesticated grain), originally from Mesopotamia. He uses very little yeast (preferring to let his dough ferment for three to four days) but loads of water (roughly 80 percent), which means his breads are dense but light, crusty, chewy, wonderful. He says, "In the end, it's just bread and water." Hmmm, maybe so, but the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.
When executive chef Peter DeRuvo says Davanti makes the best bread in the city, it sounds like bragging, but that's hardly the case. Although he's responsible for the restaurant's heavenly focaccia di Recco (a thin, yeast-free bread filled with salty-creamy stracchino cheese, browned in the oven until crisp and bubbly, then topped with a gooey, glistening wad of honeycomb), he leaves the bulk of the bread baking to Fabio Ceschetti, a pizzaiolo from Puglia whose family owns bakeries in Italy. Ceschetti brought some of his grandfather's 70-year-old starter to Davanti, using it to create crusty, wood oven-baked ciabatta Pugliese (a shorter, fatter, more rustic version of the baguette) and Filone (an everyday Italian yeast bread similar to the baguette in texture). Customers can buy a loaf for $8. And here's a heads-up to restaurants who don't have the time and space to bake their own bread: Davanti is ready to sell it wholesale. Give DeRuvo a call.
Josh Riesner and Keenan Bosworth were baking their own breads for nearly three years at Atlas Bistro, so it's no surprise they've brought the custom to Pig & Pickle, turning out sourdough baguettes (from five-year-old sourdough starter), pretzel rolls, English muffins, dinner rolls, and brioche every day, using applewood in their gas-assist oven to get a bit of smoke. Sometimes (okay, often) they get crazy-creative, allowing their staff to do the same. The result might be Super Duper Rye (made with chocolate rye and imperial stout from the beer-brewing world) or focaccia with bacon and Beemster (a nutty Dutch cheese). Bread is used in so many applications -- completely different sandwiches, crostini to accompany the bone marrow -- that, as Riesner puts it, "Why wouldn't you make your own bread?"
Although chef-owner Chris Gross started baking bread way back in the Le Relais days (the North Scottsdale restaurant he owned in the mid- to late-'80s), he'd be the first to admit he's learned a lot about bread along the way, picking up tips and working with various bread maestros over the course of many years. He started learning about bread when he worked in a small restaurant near Versailles, then picked up a few hints from Julia Child, local bread guru MJ Coe (who was kind enough to come offer him a pragmatic, in-house tutorial), and Jean JoHo of the Everest Room in Chicago. At the restaurant, Gross and his team bake 100 loaves of his crusty, full-of-holes cross between ciabatta and baguette in the wood-burning oven every day, offering them for sale to customers for $3 each. The restaurant also makes its own brioche buns and pizza dough.
There must be a Jewish or an Italian grandmother on Kevin Binkley's family tree because he's got the whole "you look thin" shtick down pat. The pressure to "eat! eat!" starts the instant you've settled in, which is when the bread person glides up with a little tray of not one, not two but three bread-y possibilities: a sourdough baguette, a brioche roll and an ever-changing wheat bread containing fruits and nuts of the season. Full-time baker Robert Kuenzli (who worked with MJ Coe last summer) makes the breads for both Binkley restaurants in Binkley's kitchen, using a combi oven that can pretty much do everything but walk the dog. Although each type is tempting (the fruity-nutty ones are always a favorite), you'll want to lay off early on -- before the amuse bouche starts hitting the table.
At Quiessence, chef-owner Greg LaPrad and his right-hand man, Tony Andiario, are so fanatical about making everything from scratch that they even make their own crackers. Well, they don't, but pastry chef Matthew Brotnov does, as well as traditional baguettes for a half-dozen daily applications. Brotnov, whose résumé includes stints at Bellagio and Kai, loves bread work and hopes to open his own bakery some day. In the meantime, he's building a repertoire at Q, making mushroom-blue cheese bread, whole wheat loaves with honey and diced pear, and anything else that strikes his fancy. We are the happy guinea pigs.
Start talking to Marco Bianco about bread and he gets geeky on you in less than a minute, expounding on fermentation and residual sugar and the chemistry of bread in a way that would go right over most people's heads if it weren't for his knack with analogy and metaphor. Marco is his nerdy pizza-bro Chris' mirror image, obsessive and perfectionistic. And that's just peachy because these boys like to get it right, and they do. Bianco buys two varieties of heirloom wheat from Jeff Zimmerman of Hayden Flour Mill, fermenting the dough for as much as 15 hours (to coax out lots of flavor) and proofing it twice. His Italian country loaf has a spongy quality inside and a wonderfully crusty exterior that smells heavenly when toasted. Marco bakes bread and makes the pizza dough for all three Bianco locations, but you can buy his loaves retail for $4.50 at Pane Bianco.
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At this crazy-popular neighborhood hangout, chef-owner Aaron Chamberlin and man-in-charge Chris Barch turn out 70 to 90 loaves of tangy sourdough a day, selling them retail at the front of the restaurant while making use of them for service in loads of yummy, creative ways. Baked in the restaurant's wood-burning oven, each loaf is wonderfully crusty outside, offering up a nice balance of fluff and chew within. Priced at $3 a pop, they're a delicious, affordable alternative to utterly tasteless commercial bread. Let's toast to that, shall we?