At Nura, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, it’s two fresh rounds of butter-drenched naan, nestling a pair of warm Parker House rolls. At Dauphine’s, in Washington, D.C., it’s fat slices of sweet potato brioche with buttermilk biscuits and a demi-baguette. Bird Dog, in Palo Alto, Calif., serves everything-togarashi challah — a Jewish-Japanese hybrid — and at Audrey, in Nashville, there are burnished orbs of Appalachian salt-risen bread.
The bread isn’t just good — at a certain tier of restaurants, the bread has been good for decades — it has emerged as a course of its own.
“Our Breads,” declares the menu at Marcus Samuelsson’s Hav & Mar, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. At Le Fantastique, in San Francisco, the “Bread & Butter” gets equal billing with the mains: $12 for a baguette with smoked-peppercorn-and-yuzu-kosho-infused butter. Hav & Mar’s basket with Ethiopian-influenced teff buttermilk biscuits and sweet blue cornbread is $19, Nura’s basket is $21 and both offerings come with an assortment of dips.
“In the beginning, I was very worried about what the perceived value would be, because it isn’t cheap, obviously,” said Sam Short, who runs the bread and pastry program at Nura. Customers would ask, “$21 for a bread basket?” But, Mr. Short said, that’s always followed by, “It was totally worth it.”
“Yes, flour is cheap,” said the chef and restaurateur Greg Baxtrom, whose Rockefeller Center restaurant, Five Acres, serves a laminated carrot curry milk bread accompanied by a copper ring of fresh pea butter for $14, “but labor is expensive.”
And bread is so much labor. At Hav & Mar, the head baker, Farheen Jafarey, starts her day at around 7 a.m., working alone, six days a week. “It’s just three breads, but huge quantities,” she said. “Sometimes, I call it the dreadbasket.”
The work is also physically taxing. “I joke with my assistant all the time that we’re going to get T-shirts that say ‘Body by Bread,’” Ms. Short said.
Sometimes, the process takes days. The Appalachian bread rolls that the pastry chef Michael Werrell prepares at Audrey begin in the early evening, to be continued the following morning when 100 to 200 of them are bulk-fermented, degassed, shaped, proofed and baked. The rolls will have gone through about five employees by the time they’re picked up by a server.
At Kann in Portland, Ore., the plantain brioche ($11 for two) requires two or three weeks for the plantains to adequately ripen, which — in addition to presenting storage challenges — means that if the restaurant runs out, they can’t count on finding more for that day’s work at the perfect state of mushy ripeness. “It’s definitely something that we have to stay ahead on,” said the restaurant’s owner and chef Gregory Gourdet.
“It’s almost like a bread revival,” Mr. Werrell said of the bread service explosion. “Around 2021, 2022, I really saw people reinvesting in bread courses.” And, he suggests, there’s a clear reason it’s happening now: Americans, fresh off the pandemic-era sourdough craze, have discovered a newfound appreciation for bread.
During the lockdowns of 2020, 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.
“I absolutely believe that people are more appreciative of bread because of the pandemic,” said Joy Razo, the pastry chef at Dauphine’s.
The nouveau bread basket is, in some sense, an ideal match for these times. It is intensely communal, an antidote to months or years spent apart. There was a time when sharing food felt dangerous; now, though, it’s all-hands-in. “We didn’t want to have something that you had to cut,” Ms. Short said. “We want it to be almost visceral, where it’s like, ‘OK, we’re all just gonna rip.’”
On a recent Wednesday evening, baskets dotted the dining room at Nura. “Oh my god, I would just sit here and get this the entire time. I don’t need to order anything else,” said Diana Del Vecchio, 33, who was dining at the bar.
The price didn’t phase her. “I think it’s really fair for what you’re getting,” she said, tearing off another piece of naan.
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