Good bread is still too expensive in the U.S. Bakeries need to create a model where a baguette is affordable for more customers on a daily basis.
— Jason Clampet
At the fine dining temple Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas, where the 16-course tasting menu goes for $425, 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 amassed 31 Michelin stars over his career for dishes that go far beyond the bakery.
In the fall, Robuchon 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 notes. 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 flavor of fresh wheat.
It’s a momentous time for bread in America. That’s especially satisfying, given the years it spent as a bad word in our diet vocabulary: High carb! High gluten! Unhealthy! Sure, plenty of foods are reaching new heights these days: From coffee to chocolate and butter, 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’s bread that’s standing out right now. Compare it to the best fried chicken, the best bowl of noodles you’ve had recently. Great bread is truly everywhere.
For one thing, more chefs have stopped outsourcing bread. One of the big restaurant headlines this year was the reopening of Union Square Café. Along with a new address, the Union Square Hospitality team added a café, Daily Provisions, where they sell the loaves called sprezzatura that they bake in a 600-foot 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, tantalizingly moist center, with a contrastingly crisp crust; it’s 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 USC chef Carmen Quagliata. Now the chef is figuring out how to make enough bread to sell to restaurants who have asked him to supply it.
There’s also been an expansion of notable bakeries across the country. San Francisco-based Tartine announced it’s launching a 38,500-square-foot bakery/food hall in Los Angeles that will open in the coming spring; the bakery alone has more than 8,000 square feet 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 in 2017, literally, was the five-volume, 2,642 page Modernist Bread (Cooking Lab, October 2017) compendium by Microsoft tech guru Nathan Myhrvold and chef Francisco Migoya. 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 (equipment) to make great bread than ever before, and more and more people are interested in not just eating good bread but how to make it,” he says. One of Myhrvold’s favorite recipes is that for chocolate cherry sourdough, an unconventional example of what to do with flavor and the ubiquitous tangy loaf.
For those less technical in their bread obsessions, food blogger Alexandra Stafford also published her book Bread Toast Crumbs (Clarkson Potter, April, 2017), 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, N.Y. It’s the home of She Wolf Bakery, a place where $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. “Bread baked in-house shows how serious a restaurant you are,” Curtola notes. He also sees it as the embodiment of communal dining. “A loaf of warm bread encourages sharing, which is what everyone wants in a restaurant.”
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 Tørst, Max Blachman-Gentile turns out phenomenal loaves, from a dark Russian rye to pumpkin porridge made with kabocha squash. My favorite is the Greenpoint Sour, a loaf true to its name, with an exceptionally tangy, chewy center marked by good-sized air pockets and a flavorful, charred crust. It’s invariably part of a $9 bread plate on a menu that also includes beer-friendly hot dogs and burgers. 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 IPA.
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.