“I am here for 12 hours a day,” Ashley Soto says of the Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, where she’s the pastry chef. “This place is like my house. And when you come to my house, I am going to give you something to eat.”
That “something” is a breadbasket. Sure, there’s a risk that it might go unappreciated — breadbaskets are something many diners think very little about — but some area restaurateurs see bread service as a hospitable way to set the tone for the entire meal.
Soto creates two breads for Pearl Dive’s basket: jalapeño corn muffins and the Parker House roll-like “Addie’s rolls.” The rolls got their name from chef Jeff Black’s late grandmother, whose recipe served as the basis for Soto’s creation. After her first taste, Soto said she thought, “These things are going to be like crack. I mean, I was like, ‘Oh … my … God.’” Which seems to be most people’s assessment of the buttery, yeasty rolls dusted with a touch of salt. Pearl Dive offers them as a take-out service for the holidays, and last Thanksgiving it sold 150 dozen in addition to those served at the restaurant.
A Cuban Twist
Cuba Libre takes the traditional idea of bread service and “gives it more of a Caribbean feel,” says Amnon Pick, general manager of the Cuban-inspired restaurant. Its bread is similar to a baguette, but just before serving, it’s spread with butter and salt and then pressed and grilled, so when it arrives it’s a combination of crunchy and chewy. To add a beachy touch, the bread is served with a spread made of mango puree, butter, “hints of cinnamon, to balance the sweetness” and a proprietary spice blend, Pick says.
Pick, too, sees bread service as a welcoming gesture. “It’s the most basic of hospitality steps — bread and water. Even if you go back to biblical times, bread and water is something you have to have.” He also views it as a way to taste the restaurant, in a sense. “Here, you come in, look around, see what’s on the walls, see that we want you to have fun, and we want to represent the same thing on the palate.”
Jeff Tunks, chef and owner of Acadiana, also took inspiration from tradition: Acadiana’s breadbasket includes biscuits served with a Creole cream cheese and a pepper jelly. “That’s the staple of any cocktail party in the South,” he says. “A log of cream cheese with pepper jelly and Triscuits or something.” Tunks had planned on serving thinly sliced baguettes, but “people wanted more of a warm bread,” so he switched to the dense, pleasantly tangy biscuits. “It sets the bar for the rest of the meal. We’re a Southern restaurant, and the biscuits really reinforce that.”
Acadiana’s biscuits are free, but servers make sure you actually want them first. “We were seeing all these untouched baskets come back,” Tunks says. “So now we’re asking people if they’d like bread service.” Tunks himself finds the biscuits too tempting: “When I eat at the restaurant, they know not to bring me biscuits. Out of sight, out of mind.” Other customers can’t get enough. “We’re right near the convention center, [and] when the Army convention is in town, our biscuit consumption goes way up. Those people can eat some biscuits.”
Spread the Word
What’s bread without a little butter? Restaurant Eve is unique in that it uses only Kerrygold Irish butter for its breadbasket (and anything else that needs it). “Years and years ago we did a blind tasting at the restaurant with all the top butters at the time, and everybody picked Kerrygold,” says chef and owner Cathal Armstrong. Ireland’s unique geographical location keeps it green year-round, meaning Irish cattle never have to stop eating grass. Even though Armstrong is Irish, he swears that national pride didn’t affect his choice. “I’m proud that it’s good. That part is Irish pride. But if it wasn’t good, we wouldn’t use it.”