NO DOUGH: To bread or not to bread? It’s a question some restaurants, particularly new ones, have been asking themselves as they look for ways to cut costs in an economy that continues to sputter along.
Among the bread-free zones in Washington is Sax, which made its debut downtown in May. Originally conceived as a lounge, says executive chef Jonathan Seningen, Sax evolved into a serious restaurant without the support of a bread basket.
“I love baking bread,” says Seningen, formerly of Oya in Penn Quarter. “It’s a lot of work,” he adds in the same breath.
Complimentary bread was also noticeably absent at Lincoln when it opened on Vermont Avenue NW in April. Owner Alan Popovsky says bread didn’t fit into his small-plates concept. “I wanted people to appreciate the food” rather than fill up on bread, he says.
(His older restaurant in the West End, Hudson, serves loaves from the well-regarded Panorama Baking Co. in Alexandria.)
Bread doesn’t launch dinner at Lost Society, the weeks-old steakhouse at 14th and U streets NW, either. Chef Joseph Evans welcomes patrons instead with less-expensive house-made Yukon Gold potato chips sprinkled with truffle salt. While saying that “I wanted to do something different,” Evans acknowledges that cost was the motivation for serving chips instead of bread. (Such a give-away isn’t cheap. The chef says Smith & Wollensky, his previous employer, spent 60 cents for every pan of spoon bread it sent out free to diners.)
“Anywhere we can cut costs, we try to,” says Brendan Keegan, co-owner of Brasserie Brightwell in Easton, Md. The restaurant opened last fall with “no linens, no crystal, no bread” — a staple that this diner missed most when he wanted to sop up the sauce with an order of escargots.
The staff of life is loaded with symbolism. Bread is mythical. Bread is gracious. In Arabic, the words for “life” and “bread” are the same: aysh.
“If I sit down and I see bread, that makes me a happy person,” says Jeff Buben, the executive chef and owner of Vidalia downtown. The long-running Southern-themed restaurant treats diners to one of the area’s most memorable introductions: super-moist corn bread, onion-laced focaccia and (as of late) a potato roll based on a family recipe from Sallie Buben, the chef’s wife and business partner. Vidalia’s bread service has become such a signature of the restaurant, the chef says, he can’t take it away or change it much. Buben estimates that the fillip, which requires a dedicated baker and is presented warm, costs $1 to $2 per table.
It’s not as if bread has gone completely AWOL. Lost Society keeps some ciabatta on hand if anyone needs it for, say, steak tartare, and an inexpensive baguette is “available upon request” at Brasserie Brightwell, says its owner.
Enough customers complained about missing bread at Lincoln that Popovsky finally relented. Last month, he began serving corn bread with honey butter, but only at dinner and only until the kitchen gets molds to bake complimentary corn madeleines.
“This is a market that feels like it has to have bread service,” he says.