The scene: a trendy Brooklyn restaurant recently opened by a rambunctious former Top Chef contestant. The menu: small plates, mostly vegetables and seafood, often raw. Conspicuously missing: bread to wipe the sauce off the plates. The outcome: a considerably lighter wallet and a stomach still wondering, "When do we eat?"
In an article in the latest The Art of Eating, Ed Behr states that contemporary chefs have a "disinterest in the role of bread." He bemoans this, because he loves bread, understands bread's central place in Western culinary culture, and believes that bread "makes other foods taste better."
A few years ago it would have unthinkable for a restaurant not to serve bread. Today the staff of life faces a number of threats, particularly due to perceived gluten threats and carb worries. Also, many younger chefs may have simply never tasted great bread. That trendy restaurant might not serve bread because it would cut down on the number of small plates that customers order.
Given this retreat, it's heartening when a highly regarded restaurant starts baking its own bread. Rouge Tomate is known as the health-conscious upscale restaurant. Given its location on a fancy block between 5th and Madison Avenues, you'd think it would be a place where the Ladies Who Lunch sip tomato soup and nibble on dietetic wafers. Well, the ladies do dine there, but they order foie gras, steak, and cheesecake (in addition to curried carrot soup).
That's because Rouge Tomate's ethos is not so much to serve "healthy" food but to serve great food in a healthy manner, including bread. The key is everything in moderation.
Rouge Tomate's head chef, Jeremy Bearman, has long been a bread lover and pizza obsessive. Until recently, the restaurant offered Bien Cuit's excellent rolls, but Jeremy wanted to make his own bread, in keeping with Rouge Tomate's policy of making as much as possible in-house. He wanted a product that could be versatile and hold all kinds of seasonal garnishes and flavorings. To him, that meant focaccia. To develop the product, he turned to baker Shawn Anderson and Rouge Tomate's staff nutritionist, Kristy Del Coro.
For Kristy, bread is not a villain. "You have to look at it in the context of the overall diet," she says. "Bread can be part of a healthy diet." If you're not one of the small percentage of the population with gluten sensitivity, whole grains are filled with nutrition benefits. It's only when bread has a high percentage of refined flour that the balance begins to tilt toward the unhealthy range (also depending on what else is being eaten with the bread).
The Rouge Tomate team began to experiment with flours, eventually choosing to make their focaccia with about half bread flour and half Red Fife flour from Upstate's Champlain Valley Milling. But it wasn't enough for the bread to be healthy. It also had to taste good.
After numerous tastes tests and recipe tweaks, the chefs arrived at Rouge Tomate's Spring Scallion Focaccia. The bread is made from flour, water, and yeast, but no salt. It's seasoned with Arbequina olive oil that has been infused with charred scallions, and chopped scallion tops are sprinkled on top with a bit of sea salt. You pull off a piece and bite into it. Soft, warm, and only slightly oily, it melts in your mouth. It's served with a healthy fennel and spring onion purée, but I'm too busy chewing to bother.