Rethinking Pre-Meal Bread and Butter
Starting diners off with anything but the ubiquitous bread-and-butter basket is what’s trending at an increasing number of county restaurants.
Astoria pita and mezze at Mount Kisco's 251 LEX
Whether they’re a sign of hospitality or a means of buying the server (and kitchen) a bit of time, rolls and a side of butter is a longtime restaurant industry tradition. For some, that practice is coming to an end. From the waste to the cost (an estimated $18,000 to $20,000 a year according to the folks at Rye’s new Village Social) to the general weariness of a good thing gone too far, many Westchester restaurants are rethinking the rolls and butter starter.
At Coriander Modern Indian in Larchmont and White Plains, where once there might have been bread, a bowl of green appears on the table. It’s edamame pods, tender and steaming and speckled with spice. That’s salt and pepper, lemon and cumin, and together they take the typical warm edamame with its salty crust to a new realm. The restaurant has a modern touch to its food, and the addition of Indian spices was an attempt to amplify that and to put a twist on Asian edamame. It works, too. Somehow, this play on the little protein bomb serves to simultaneously satisfy and to tee up the palate for what’s coming next.
While you can take the bread out the basket, you can’t take the basket out of Rye Roadhouse. In keeping with its culinary theme, the Cajun restaurant doles out cigars of homemade cornbread in napkin-lined baskets. Sure, it’s still bread, but in a very different form: the sticks — moist and near fluffy — arrive warm out of the oven, alongside a perfectly whipped side of maple butter.
Askillet of three-flour cornbread and salted honey butter greets diners at Saltaire in Port Chester
photo by john bruno turiano
Corn is king at Port Chester’s Saltaire Oyster Bar and Fish House, too. “What we decided to do was something that had a relationship to fish that wasn’t expensive to put on the table,” says Saltaire’s Les Barnes, “so, we opted for our own recipe for cornbread.” Barnes could riff on why corn for quite a while, but in the end, it comes down to feeling that along the Eastern Seaboard, fish and corn (or cornmeal at least) go hand in hand.
While Saltaire still has baguettes for dipping in broths and bouillabaisses, it’s the three-flour cornbread — made from bread flour, cake flour, and cornmeal, more bread than muffin — which, along with a salted honey butter, welcomes guests to the table.
“It’s different; it’s not filling,” says Barnes. “Put a basket [of bread] in front of people, and it’s gone. Why fill up on bread when you can have a nice appetizer or some oysters?”
Mediterraneo, with locations in White Plains, Greenwich, and Norwalk, stopped putting butter on the table back in the late ’90s. Now, in its place, there’s hummus. They’ve done other spreads — white bean, for example — but for now, it’s the hummus that headlines.
Still, the bread remains. Once the order is placed, the guest gets her choice of focaccia, olive bread, or cranberry-nut-raisin rolls, for example, which is served alongside a ramekin of hummus. “It’s great; we actually don’t waste as much bread,” says Executive Chef Albert DeAngelis.
Hummus is king at YEFSI Estiatorio in Eastchester, too. At first it was just how things were done at Yefsi. Then, people began asking for the hummus when they sat down. Then, when it became obvious the bread was coming fresh out of the oven firing away in the corner of the restaurant, and served alongside a healthy smear of homemade hummus, well, that was the icing on the cake.
The French may be renowned for their bread, but it’s the cornichon, the tart French gherkin pickled in vinegar and tarragon, that kick-starts many a French meal. And so, in keeping with tradition, French restaurant Saint George Bistro in Hastings-on-Hudson has been serving up little pots of these pickles, along with adorable tongs to fetch them with, to every guest since they opened four years ago. If that crunch and slight saltiness makes you want to eat and drink more, well, so be it.
At 251 LEX in Mount Kisco, the basket has been replaced with nostalgia. Meals now start with a mezze of sun-dried tomato and sesame leaf pesto and a pita made next door to where Chef/Owner Constantine Kalandranis grew up, in Astoria. “You could smell the dough for hours when we were walking to school,” says Kalandranis. “So, we still hold onto this brand, serve it in all the restaurants, and are using it as the bread starter at Lex. It’s a brilliant way to start the meal.”
Executive Chef Matt Casino is very into baking, so there’s still bread at Armonk’s Restaurant North, just not the standard served with a pat of butter. Instead, there’s a homemade brioche — regular or gluten-free — baked for each diner. From there, it’s what’s in season — or rather what’s in the kitchen — that determines what accoutrement goes tagging along.
Like pig fat, for example. The restaurant does whole animals, so when they get a pig, they not only make their own sausage, they also send the fat back to be smoked and turned into whipped lardo. Of course, not every day is a butcher day, so the brioche is also regularly accompanied by a house-made cultured butter that could be infused with everything from seasonal fruits to pickled ramps to North Fork sea salt.
“Once you master cocktails, et cetera, that are unique to your restaurant, you look around to see what else can be played with that can be unique to the restaurant,” says Restaurant North’s Stephen Mancini. “Something that’s always standard that doesn’t need to be standard anymore.”
At North, as with many Westchester restaurants, that was the breadbasket.
A recent transplant from the Pacific Northwest, Julie H. Case writes about food, wine, travel, foraging and more from her home in Tarrytown.