"The idea," mused Adam Leonti, chef de cuisine at Vetri, "is to romance as much flavor out of the grain as possible."
Recently, he's been taking that notion to its logical extreme: grinding his own flour, using a portable mill on site. He's also working with local farmer Ian Brendle and the Bread Lab at Washington State University to identify the ideal strains of wheat to grow locally for Vetri's pastas and doughs.
Two trends - demand for local food and interest in the alchemy of fermentation - are converging behind this cerebral new breed of kitchen scientists.
Chef Eli Kulp, who cooks at Fork, High Street, and a.kitchen, also cites diners' overall higher expectations; he's not just making his own bread, but also his own vinegar, pasta, and cream cheese.
"If you don't pay attention to every detail, you're irrelevant," he said.
For Kulp, the moment of bread enlightenment came when Alex Bois, trying to land a job baking for Fork in Old City, unfurled a kitchen towel to reveal a perfect baguette, baked in his apartment-size oven, of all places.
"I was almost angry - because I was like, this is the baguette we've been trying to make here," Kulp said. "We were doing everything backward."
Bois and Kulp now run a bread program that's just as central as the entrees or wine list to the dining experience at Fork and sister restaurant High Street on Market. It includes mini bialys, tangy buckwheat-cherry boule, ginger-rye Vollkornbrot, brioche enriched with beef fat. All told, Bois produces 21 doughs for the three restaurants, plus Rival Brothers Coffee.
According to Kulp, it's a manifestation of a broader back-of-the-house cultural change.
"Bakers were always their own breed. They come in at 2 a.m. and left at 10 a.m. Now we're seeing more collaboration: People who were working in savory kitchens going into baking, or bakers coming out of the dark. This is a movement," Kulp said. "God forbid anyone call a baker a rock star, but they're getting rock-star status of sorts."
Leonti said fresh-milled flour - which he uses in traditional Italian breads at Vetri such as slow-fermented filone, or in a saltless recipe from 13th-century Tuscany ideal for bruschetta - tastes remarkably different. He said other chefs, after sampling his bread, are talking about buying mills, too.
"It's like getting electricity. You don't go back. It's that significant," he said.
Done right, a restaurant's bread can become its trademark.
Noord in East Passyunk has become known for its barley rye, which sous chef Jonathan Yacashin bakes, then tears up and chars in the oven before pairing it with roasted garlic butter.
"It's very idealistic of us to think every restaurant could or should make all its own bread," he said, given the manpower and oven space it demands.
Yet, more are.
Consider, as a bellwether, Stephen Starr's eatertainment empire. The company stepped up its bread program dramatically with the opening of Parc on Rittenhouse Square in 2005. Parc's bakery fills the brasserie's bread basket with baguettes, rye, sourdough, and cranberry-walnut bread, and stocks six other Starr restaurants.
Parc's head baker, Nicholas Brannon, one of seven there, said bread is finally getting its due - and attracting fresh talent. He suggested it's, in part, a recovery from the carb-demonizing era of the Atkins diet and gluten-free movement.
"These restaurants featuring bread as a course are making it important," he said.
An alumna of Parc's bakery, Clair Kopp McWilliams, now handling Avance's bread courses. A recent addition is a boule made from whole-wheat sourdough mixed with buttermilk dough, and served with house-made butter. That's McWilliams' version of keeping things simple. "We try to practice restraint," she said.
Of course, locally produced bread on restaurant tables is nothing new. James Barrett of Metropolitan Bakery created the bread program at White Dog Café in 1987, ahead of the last bread movement in the late '80s. He's been doing slow, cool fermentations with natural starter for years.
He said the local, organic movement is just the latest twist. "Bakers now are looking to incorporate terroir, or locally milled flours, whenever possible."
It wasn't always possible, said Barrett, who buys flour from Frankford Farms in Saxonburg, and spelt from Small Valley Mills near Harrisburg.
"I experimented with some heritage strains of wheat a few years ago, but then, when I went to place an order for a pallet," he said, "they couldn't supply that quantity. But now, more farmers have gotten on board."
Pete Merzbacher of Philly Bread - which supplies co-ops and restaurants such as Pumpkin with sourdough and his signature "Philly muffins" - was surprised at the bread scene when he arrived in Philadelphia several years back.
"There was complacency. The food scene and the craft beer scene were amazing, but there was no excitement around bread," he said. "It was good but not great."
He said more customers are realizing that bread made with noncommercial flour, whole grains, and leisurely fermentation is not only tastier: It's also more nutritious and easier to digest than the store-bought stuff.
So it should be no surprise that more bakeries are in the works.
The timing just seemed right for longtime home baker and La Colombe cofounder JP Iberti, who has baked challah and baguettes for his staff in his backyard wood-fired oven for years.
The company's flagship, due to open in Fishtown this summer, will include a retail bakery headed by Parc veteran John McGrath.
"I want people to be able to walk home in the evening and get fresh bread," Iberti said. For now, McGrath is supplying La Colombe's cafes with baguettes and apple-raisin challah baked at La Colombe's headquarters.
Iberti acknowledges that artisan bread may not be the most lucrative business, but for him it's more personal than that. It's an art.
"You're so restricted in bread; you use four ingredients. But at the same time it gives you a platform to be so creative."
No-carb diet? Not here.
Carb-loading may not be recommended these days - but just try to stop yourself. Here are some of the most tempting loaves from Philadelphia ovens.
Parc's slightly American take on the traditional French raisin bread is loaded with dried cranberries and walnuts, with a deeply charred crust from the brasserie's electric deck oven, a Swedish Sveba-Dahlen. "When you hear the crackle on the outside, that's a great crust," Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan notes.
Noord's barley rye is usually served torn into pieces and charred. "It's a simple bread, but the texture comes from the whole grains added into it. It's not a coarse-ground flour, but it's the kind of thing someone would make at their house in Northern Europe."
Avance's corn and rye bread is fermented in a basket and baked at moderate heat to caramelize the crust. LaBan says it has a "rustic char but a delicate crust, with a fine crackle. The open crumb is very moist, with the tangy sweetness that you sometimes get from corn."
Vetri's filone, which is part of a bread service with olives and charcuterie, is more subtle. "It's a relatively plain bread with a nice white flour, a subtle sweetness on the finish and a silky, stretchy texture," LaBan says.
High Street on Market's sour rye vollkornbrot, loaded with fresh ginger and sesame, has umami tang on its own. "It's along the lines of German health breads, but much moister when it is this fresh," LaBan says. "Serve it sliced thin with smoked charcuterie and it'd be a full meal in itself." The "New World Rye," meanwhile, has an open crumb, showing good fermentation. "The second you cut it open, you smell it: It's like a Jewish deli. It's alive in a way that most breads are just not."
- Samantha Melamed
Roasted Corn Panzanella Salad
Makes 4 servings
1 cup toasted rustic Italian bread, cut into medium-size cubes
1 cup roasted corn (see directions below)
1 cup diced tomatoes
1/4 cup red onion, cut into thin strips
10 basil leaves, cut into lengthwise strips
1/4 cup balsamic vinaigrette (use pre-made vinaigrette or follow directions in note below)
Salt and pepper
1. Preheat oven to 350. Bake one ear of unpeeled corn for 20 minutes. Let cool. Peel the corn and cut the kernels off the cob.
2. Mix the bread wtih the tomatoes, corn, red onion, basil, and balsamic vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- From the Vetri Foundation
Note: To prepare your own balsamic vinaigrette, whisk 1/3 cup olive oil and 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar together well. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Per serving: 219 calories; 5 grams protein; 29 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams sugar; 10 grams fat; no cholesterol; 200 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.