There is a telling exchange that occurs between a diner and their waiter somewhere towards the end of a meal in any good restaurant. A solution must be found to properly dispose of the sauces. Good patrons and waiters alike know this moment calls for more bread. What better tool for transporting the ragu at the bottom of an empty bowl of pasta than a hunk of rye covered in butter?
Often though, bread is the first thing that hits the table and the perfect slice of warm sourdough speaks volumes about what’s to come. “If someone is taking the time and care to produce good bread, then you can bet that that extends to every part of the kitchen and restaurant,” says Mat Lindsay, head chef and owner of Ester in Chippendale.
Every epicurean worth their salt knows that bread and fat are two of the most effective conduits for flavour. How can one truly indulge in the velvety spoils of a fresh, cultured butter, if not within the porous caverns of a slice of fluffy pana di casa?
Sydneysiders are blessed to share the city with some truly exceptional bakeries – Iggy’s, Brickfields and Dust are just a few examples. But there is something to be said for these five restaurants elevating the bread game.
The guys at Sixpenny don’t like to see their hard work go to the dogs. “More and more people are realising that food waste is a huge issue,” says sous chef Brad Guest. He’s in charge of baking at Sixpenny where his special bread named ‘Old Bread and Coffee’ presents a solution.
Bread and coffee left over from the previous day’s service is roasted and pulverised into fine flour. This is introduced to the restaurant’s mother culture, which is pushing 10 years of age. A tiny bit of golden syrup provides ballast in the form of a subtle molasses sweetness. The staff affectionately refer to it as yesterday’s bread but make no mistake, this loaf is a showstopper.
“This recipe was created by Aaron Ward – the sous chef before me,” says Guest. “He passed the knowledge onto me and it’s a pleasure to work with. It’s nice because we get to pay tribute to him as well.”
It’d be a shame to ruin all that hard work with run-of-the-mill supermarket butter, so Sixpenny also churns its own from mascarpone every two to three days. Apply liberally.
Head chef and co-owner Jesse Warkentin bakes his bread just before dinner service. Fresh out of the oven, a dark, thick crust gives way to a warm, unbelievably soft body.
Warkentin sources three different flours – with the help of the bakers at Brickfields – to create a loaf that expresses branny cereal flavours. Murray River pink salt and house-filtered water combine to provide a delicate sweetness. “We’re only using four ingredients so every one of them needs to be perfect,” says Warkentin.
It’s the perfect vessel to mop up tinned Ortiz anchovies or Espinaler cockles (which ought to be high on every diner’s list). But it would be amiss not to mention the olive oil. Pressed from olives of the Frantoio varietal grown in South Australia, the oil is soft and buttery in flavour with a delicate, complex brightness.
“I said to myself that whenever I opened my own place, a wood-fire oven was essential,” Lindsay says. Given the incredible fare coming out of this Chippendale kitchen, it’s not hard to see why. But it can make baking the bread a little tricky.
The oven’s ironbark embers stay lit 24/7, which means catching it at the right temperature for baking is a tour de force in timing. “There are just so many variables,” says Lindsay. “But you can never stop learning about bread … It honestly keeps me up at night.”
Lindsay uses wholemeal and baker’s flour – as well as a malted rye – which gives the bread at Ester its distinct toasty bitterness. “We slightly underbake it too,” he says, which preserves that chewy, sticky texture perfect for soaking up the restaurant’s house-churned butter. Aged kefir grain – a bacterial fermentation starter – forms the basis of the butter’s culture, imparting a clean brightness to its nutty flavour profile.
“Good bread is a labour of love and a course in itself,” says Chris Benedet, head chef at Yellow. “I’m always excited to try bread when I get to eat at other restaurants,” he says.
The bread at Yellow takes three days to make and combines rye and baker’s flour to create a dense oatmeal-flavoured loaf. Texturally, it’s perfectly uniform. “We knead our dough and feed our mother culture three times a day,” says Benedet.
“These big, even holes are evidence that we care,” he says with a big smile. “We are constantly checking on the dough throughout the course of the day, so a successful loaf takes a certain level of discipline and passion.” It’s this attention to detail that Benedet believes is the mark of a well-oiled kitchen.
Mediocre butter is too easy to come by in Australia: not so at Yellow. There’s a distinct sweetness to the butter here. They churn it in-house from a high-fat cream that brings out a floral complexity and intense texture.
Perhaps an unorthodox addition to this list, the planta roti at Mamak is a fine example of the holy trinity that is bread, butter and a hot pan.
The shadow that Mamak casts over Malaysian cuisine in Sydney is long. This casual diner is notorious for its queues, curries, and of course, its roti. Owner Julian Lee and his business partners grew up perfecting the ultimate roti recipe in the traditional Malaysian market stalls for which the restaurant is named. “This is as legit as it gets,” says Lee.
The trick to the perfect roti is in the kneading and spinning of the dough. To maintain a soft chewy inside and produce a crispy outer layer “the dough has to be perfectly flat and the butter needs to be evenly distributed,” says Lee. “A lot of places are a little more haphazard in that regard.”
The planta roti at Mamak is served with fish curry, dhal, and a fresh sambal sauce in homage to the way Lee grew up eating the stuff.