Grilled breads are hot and happening.
Toss out that toaster. Grilled bread is making a mark on restaurant menus.
Operators across the country and across segments are stoking wood fires and turning up the gas to produce paper-thin flatbreads and puffed-up pitas and to add distinctive flavors and textures to ready-baked breads.
The resulting menu items can be diet-minded or high-cal, vegetarian or protein-packed. Options are limited only by the imagination of the kitchen crew and customer preferences.
|Creative chefs top grilled breads with a variety of popular ingredients, including portobello and cremini mushrooms, goat and Jack cheeses, arugula and other greens, as well as grilled onions, eggplant and tomatoes.
Greek flatbreads are big sellers with the noontime crowd at Papagus Greek Taverna in Chicago and Oak Brook, Ill. Only gyros are more popular at lunch, according to Paula Meersman, manager of the Chicago unit, part of multiconcept operator Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.
The flatbread, which fills a 15-inch plate, comes in two versions: roasted chicken, topped with shreds of poultry plus spinach, oven-dried tomatoes and mozzarella; and Santorini, with eggplant, tomatoes, olives, feta cheese and basil. Both flatbreads are offered as main courses, although diners often order them as shared appetizers.
Papagus buys hand-rolled unleavened flatbread from a local Middle Eastern bakery, brushes it with olive oil, fresh basil and garlic, then grills it briefly to mark and crisp it. Toppings are added and the bread baked on order.
“It’s very light, and people love it,” says Meersman.
Roll of the Dough
Grilled portobello flatbread has been a main-course option for more than two years at The Ravens restaurant in Stanford Inn by the Sea, in Mendocino, Calif.
Cooks at the vegetarian restaurant roll yeast bread to order and grill it until it “puffs up like a pita,” according to Dining Room Manager Dawnette Tyler. They then spread it with tahini sauce and fold the bread around grilled organic portobello mushrooms, dry-aged Jack cheese, baby arugula, grilled red onions and tomatoes. “It’s like a big sandwich,” says Tyler. “We sell a lot of it.”
|Bakers Square menus seven melts, including its newest—Honey Mustard Portobello Chicken (above). Flatbreads at Seasons 52 (below) come topped with garlic chicken, grilled flank steak, spicy shrimp or vegetables.
Splash! An Ocean Grill in Tampa, Fla., sells plenty of its oak-grilled flatbread. An upscale seafood restaurant, Splash! serves it as an appetizer, changing varieties daily to satisfy sizable repeat business.
To make the bread, chefs pound yeast dough, roll it thin and crisp it on the grill. They then add a variety of toppings—blue cheese and tomatoes; garlic butter with shrimp and crab; and spinach with feta cheese and mushrooms are just three combinations—and finish the dish in the oven.
“The crust is nice and crispy. When you take a piece of it, you can almost snap it like a cracker,” says Co-owner Kevin Wright. “They are a wonderful sharing appetizer and a great little something to eat before dinner.”
The Fieldstone Grill in Kalamazoo, Mich., part of the Millennium Restaurant Group, tops wood-fired flatbread with roasted mushrooms, olives, garlic cloves and rosemary for an appetizer that is popular both with its bar crowd and customers in the 150-seat dining room. The kitchen also garnishes main-course salads with flatbread.
“It’s something new in this area, and customers like the grilled flavor the wood gives,” says Sous-chef Matt Finnerty.
Piadine may be new to most people, but in Washington, D.C., just one block from the White House, people regularly queue up for the grilled stuffed sandwiches at the BreadLine, a quick-service restaurant specializing in street food from around the world. According to Chef-owner Mark Furstenberg, piadine (the singular is piadina), inspired by a dish from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, are his biggest sellers.
“It’s essentially a pancake—a little stiffer but not much,” he says. “At little stands in Bologna and nearby towns, they pour batter onto a grill and put on the simplest ingredients.”
Furstenberg varies the recipe (“I don’t particularly like pancakes,” he explains). Instead of batter, he rolls ciabatta dough into a pizza-shaped round, chars both sides on a hot grill, spreads it with filling, then folds the bread in half so that it can be eaten like a sandwich.
The chef’s filling combinations include prosciutto, fontina cheese and arugula, or grilled sausage, mortadella (“the good, imported kind,” he says), mozzarella cheese and tomatoes.
Even when it plays a supporting role, grilled bread can be an important component of a preparation’s packaging.
|Chef-owner Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia sprinkles breads with beet, black sesame, rosemary, caraway or curried cocoa for contrasts of taste and color.
Chef Sean Hartley of the Palace Kitchen in Seattle grills house-made bread to accompany goat-cheese fondue, a popular starter in the restaurant that is part of Tom Douglas and Jackie Cross’ restaurant group. Grilled with olive oil and cut into cubes, the bread is served on a plate with sliced apples, surrounding a cup of melted goat cheese.
“It’s one of our most popular appetizers,” says Hartley. “It’s very approachable, very sharable.”
The new and very happening Landmarc restaurant in New York City’s TriBeCa neighborhood chars dark-crusted Old World-style bread from a local bakery over a gas grill to serve with three of its appetizers: foie gras, bone marrow and steak tartare.
“Most people use toasted bread, but we feel grilled is more rustic,” says Chef de Cuisine Frank Proto.
Paul Virant plans to grill his house-baked bread to serve with an appetizer of grilled shrimp with aioli and pickled fennel that will be on the menu at Vie, scheduled for a late July opening in Western Springs, Ill.
Grilled bread has rustic appeal, Virant says. “It has a smoky taste to it, and there is something [wonderful] about those char marks from the grill.
“It takes toasting to the next level.”
High Grill Marks
Operators are discovering that sandwiches benefit from the grill treatment.
l The casual Village Inn and Bakers Square restaurants grill a variety of breads—from sourdough to oat-nut—for sandwich melts.
“The melts are warm and crispy, and fit into the family-dining segment,” says Ellen Hayes, director of research and development for Denver-based Vicorp Restaurants, parent company of both chains. “They are comfort foods, and the words family and comfort go hand in hand.” Units are equipped with flat-surfaced gas grills that allow the melts to grill evenly, she says.
The Reuben Melt on grilled rye is one of the most popular of the seven grilled sandwiches at corporate-owned Village Inns, but Honey Mustard Chicken Melt on sourdough bread, a recent menu addition, also is selling well, says Hayes.
l Old Chicago, a division of the Louisville, Colo.-based Rock Bottom Restaurants Inc., put an Italian Melt on the menu in March, and it soon became the chain’s best-selling sandwich, according to Mike Thom, culinary research and development director.
“We are a very heavy bar restaurant, and it really connects with bar patrons as well as dinner guests,” he explains. “It’s a hardy sandwich that goes well all day and into the late hours.”
Spurred by the success of the Italian melt, Old Chicago has rolled out a limited-time offering of Reuben melts, patty melts, and turkey melts, and will place the Reuben and patty melt on the new permanent menu in October.
l Many people like the grilled flatbread club sandwich at Logan Farms Honey Glazed Hams & Market Cafe in Houston, according to Co-owner Laurie Mercado. Created in the fall of 2003 for the cafe’s catering menu, it scored so high with NFL football fans in Reliance Stadium suites that it won a spot on the cafe menu.
Mercado’s cafe is a franchise in the Houston-based Logan Farms Corp., but it is the only one to serve the flatbread club, made with focaccia, turkey, ham, bacon, roasted yellow and red peppers, red onions, two kinds of cheese, field greens and honey-jalapeo dressing.
Not all flatbread comes from a grill. Some operators turn on their ovens to make it instead.
- Seasons 52, an Orlando grill and wine bar specializing in seasonal, low-fat cuisine, offers six varieties of baked flatbreads on its appetizer menu. Made from thin whole-wheat dough that incorporates flaxseed, the breads are available topped with garlic chicken, grilled flank steak, spicy shrimp or several combinations of vegetables. Like all other items on the menu, none of the flatbreads contains more than 475 calories.“They are very flavorful and a wonderful starter because they are not in any way heavy,”says Deborah Robinson, director of media and communications for Seasons 52, operated by Darden Restaurants.
Chef-owner Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Ky., also goes light with a selection of flatbreads served with Moroccan olives as an alternative to his more traditional breadbasket assortment.
Lee brushes house-made lavash, an unleavened flatbread, with melted butter and milk, sprinkles it with a flavored powder, and bakes it until crisp. He mixes flatbreads sprinkled with beet, black sesame, rosemary, caraway, and curried cocoa for contrasts of taste and color.
“People have been fearful of eating too much bread, but they love this; they eat it up,” says Lee, who took over 610 Magnolia from veteran restaurateur Ed Garber in September 2003.
Virginia Gerst is a Chicago-based freelance writer