Whatever Happened to the Starch?
First restaurants started charging for bread. Then they took away our white food altogether. Did Dr. Atkins and those gluten-free killjoys ruin it for all of us?
I started noticing it in cutting-edge places like Bar Sajor and Whale Wins—houses big on salads, pickles, vegetables, dairies, and proteins, but generally uninterested in starches (noodles, rice, and potatoes). Beyond the toast needed to hold up the herring rillettes, that is.
But it wasn’t until I reviewed Ballard’s Brimmer and Heeltap, which appears in the August issue (now on newsstands; online next week), that I understood the extent to which starchlessness in restaurants is seriously, officially a Thing.
B&H chef Mike Whisenhunt, late of Joule and Revel, withheld starches of any kind from Brimmer’s opening menu—until guests started clamoring. “I didn’t want to put bread on the menu, I was very resistant,” he told me in a phone interview. “At Joule we didn’t even do rice in the beginning, and only started offering bread at the tail end of when I was there.” (Yeah, I remember. Joule was one of the first around here to start charging for bread.)
The new Joule has a “Rice and Noodle” section on its menus, including the galaxy’s best rice cakes preparation. But that didn’t influence Whisenhunt—whose Brimmer and Heeltap is also Korean fusion but still doesn’t offer rice. “I did consider it; it just didn’t seem to fit here.”
What Whisenhunt did end up adding, in response to the outcry from guests, was bread. Not just any bread—but a $3, one-and-a-half-inch-thick slab of Grand Central Bakery como loaf, “drenched in butter and gilded hotly to a salted and peppered crust,” I wrote in my review. “You eat it with a knife and fork, like a bread steak, and if it’s not the wickedest thing you’ve put in your mouth all day, you’re living the dream.”
Chef Anti-Starch brings us that? “Honestly, I think as Americans we don’t need bread,” Whisenhunt explains. “I want people to feel good when they leave here, and bread is just a filler. But people like to sop up their food with it. I feel people come in late at night and order two of ‘em. If I was going to offer bread, I didn’t want to be skimpy.”
That bread remains the only starch dish on the whole menu—and as Whisenhunt gets talking, one picks up a clue about why. “People feel full when they eat starch,” he says. “We want you to try a lot of flavors and different things. I think it makes good business sense.”