5 restaurants where the bread is worth the extra bucks

Raid the bread basket at Balena, Nellcote, Allium and more

  • Bacon-and-onion buns at Allium (120 E. Delaware Place)
Bacon-and-onion buns at Allium (120 E. Delaware Place) (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
March 30, 2012|By Lisa Arnett, RedEye

The bread basket, plunked down on your table as a free prelude to your meal, is adored by some, ignored by others and shunned by calorie counters everywhere.

Stephanie Izard's Girl & the Goat surprised diners two years ago when it opened with a menu of breads and spreads that you had to (gasp!) order and (double gasp!) pay for. Now a handful more restaurants have followed suit with their own specialty breads.

So in case you were looking for permission, go ahead and fill up on the bread. At these spots, it's worth the few extra bucks.

120 E. Delaware Place. 312-799-4900

A more laid-back reboot of the Four Seasons Hotel's restaurant Seasons, Allium features chef Kevin Hickey's twists on feel-good classics, like a $14 Chicago-style hot dog topped with "homemade everything." But one of the best deals on the menu might be the bacon and onion buns ($4, pictured). Pastry chef Scott Gerken blends sauteed onions and bits of bacon into his bread dough before it rises, and then tops it off with a strip of raw bacon that crisps up as the bread bakes. The result is four pull-apart buns overflowing from the cutest cherry-red casserole dish, with a disc of butter on the side.

1633 N. Halsted St. 312-867-3888

While chef Chris Pandel is busy making all his own pastas from scratch at this Italian-inspired Lincoln Park restaurant, in-house baker Peter Becker is working his magic with the bread. Though what's filling the $5 basket will change seasonally, right now it's stuffed with ramp crostini, flaky lemon-pepper challah, a nugget of walnut bread and roasted garlic semolina that's cleverly baked in the shape of a garlic clove. Tear into them all mix-and-match with dips such as olive oil, whipped ricotta and bagna cauda, an addictive Italian dipping sauce made with anchovies and garlic.

1023 W. Lake St. 312-243-9770

At this West Loop wine bar, Mark Mendez's menu of Spanish snacks will easily lure you into starting with marinated olives or anchovies with pickled garlic. Try to resist and first order the bread and butter ($6). A sliced loaf of warm boule (that's French for a round loaf of white bread) is really just a vehicle for the rotating trio of flavored butters. Right now, it's garlic, sea salt with black pepper and chicken chicharron. Past options have included chili, sea urchin, duck crackling and anchovy.

RPM Italian
52 W. Illinois St. 312-222-1888

If you're dining in a big group at this sleek River North restaurant, go ahead and put in an order of the truffle garlic bread ($7) while you look over the rest of the massive menu. The split baguette generously dressed with butter, garlic and flecks of parsley is a throwback to what your mom or grandma used to make, hence chef Doug Psaltis' "circa 1963" description on the menu. If you have a hungry friend to go halfsies with, it'd do an equally good job soaking up a glass of vino or two in the bar.

833 W. Randolph St. 312-432-0500

Chef Jared Van Camp is milling Midwest-grown grain into flour for pizza and pasta at his West Loop restaurant, but to taste it in its simplest form, order the trio of fresh breads ($3). There's an almond-shaped baguette with just enough chew, airy focaccia shaped like a cupcake and sprinkled with coarse salt and perfectly flaky chunk of golden-brown brioche. If you run out of the fluffy house-cultured butter, your server will gladly bring out more if you ask nicely.

lmarnett@tribune.com | @redeyeeats

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