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Wednesday, July 26, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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TASTE OF THE TOWN

Bread: It's on a roll, gaining momentum

Seattle Times restaurant critic

You're dining out, fighting hunger pangs, when it arrives: the bread basket. You reach for one slice, then another. As your fingers inch forward a third time, a voice inside your head (isn't that your mother?) scolds "Don't fill up on bread!" You ignore it. And who can blame you?

The artisan bread movement, which began locally when Gwenyth Bassetti founded Grand Central Bakery, has been on a Como roll ever since. It's gained great momentum in the past decade, introducing us to breads with exquisite flavors, varying textures and crusts worthy of the name. Often, that introduction has taken place in restaurants, and, for me at least, has progressed to a love-struck relationship with the well-stocked bread aisle at Whole Foods.

Seattle's come a long way since Gai's sourdough was the ultimate in breadbasket luxury and these days, you never know whose bread will accompany your restaurant meal. I find that half the fun of eating bread on the job is playing "Name That Bakery." It's a game that isn't getting any easier as newcomers such as Ballard's fledgling Tall Grass Bakery (5907 24th Ave. N.W., Seattle, 206-706-0991) enter the picture.

(Psssst: that's Tall Grass' hominy bread on the table at Jimmy's Table.)

My eyes never fail to light up at the sight of potato bread from Macrina Bakery (2408 First Ave., Seattle, 206-448-4032), which turns a fabulous oyster po'boy sandwich into a veritable oyster rich boy at Matt's in the Market. Macrina's owner, baker Leslie Mackie, goes out of her way to ensure the bread's freshness by delivering twice daily to restaurants in the downtown core, and I've been known to go out of my way to pick up loaves of it from the Belltown source for home consumption.

While Macrina bakes 13 bread varieties, including such best-sellers as the Giuseppe (the crusty Italian-style bread served at Marco's Supperclub), Italian baker Ciro Pascuito creates only one type of bread dough at La Panzanella (1314 E. Union St., Seattle, 206-325-5217). Known simply as "Ciro's Bread," this rustic revelation is sold by the pound. Hand-formed, with a rough crust and toothsome interior, it has a fervent following.

A purist and a philosopher (you haven't lived till you've heard this guy expound on his favorite subjects: bread and wine), Pascuito insists, "When you dip bread in tomatoes, you should taste the tomatoes." I've happily tasted both at Joseph Jimenez de Jimenez' tiny tapas bar, Harvest Vine. There, Ciro's bread is generously rubbed with tomato, drizzled with olive oil and draped with Serrano ham for a tapa both simple and sublime.

"Ciro's bread is an institution in this town," claims chef Jordi Viladas, who has been serving it since he and his wife, Carla Leonardi, opened Cafe Lago 10 years ago. "We couldn't not use it," he says. "Our customers would revolt!" At home, they make great use of Ciro's "leftovers," grilling it for bruschetta, making bread crumbs to stuff fresh peppers and toasting it for the perfect panzanella - the bread salad that gives Pascuito's bakery its name.

Though Pascuito rightly says, "Even when my bread is three, four days old, there's still life there," Viladas bows to diner's distaste for day-old bread. On Sundays - Ciro's day of rest - The Essential Baking Company's Pugliese loaf pinch-hits for Ciro's.

Pugliese is one of 24 varieties baked at Essential, which makes its home in a renovated Fremont bread factory that once housed Oroweat's highly mechanized operation (1604 N. 34th St., Seattle, 206-545-3804). Today, the bakery is hands-on, low-tech and certified organic. Breads are baked around the clock, daily, and find their way to such disparate restaurant venues as Cyclops and the Columbia Tower Club, Cafe Flora and the Metropolitan Grill, Hattie's Hat and Experience Music Project. That said, the best place to sample the goods is at Essential's on-site cafe, where you might cadge a bowl of soup and a loaf of Munich rye while watching bakers pull their wares from a 16-foot round Spanish hearth oven.

In 1989, Gwen Bassetti, with the help of a young baker named Leslie Mackie, introduced Seattle to its first rustic breads - Grand Central's Como, sour white, "yeasted" corn loaf and rustic baguette. These were baked in a small shop in Pioneer Square and delivered to a handful of restaurant accounts via a single truck. Today the company boasts six retail and wholesale locations, including four in Portland, overseen by Bassetti's son, Ben Davis, president and CEO of the Portland operations.

Here in Seattle, Grand Central's newly expanded 10,000 square feet of office, production and distribution space is housed on East Marginal Way, where a silo holding 32,000 pounds of flour is depleted and filled approximately every five days. You can still find your favorite Grand Central bread (I'm partial to the rustic baguette), preferably wrapped around a sandwich, at the original Pioneer Square deli and bakery (214 First Ave. S., Seattle, 206-622-3644).

At Le Panier (1902 Pike Place, Seattle, 206-441-3669), Pike Place Market's self-proclaimed "Very French Bakery," baker Thierry Mougin can hardly keep up with the foot traffic that makes its way into the shop he co-owns with Kristie Drake. Le Panier's restaurant-clients are few. The bakery doesn't make deliveries. But that doesn't stop Afrikando's chef/owner Jacques Saar, who treks here each morning to pick up a standing order for his West African cafe's savory baguette sandwiches. Nor does it keep Jerry Brahm, owner/chef at The Bistro on 24th, from shopping here for his. Cynthia Brock stops in daily for Mougin's ficelle, which she ferries over to her Bainbridge Island cafe, Sweet and Savory.

Playing "Name That Bakery" at Canlis would be a head-scratching ordeal. The potato bread's Macrina's, the rye's Essential's and that's La Panzanella's crackery croccantini in the bread basket; guests dining privately in Canlis ' penthouse are treated to baskets of Grand Central's Como and rosemary rolls.

For much of the half-century that Canlis has been the be-all and end-all in Seattle fine dining, the restaurant served Gai's sourdough rolls (aka "Canlis rolls"). Without question, Gai's - now owned by Franz Bakery of Portland - still maintains its near-monopoly on the local bread market; it's even making its own artisan bread, sold as Gai's "Signature" loaf. But the fact that Canlis' executive chef Greg Atkinson no longer turns to Gai's to fill the restaurant's fine-linen-draped bread baskets speaks directly to our tastes for the European bread model.

Despite the proliferation of artisan bakeries, many restaurants are bringing the baking in-house. When Kaspar's stopped serving lunch in the early '90s, chef Kaspar Donier trained his lunch-cooks to bake bread. These days, baker Josiah Fox is dedicated to the task of providing customers with a mixed basket of incredible edibles, including, perhaps, olive focaccia, French baguette, pear-gorgonzola roulade and Kaspar's signature poppy-seed lavash.

At the recently relocated Dahlia Lounge, which now boasts an adjoining bakery, lead baker Andy Meltzer and two assistants turn out breads for each of Tom Douglas's three restaurants. The trio left their former post at the Palace Kitchen's commissary and are pleased to no longer have to share prep-space and ovens with Douglas' talented pastry chefs. Dining at the new Dahlia recently, I couldn't keep my mitts off the naturally leavened Kalamata olive bread that joined a bran batard and Washington russet potato bread pulled warm from a fancy new steam-producing Pavailler oven.

Artisan bread bakers began a small revolution in the '80s and '90s, leaving no excuse for any decent restaurant to offer tasteless, cottony, mass-produced wads of dough. House-baked breads like those served at Kaspar's and the Dahlia may be the wave of the future, making it all but impossible for us not to fill up on bread.

Nancy Leson's phone number is 206-464-8838. Her e-mail address is: nleson@seattletimes.com.

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Not for sale

As I said in my July 12 column "I jest." Which is exactly what I was doing when I jokingly suggested Gwen Bassetti was selling Grand Central Bakery to a corporate grocery chain. So please stop spreading rumors and calling her office to ask, "Is it true?" It's not. Grand Central remains - and intends to remain - fiercely independent.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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