June 19, 2006
Forget the Staff of Life?

The Sacramento Bee's nutrition tip of the week in Sunday's Scene section urges readers to skip the bread and butter when they dine out.

"Yes, you're hungry and you need to do something while waiting for your food. But make that 'something' conversation. It's 100 percent calorie-free," scolds the corner nutritionist.

Conversation? What have you been doing in the car on the way over to the restaurant if not talking?

Well, we're just back from Il Fornaio in downtown Sacramento, and for conversation starters nothing quite does it like the basket of bread that greets diners as soon as they are seated. There were four kinds tonight - rosemary, olive, sesame-seed breadsticks and the best ciabatta I've had in a restaurant, full of flavor and character. When bread is as good as it is at Il Fornaio, I can see why a nutritionist would suggest skipping it. You really can put away the calories, especially if you dip chunks of bread into the pool of olive oil and balsamic vinegar that also is quick to welcome guests.

But the bread is the last thing I'd suggest calorie-conscious diners to skip once they are seated in a retaurant. Next to the water and the wine that also opens a balanced dinner, nothing tells you more about the restaurant or sets up the evening than the bread. A few years ago, veteran food writer Jeffrey Steingarten of Vogue magazine, quoting a "French savant" whose name he couldn't recall, wrote that it's impossible to understand a meal without considering the bread. "Any restaurant review that fails to evaluate the quality of the bread is either incomplete or completely invalid; I can't decide which," roared Steingarten. "Fantastic bread can overcome an ugly restaurant, with brutish service, recently defrosted desserts, and burned coffee."

I don't know that I would go that far, or agree with his claim that every restaurant review should devote space to the bread. Most of the bread served in restaurants is unremarkable, and just serviceable. Maybe that's the kind of bread the nutritionist had in mind when he or she said skip it. If they'd eaten at Il Fornaio, they'd have to switch their worry to some other part of the meal, like maybe dessert.

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