If you can’t remember the last time a bread basket at a Philadelphia restaurant came with regular old butter, you’re not alone.
But it’s not that butter has gone away so much as Philly’s butter game has stepped up big time. Remember when olive oil on the table was a sign of a forward-thinking restaurant paying homage to healthy virtues of the Mediterranean? Some still do, of course. But I suspect that got to be too expensive for some restaurants that wanted to use truly good oil, and also, it was not always thematically on-point.
So what we’re seeing now are a lot of signature touches being whipped into butters of varying pedigrees that reflect another opportunity for the chef to show some craft and leave a creative imprint. And in many ways, it’s been a helpful flourish, drawing attention to the fact many kitchens are putting extra effort into their breads, too. That’s definitely the case at High Street on Market (308 Market St.), a pioneer of our next-gen restaurant-baked bread basket, whose anadama and Keystone loaves are served with butter infused with malted syrup made from local grains.
At Hearthside (801 Haddon Ave., Collingswood) in South Jersey, the fresh rye focaccia and sourdough are paired with a house-cultured butter (fermented with live bacteria for extra tang) that’s blended with Parmesan. At Panorama (Penn’s View Hotel, 14 N. Front St.), chef Matt Gentile gives zing to the house-churned butter for his fresh focaccia a cacio e pepe by whipping in cracked black pepper and olive oil infused with caramelized Locatelli.
The notion of combining different fats into one compound spread has long been a staple at Abe Fisher (1623 Sansom St.), where the butter hits an Ashkenazi tune when blended with rendered duck schmaltz for the “breads and spreads” (including fresh rye) that launches multicourse duck and short rib feasts (it’s also available à la carte). At Keep in Jenkintown (417 York Rd.), chef Mike Jenkins blends butter with one of the world’s stinkiest cheeses, Époisses, for an especially pungent flourish for grilled meats and other specials.
Truffle butter is, by now, a tired faux-fancy trope. But paired with the down-home Pennsylvania pretzel flavor of the cast-iron-baked Parker House rolls at Ripplewood Whiskey & Craft (29 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore), it’s an unstoppable mop-up-and-devour proposition — in part because chef Biff Gottehrer insists on using real Italian truffles instead of their dreaded impostor, cheap truffle oil. A Pennsylvania theme also infuses the house butter churned from Lancaster cream at Elwood (1007 Frankford Ave.), where the potato bread-lard rolls also come with honey from chef Adam Diltz’s own hives. Local honey and lots of benne seeds, an heirloom sesame, also spark the butter churned at Talula’s Table (102 W. State St., Kennett Square), made from cream sourced from nearby Baily’s Dairy.
In some cases, where chefs opt for flavorful crackers or lavash in lieu of more filling bread, extra-flavorful butters are especially key to jump-starting the taste buds. The butter at Serpico (604 South St.) teases sweetness and Asian notes with honey and shiro miso (“I stole that technique from a diner,” joked Peter Serpico), while honey and the tang of hibiscus powder strike a tropical tone at Friday Saturday Sunday (261 S. 21st St.)
At the new Vernick Fish (Comcast Technology Center, 1876 Arch St.), toasted nori butter with lemon zest and sea salt set the oceanic vibe for the seafood-centric menu alongside a crusty sourdough baked with milk stout. Bay leaf powder adds a wry herbal play on words to the butter at Laurel (1617 E. Passyunk Ave.), whose name also means bay. A spiced red wine with shallots and saffron declares the modern French flair at new Forsythia (233 Chestnut St.), where chef Chris Kearse is baking three kinds of bread. An herbal butter of the day highlights the rustic char on Dutch country breads at Noord (1046 Tasker St.)
Meanwhile, at Bibou (1009 S. Eighth St.), chef Pierre Calmels remains resolutely traditional, which means no special flavors at all, just the foil-wrapped minidiscs of one of the great salted butters of France, Échiré. The only catch? Those imported Gallic butter gems are so good, Calmels says, “my customers steal them!”