TABLE bread can be easily ignored since it doesn't appear on the menu and is often served free of charge.
However, table bread is important as it gives diners their first impression of what to expect for the meal. The smell, texture and freshness of table bread, to a large extent, determine whether customers will enjoy the meal.
Bakers say bread plays an important role in the meal as it enhances the taste of other dishes and vice versa.
Frank Wu, chief baker at Fairmont Peace Hotel, says that whole wheat bread, for example, has a unique fragrance that enhances the milky flavor of cheese and that sour dough bread served with ham will leave a fruity after taste.
There are several things to look for to determine quality bread.
"If you push bread, it should return to its original shape after you remove your finger," Wu says, adding that you should be able to smell wheat when tearing or cutting bread.
Grace Xue, pastry chef at Renaissance Shanghai Yu Garden Hotel, says it's hard to generalize a good bread texture since there are so many kinds of bread.
For example, soft rolls need to be soft with a fluffy mouthfeel while hard rolls are best when they are chewy on the outside and soft inside, according to Xue.
Both chefs emphasized that bread is best served warm.
Frank Wu and Steven Liu, executive sous chef at Fairmont Peace Hotel, say homemade bread is all about using the proper ingredients.
"Bakers can oversee the sourcing of ingredients, everything from imported flour to the fine butter made in particular areas to ensure the final flavor," Liu says.
Wu says they use starter dough instead of yeast because it's healthier and tastes natural.
Home baking also allows more space for creativity. "As a baker, I am always trying various fermenting techniques to create new flavors," Wu says.
His latest creation is a sour dough bread with fermented yogurt, which was inspired by the traditional way of making ice cream.
Liu says more natural acidic foods are being used for fermentation including apples, grapes, osmanthus flowers and jiu niang (fermented glutinous rice) to give bread more fragrance and flavor.
"It's a big trend," Liu says.
Shanghai Daily takes a look at three hotels in Shanghai that serve homemade bread.
The Cathay Room
Fairmont Peace Hotel
The breads change daily although some of their signatures are available year round.
Chef Liu recommends the whole-wheat bread sprinkled with sesame made from flax and sunflower seeds. It has a nutty fragrance and a flavor that resembles dark beer.
The olive-flavored bread is also popular among customers. It has a light fluffy texture and palatable olive flavor.
Wu says croissants are his signature. Strong buttery and milky fragrances work together with a flaky inside texture.
The focaccia with basil and oregano has a nice herbal flavor and chewy texture. It is also highly recommended.
All the breads are free at The Cathay Room while some signatures such as croissant (18-25 yuan+15%) and baguette (68 yuan+15%) are sold at Victor's, the Cafe and Patisserie.
Address: 20 Nanjing Rd E.
Yu Garden Café
Renaissance Shanghai Yu Garden Hotel
Chef Grace Xue prepares about six types of bread daily, from shiny and fluffy soft rolls to chewy and rich pretzels highlighted by coarse sea salt.
Xue's signature is a whole-wheat bread sprinkled with cornmeal, walnut, raisin and fruit peels. It has a subtle fruity flavor.
The chef suggests dipping a lavash cracker, a flat bread with sesame, into mashed olives. The silky and moist olive mash creates a textural contrast with the lavash cracker.
Xue also recommends wrapping grissini, a pen like crispy bread stick, with Parma ham. The dry and light grissini balances out the fatty and savory taste of the ham. The smoky flavor of the ham adds dimension to the grissini.
Address: 159 Henan Rd S.
Millennium HongQiao Hotel Shanghai
Jason Shen, executive pastry chef at the hotel, bakes four types of bread daily. It can be anything from baguette (30 yuan) to mixed rye cranberry (50 yuan). Shen likes to mix grains, dried fruits and vegetables to create new flavors.
"I mix the rye with cranberry and proof it naturally, trying to avoid using too much yeast. In this way, the bread is not just tasty, but also healthier," Shen says.
The pastry chef also uses basil, rosemary, nutmeg and vanilla. The rosemary sun dried tomato bread (50 yuan), one of his signatures, is definitely worth trying.
All the breads are free for diners at O' Café, the hotel's buffet restaurant. They are also sold at Delicatessen (the hotel's bakery shop) but need to be ordered in advance.