Spread's the Word

When dining out, I do my best to not pig out on bread. I usually fail, and more so lately. The reason (other than my inability to leave carbs untouched)? The ever-more delicious spreads, dips, and oils that arrive alongside the foccacia, baguettes, and other fancy bread-basket fare.

Last Saturday at Erbaluce, I had a delightful white bean puree spiked with lavender and drizzled with golden olive oil. The spread was silky, rich, and herbaceous, more appetizing than belly-filling, and it reminded me how a simple thing can do so well to set the mood for a good meal.

Elsewhere in town, La Morra presents a lovely dish of fresh ricotta and olive oil at the start of a meal. Franklin Café always brings out a yummy hummus, flavored with roasted garlic, peppers, herbs, or whatever’s fresh that week. At Tupelo, it’s a creamy pimiento cheese, y’all.

My all-time favorite gratis spread in town, though, has sadly seen its last slice: the gloriously fatty “pig butter” at Bina Osteria, which disappeared along with chef Brian Konefal. (RIP, sea salt- and rosemary-sprinkled lard; you’ll never know how much we’ll miss you.) I hear Cafe Polonia does a lard-based spread of its own, but haven’t had a chance to try it.

Then there’s my not-free-but-worth-it list: Oleana’s whipped feta with roasted peppers and warm buttered hummus ($5 each); Hungry Mother’s cornbread with sorghum butter ($4, listed as a side).

I’m curious. Diners, do you want something snazzy before your entrée, or would you be fine with plain bread and butter (or olive oil)? Restaurants: In this economy, do you feel that giving guests a fancy starter is still worth the extra effort and expense?