Marcus has covered food for Newsday since 1998.
What do you like to see in a restaurant's bread basket?
I suspect I'm in the minority here, but I like to see thick slices of good, crusty, chewy white bread (or rolls) with a tub of room-temperature butter. That's it. You want to throw in a few slices of a whole-grain or rye? Be my guest.
Here's what I don't want to see: Variety. Don't wow me with cranberry-orange bread and raisin-nut rolls and pesto focaccia. I'll just fill up on them and blame you. Also, these elaborately flavored morsels are going to be of no use to me when I want to sop up the last broth from my steamed mussels. Please, restaurants, just save your efforts for the meal to come. (Exceptions to this rule: cornbread and/or biscuits are welcome at Southern or soul food or barbecue restaurants, onion rolls at steak houses.)
If a restaurant is serving classic American Parker House rolls, warming them up is a nice touch. But baguettes and rustic European breads are properly served at room temperature; any bread baker will tell you that loaves should be completely cooled before they are breached by a knife. All too often -- though not always -- warming up bread is a strategy for refreshing something already on the way to being stale.
I certainly don't expect restaurants to bake their own bread, a huge undertaking, entailing special equipment and lots of time. But I do expect them to buy it from a good supplier. Tom Cat Bakery in Queens sends trucks out to Long Island every day. Bread distributors such as Featherstone Foods carry a selection of fine artisanal loaves from many metro area bakeries. As for Long Island bakeries, I am a big fan of Blue Duck in Southold, and the recently reopened Saint Rocco in Glen Cove looks very promising. Otherwise, I haven't been impressed.
Spreadable butter in a little tub cannot be improved upon. I love olive oil; butter is better on bread. (In Italy, restaurants do not serve olive oil with bread, nor do they muck up the incomparable taste of good, fresh olive oil with herbs or other flavorings.) I know foil-wrapped packets of butter are hygienic and economical, but they also scream "cafeteria."
How safe is microwave-safe plastic?
After my column on using the microwave oven to reheat food, I got a follow-up from the original questioner, Jack Adler of Floral Park. I had advised against using those divided plastic containers designed for reheating because it's more efficient to microwave different types of food separately. "I thought you would have written more about not using plastic at all in the microwave," he wrote.
According to the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide, some plastics, when heated, may release potentially harmful "plasticizers" into food. But the FDA "closely regulates plastic containers and materials that come into contact with food [and]... requires that manufacturers test these containers and that those tests meet FDA standards and specifications." That's what the "microwave safe" label signifies.
Personally, I rarely use plastic containers in the microwave. It's not my safety that concerns me; it's the plastic container's. After a while, some of them tend to warp, and just try getting them clean after you've reheated tomato sauce. Reheating in a microwave-safe glass or ceramic container is a better bet.