Toast is unlike any other restaurant in town. That's because it is the manifestation of a single person's very unique vision of how a wine bar should be. Whether that's good news or bad depends on how closely your tastes match those of owner Jillian Davis, who demands that staffers don plaid shirts to evoke thoughts of the farmstead.
Davis' labor of love for the past six years, Toast is a neighborhood bistro shoehorned into a 100-year-old storefront in Gordon Square. Despite close quarters, the interior is surprisingly chopped up, with each of the three main spaces disconnected from one another. Sit in the dining room and you're cut off from the action in the bar. Sit at the bar and you won't see a single diner in either the front or rear dining room. Sit in the front dining room and you'll feel like you're noshing in Siberia.
I prefer the bar, where the atmosphere is upbeat, service is prompt, and expert guidance on wine and cocktails is two feet away. When it comes to the wine list, Davis' fondness for the uncommon works in our favor. The list is loaded with atypical gems from the Old World and New, and prices seem more than reasonable. Nearly a dozen reds and a dozen whites are available by the glass, with another 30 or so bottles priced below $35.
When it comes to cocktails, imbibers are in the capable hands of Kevin Wildermuth, a seasoned mixologist who whips up flawless classic and modern cocktails. But at $11 per petite potion, the drinks can stand to be a buck or two lower in price.
Toast's menu is a moving target, updated daily to best take advantage of the freshest provisions delivered from area farms. Chefs Jennifer Plank and Joe Horvath, exiles from Greenhouse and Noodlecat, have designed the menu in such a way as to best highlight those daily arrivals. It also gives diners a reason to come back week after week to see what's fresh.
A small chalkboard ticks off the day's toasts, cheeses, and house-made charcuterie. Other items on the concise menu range in size from two-bite snacks and small plates to larger meals. Though they're priced like entrees, the largest options likely will leave heartier appetites less than satisfied.
One evening we enjoyed a trio of toasts ($7) topped with farm-fresh egg salad, fresh cheese and strawberry jam, and a cuke-tomato salad. On an earlier visit we devoured rich and rustic head cheese, creamy rabbit rillettes, and zesty bratwurst and cabbage ($17), served with a small stack of bread. Toast also rotates the cheese selection ($19) frequently, but oddly, the only way a diner can pair his or her wine with both charcuterie and cheese is to pay $36 for both platters.
In the "small eats" department we snacked on a sampling of pickled and fried veggies like broccoli, cauliflower and rhubarb ($5). Seared turnips with butter and salt ($6) prove how delicious humble root veggies can be when baby tender and not overcooked. We could have polished off a dozen of the crispy pig ears ($7), crackling-crisp skins topped with mashed potato, cheese and bacon. In the mouth, the dish tastes like a barn-to-table potato skin.
Moving up in size, a small portion of tender, flavorful and sliced flank steak ($18) is perched atop a crispy potato cake. Again, I could have eaten a double order — both because it was so good and because it was so small. That wasn't the case with a meaty and moist pork chop ($17), set against a tart and spicy cherry compote. We were blown away by the flavor combinations of smoked perch, pickled strawberry, and bright and dilly crème fraiche — all rolled up in a delicate egg crepe ($14).
To reinforce the farmhouse theme, Toast employs typical elements like Mason jars, tea-towel napkins and chunky, rustic wood tables. I'm not sure what design style the front drapery falls under, a paint-splattered drop cloth jury-rigged to block out the setting sun. And it might be wise to shut the dish-room door so diners don't have to stare at the mop bucket all night like we did.
Other than that, Toast is cuter than a day-old piglet, but it's the food that deserves the most attention.