Walking into Toast feels like visiting a friend's house — it's the kind of place you will want to visit again and again. Luckily for us, there's no need to wait for an invitation. That informal, welcoming atmosphere is just what owner and attorney Jillian Davis was aiming for when she opened the unpretentious Gordon Square Arts District wine bar with food for pairing and sharing in April.
Once a storefront bakery and attached residence, the renovated 1913 building retains elements from its past: cozy rooms, exposed brick, original woodwork, built-in kitchen cupboards and glass-fronted china cabinets. The homey details are perfect for storing jars of pole beans, tomatoes and fruit jams that chefs Jennifer Plank and Joe Horvath, partners in life and work, put up so they can serve local food year round.
A flour bin and wooden pallets found on-site have been transformed into a long communal table and smaller tabletops. Wall sconces incorporate wine barrel rings and staves, and pendant lights have been fashioned from old engine air filters. The overall effect is charmingly hip and totally authentic.
Horvath and Plank, who met while working at the Greenhouse Tavern in 2010, create a weekly locavore menu divided into four sections: Small Eats (starters), A Bit More (soup, salads and platters of meat or cheese), A Tad Larger (entree-style items) and Chef's Sweet Tooth (desserts).
To encourage sharing, you can make selections one or two at a time, rather than all at once, setting the pace for your experience. Just keep going until you hit full.
But come with an open mind because the specifics are determined by what's available seasonally from their suppliers — among them Snowville Creamery, Killbuck Valley Mushrooms, Cleveland Urban Aquaculture and Muddy Fork Farm. In addition, they've planted a kitchen garden in a double lot across the street from the restaurant where laying hens wander among the beds of spinach, arugula, Swiss chard, fennel and squash.
Every dish in each category is a pure and perfect expression of the values and skill of these two chefs, who not only dream them up, but harvest the ingredients and do all the cooking.
"We love every aspect of what we're doing here," Horvath says. "This is our passion, it's what we believe in."
All that heart shows. The baby turnips ($6) were a lesson in what's possible. "I just picked these 90 minutes ago," Horvath offered as he brought them to the table. He also knew exactly how much salt to use and understood that searing them lightly in butter, quick pickling their leafy green tops and plating the two together for contrast would push the preparation over the top.
"Joe and I are challenging ourselves to put what we've learned from teachers, mentors, and books in service to showcasing the wonderful local seasonal foods we work with," explains Plank.
They're consistently nailing it, night after night. We were still savoring memories of the barbecued lamb ribs ($19) the next day. The exceptionally tender, tasty meat came with pickled red cabbage and cucumber yogurt sauce in a sort of Mediterranean meets Eastern European presentation.
Though details change you can count on some basics. There's always a soup — we had French candy onion ($8) with a funky Epoisse and a rich mushroom bisque, each so fine we were tempted to lick the bowl clean — salads, a cheese platter, lots of vegetarian plates and an entree-sized vegan option. Mimicking the classic raw ground beef preparation, a "tartar" of finely chopped beets atop a chickpea cake ($15) was an appealing array of textures, colors and seasonings that could hold its own against any animal-centric dish.
An assortment of Horvath's charcuterie ($17), set out on a slate with each meat identified in chalk, is a mainstay but the elements are always a surprise. We've enjoyed smoked pork pate, flank jerky, crispy fried duck livers, chicken liver mousse and lamb bacon.
The trio of toasts ($7) follows the same pattern — always available, but rarely the same. The toppings are house reinventions of familiar favorites, ranging from egg or chicken salad to peanut butter and jelly or garlic butter made with scapes (the green stalk of the garlic plant).
The pickles — brined cabbage, cucumbers, cauliflower and almost any other vegetable you can think of — are a treasure ($5). The daily selection can be ordered naked or fried. We couldn't decide so the server offered to bring them done both ways.
The wine list emphasizes boutique American labels such as Duxoup Syrah from California, which produces less than 4,000 bottles annually, and lesser-known Old World gems by the glass, among them Herdade do Rocim Mariana, a red blend from Portugal, a Loire Bourgueil, and a Dopff and Irion pinot blanc from Alsace.
The commitment to source locally when possible extends to the beverage side. This is the only place in town carrying Wooster's JAFB beer. It's on draft, usually a cream ale and one of their IPAs, and bottled beers are Ohio brews. Bartenders mix up classic cocktails as well as more inventive versions such as the Taylor Farm ($11), a refreshing blend of 10 Cane Rum, fresh basil, plus cherry bitters and tonic that Davis makes herself.
It's a perfect beginning to a leisurely, laid-back evening that's more like hanging out with friends than dining out.
When You GoToast
1365 W. 65th St.
Mon-Thu 4:30-11 p.m.
Fri & Sat 4:30 p.m.- 1 a.m.
Beet pickled deviled eggs ($3 each) made with beer mustard and topped with shoestring shallots
»If You Go
Check out the sweet little patio behind the restaurant, just completed last month.