While it's great to try a new restaurant, there's something to be said for having a regular spot — a place (preferably within walking distance) where everyone knows your name, your story and maybe your favorite dish. This type of laid-back, neighborhood restaurant is a dying breed, as technology — for better or worse — makes a block's best-kept secret into a city's new hot spot. The kind of convivial but relaxed spirit embodied by these restaurants lives on at Toast, an Uptown breakfast and lunch joint where a Sunday morning brunch feels like a family reunion.
Opened early this spring by the team behind Francophile lunchtime favorite Tartine, there's never a shortage of diners ready to indulge in sweet, Nutella-filled crepes or a bowl of piping hot grits. Servers bustle around between tables filled with guests who greet one another as they arrive. Twentysomethings in yoga pants, preachers with rockabilly hairstyles and tam-wearing elderly gentlemen all dine side by side, milling about from table to table to visit with one another as if at a party.
Toast's strength lies in its ability to make dishes with sophisticated ingredients feel accessible and ordinary breakfast items glow. There's a decidedly European flair to a majority of the dishes. This is most apparent in the overwhelming selection of crepes, with fillings ranging from ratatouille to king cake. If you're looking for a sweet indulgence, the chocolate- and creme anglaise-filled crepe is warm and rich without overwhelming the crepe's delicate, paper-thin texture. The creme anglaise itself is a dreamy and decedent dessert-like treat, with a smooth, custardy consistency and delicious full-bodied vanilla flavor.
The prosciutto and brie crepe would turn even those wary of fancy French cheeses into believers. The portioning is masterful, with small bites of salty prosciutto supported by a thin spread of buttery, earthy brie that allows both to shine. Across the board, it's easy to eat like royalty at Toast for pauper's prices — all crepes and most menu items fall below the $10 mark for generous portions.
The aebelskivers are perhaps the restaurant's most curious menu item: round, poppable Danish-style pancakes made with dense, eggy batter and smothered in any number of sugary toppings. While the cue-ball sized aebelskivers at Toast are much larger than others I've tried, the fluffy texture ensures that they aren't overwhelming, particularly when paired with the tart, citrus bite of lemon curd, which has been thinned and warmed to perfectly complement the puffy delicacies. It would be nice to see the traditional lingonberry jam served with aebelskivers appear on the menu as an option with other items.
There also are a number of heavier, lunch-appropriate entrees, including a croque madame featuring a thick ham steak instead of sliced ham, and a hanger steak with a dry, chalky taste. The steak's complement of heavy-duty side items — pungent tarragon aioli, a gummy egg, underseasoned potatoes — make the dish more cumbersome and lackluster.
It's the restaurant's namesake toasts that are roundly undersold on the menu and over-deliver on the plate. The breads are made in house and are buoyant and chewy, serving as ideal canvases for many topping combinations. The toast with an herb-dappled ricotta, prosciutto slices and a big drizzle of honey is a well-balanced crowd pleaser, while the heaping portion of salmon with feathery egg and a smear of cream cheese will bridge the gap until lunch with grace.
There are few wrong choices at Toast, and the welcoming atmosphere makes one feel lucky to be a part of such a tight-knit community, even on a first meal.