TOAST IS BACK
Toast Wine Bar was closed for a couple of months this spring due to renovations but, like a piece of bread properly warmed, they have popped back up.
So one evening last week, my companion and I headed downtown and parked on King William, then strolled south on the east side of John, almost to King. Two women were sitting and chatting in the front window with its painted on Toast logo, but the rest of the dining room was fair game.
We were seated toward the back. The room felt like part cafe, part 18th century French salon. The comfortable old-fashioned couch, bejewelled chandelier hanging from the centre of the room, gold framed mirrors and gold coloured coat stand are modern interpretations of a glittering, bygone era. Paintings and photos clustered on the walls add an artsy feel.
Like the French salons of the Enlightenment, Toast is a place where women’s voices are heard. Two in particular, adding their experience and style to Hamilton’s food scene: Toast owners Sarah Bond and Christine McConville, who teamed up after working together at Locke Street’s Bread Bar.
McConville acted as hostess and server, walking us briefly through the food and drink menus, and specials. We were then left to look over the drink menu as the early evening sun streamed in through the windows. It was midweek and the place was pretty quiet but the music filled in the gaps. I love jazz, but it doesn’t always need to be playing at a wine bar. So I was pumped to hear a steady stream of indie pop, a notch funkier than what you might hear on CBC Radio 2.
We ordered, then heard the shaker at the bar area in the other room (which has stylish stools, if you wish to nosh there). Out came their Sunset Ruby and Cherry Bomb G & T. The Sunset is a mix of Dillon’s vodka, citrus and bubbly. With a floral touch, thanks to St. Germain elderflower liqueur, balanced and deliciously refreshing.
Featuring a house-made tonic, the Cherry Bomb was not, as its name might suggest, over the top. It has more of a moderate cherry flavour, with pear bitters carrying allspice and similar flavours in the background. The spices brought a quiet intensity to the drink, and the candied orange peel was a lovely garnish.
Many other drinks were available, including beer and, of course, plenty of wine. The lengthy wine list is carefully cultivated, including selections from Niagara: Tawse, Malivoire and Rosewood Estates. From abroad, wines from Parés Baltà in Spain, Mojo in California, and Nals Margreid in Italy. The list also has some lesser known but interesting wines, with a little description of each beneath. If you have trouble choosing, you can get a wine flight to go with your meal. The prices do have a wide range, from $8 to $16 for a five-ounce pour so if you have a budget, just be sure to look first.
We started with “snacks,” and got the pickle plate as one of our selections, after finding out that Bond has a penchant for pickling. The dish included delicious curry pickled carrots, dill pickled beets, and some pickled celery that was punchy and almost made my lips pucker while making me want more. Then the nuts, oiled just right before roasting to give them a crisp texture to go along with the subtle, spicy heat. The dark chocolate bark with sea salt, our third selection, was awesome.
In hindsight, I would have spread my snacks throughout the meal rather than filling up at the beginning, but I was certainly glad we’d chosen them.
We asked McConville about the cheese and meat board and she gave detailed descriptions, including purveyors. They were listed on a mirror, a bit difficult to read, but our selections were a treat. Triple cream goat cheese, and a Lindsay clothbound (made at Mariposa Dairy in Lindsay, Ont.) that had a beautiful, grassy undertone. And the meats: Sicilian salami sliced thin enough to melt in my mouth, and prosciuttino, salt-cured pork that’s meatier and leaner than standard prosciutto. Slices of fresh bread (from de la terre in Vineland) were a worthy accompaniment.
The mixed grain salad came next, with a variety of grains (spelt berries, rice) floating amid the arugula. These gave the salad a bit of substance and, along with edamame, radish and goat cheese, it was almost a meal unto itself. Green goddess dressing added a zing of spring herb flavour.
Lamb meatballs and zucchini bahji rounded out our “shared plates” (the menu doesn’t mention tapas but it has the “sharing is caring” kind of ethos that tapas embraces). The meatballs were fine but could have been cooked a bit less, as they were lean. The tzatziki served with them was fresh tasting and, along with pickled onions, the dish had dimension.
Bahjis are something I tend to associate with a lot of oil, but these were fried lightly. I found the filling to be a touch gummy, though, which tells me they might have needed a little more time to cook. Once again, the sauce on the side, this time a lime and cilantro tamarind dip, took them up a notch.
McConville said bookings had been a bit slow recently, possibly because people weren’t aware that they have reopened. I was surprised when she also told me that it’s busiest in the evening because I think this would be an ideal place for a business lunch downtown. Away from the bustle of James Street, it has a calmer, laid back vibe. And in fact, when I inquired later over the phone, Bond told me a private room will be available around the end of the month that can be booked for events.
In the meantime, we moved on to dessert. They had a whoopie pie on offer: chocolate cookies, filled with a raspberry cream which I felt could have been heavier to stand up to the thick, soft cookies. As it was, the filling held a wisp of flavour but the cookies were delicious.
The only thing I found myself wishing was that Toast was closer to my workplace. I would love to visit them for lunch, or after work.
Unwinding with a flight of wine on a Friday afternoon, along with a couple of plates and some snacks, would take me right into the weekend.
The room felt like part cafe, part 18th century French salon.
The mixed grain salad managed to be both hearty and light. It was almost a meal unto itself.
The meat and cheese plate showed off an in-depth knowledge of charcuterie and delectable cheeses.