Uptown spinoff

Toast's new Birmingham outpost pleases

Reviewers learn to take the publicity materials with a grain of salt, so let's set aside the fact that the owners of Toast say they're "introducing 'Gastrocasual' dining to metro Detroit." The buzzwords are all there — "created seasonally, locally grown, big-city ambience, new twist, retro, funky" — they roll off a reader's brain like water off an oil slick. There's even a "passionately curated" wine list.

It doesn't matter, because it turns out the hype is true: Toast serves great food and wine "with humor in a fun, casual environment."

Very few restaurants in the United States would admit to not being casual these days, but Toast does do its all to create some fun: The hostess station is an old white Detroit Liner stove, a 1940s model with legs and drawers. The lobby displays a wall of multicolored plates, cups and OJ squeezers from Shabby Joe Glass Garden Art. The personable waitstaff wears T-shirts with slogans like "B'ham and Eggs." There's a lounge called the Blue Room that's full of candles and sports a stark white deer's head over the fireplace. You can get an old-fashioned cocktail like a Pink Lady or a new-fashioned one like a Blueberry Pancake martini. And the menu is a mix of such firm favorites as burgers and mac & cheese (with Gruyère, of course) and less-common options, such as duck pie and venison sausage.

The new Toast, opened Oct. 29, is an offshoot, of course, of owners Thom and Regan Bloom's successful breakfast and lunch spot in Ferndale, a magnet for devotees of such pricey breakfasts as Grand Marnier French toast. The new Toast serves breakfast and lunch seven days a week, with a menu almost like Ferndale's served till 4 p.m.

The new place has become so popular so immediately that there's often a wait for dinner (no reservations) and you have to shout across the wide tables to be heard by your companions. Past the dinner hour, noise levels are far friendlier.

The menu is mostly American, with a few ringers such as carnitas and forbidden rice, originally Chinese. We were treated one night to an amuse bouche of popcorn, served in a paper cone.

A mellow glass of Chilean Carmenere (red) for $7 is described as a "lost grape of Bordeaux," and the waiter admitted freely he had no idea what that meant either. He and I both strongly recommend it, in any case.

Ask for the cinnamon-y sweet potato soup, which tasted too rich to be vegetarian (howls of protest, Jane, you ignorant slut, haven't you ever, don't you know. ... Yes, I do know from experience that vegetarian food can be rich in flavor, but I thought I could taste chicken broth in this one, despite the waiter's assurances).

Top of the line are a pair of over-the-top burgers. "The Joint" is Piedmontese beef stuffed with blue cheese and topped with basil aioli, tomato jam and skinny crisp onions. It's pungent and mellow at the same time. "Burger Madame" comprises smoked Gouda, romesco (a Catalan sauce) and a fried egg, served on toast. Not for the faint of heart, or those watching their hearts, but categorically worth it.

Equally delicious are duck empanadas, smoky with a perfect fatty pastry, and an open-face vegetarian tart with, incongruously, Brussels sprouts and candied nuts. Candied nuts are a recurrent theme, in fact, showing up in salads and sprinkled on the cheese board. The raisins there were unusual in that you could actually taste their origin as grapes.

Scallops are served with dark, chewy, nutty forbidden rice, reminiscent of vanilla and set off with pink grapefruit. Tournedos of beef were served very rare, as ordered, with a fruity sauce, charred onion compote, cheddar risotto and more Brussels sprouts. Barely seared ahi tacos are a light spicy appetizer with a citrusy sauce.

My party's only big disappointment was a duck pie, advertised as smoked duck with brandied wild mushrooms but with little flavor and a glutinous texture, reminiscent of Swanson's pot pies, if memory serves. The only saving grace on this dish was a feathery biscuit topping.

And Toast shines in the bakery department. Pastries baked daily are displayed in the lobby and can be taken home. A warm apple Betty was so scrumptious that I broke reviewers' rules and had it again on my second visit (they'd run out of rum-butter cake with rum pecans and fresh berries). The candied nuts are pecans this time, and the brown-sugared apples are drowning in melting homemade cinnamon ice cream. It's all served in a bowl-size crockery teacup that makes you think of Alice in Wonderland, or of childhood dessert dreams come true.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

About The Author

Jane Slaughter

When she's not reviewing restaurants, Jane Slaughter also writes about labor affairs, having co-founding the labor magazine Labor Notes. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Monthly Review, and In These Times.
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