Perched on a Rockridge corner, the Toast wine bar always had a welcoming vibe. Now it's Toast Kitchen + Bar, thanks to a major expansion into the space next door and a new menu that showcases eclectic wines, handcrafted cocktails and some very tasty seasonal fare.
The biggest challenge of the evening was just deciding where we wanted to sit. Festooned with red market umbrellas, the front patio is a perfect spot for people-watching -- and soft, woolly throws are tucked here and there to keep the sipping-noshing crowd comfortable when the temperature drops. But the atmospheric bar and dining room are equally alluring, with their marquee-style signs, and the retro Edison light bulbs hanging from the ceiling in scores
The recycled wine bottle theme fits nicely with a wine bar. The water glasses (which I covet) are made from wine bottles as well. The wine list itself is a finely curated affair, filled with grapes you don't exactly run into every day -- hondarribi zuri, for example, and aglianico. The cocktails ($10.50) are tempting, too, with a mix of seasonal, ever-changing creations and classics. The Toast twist on a classic Vesper mixes Hangar One vodka, Botanivore gin and Cocchi Americano, for example, while a pale pink Nothing to Get Hung About, for example, offers a fresh, fizzy mix of strawberry-infused vodka, lemon and cava.
One could happily spend an entire evening sipping and sampling all the little finger foods -- a white bean spread ($5.50), for example, or apple brandy-spiked chicken liver pate ($4) -- designed by executive chef Rebecca Boice, the longtime sous chef from San Francisco's Zuni. We started with the fried chickpeas ($4), a crisp, addictive little snack dusted with za'atar and a last-minute squeeze of lemon to amp up the flavors.
The menu, which features organic, local produce and sustainably raised meats and seafood, changes constantly, but we very much hope the spicy carrot soup ($8) is still there the next time we go back. It was wonderful. Spiked with fresh lime, the vivid puree got its spice from crunchy little bites of jalapeño and red onion. It was beautifully balanced in both flavor and texture.
We couldn't decide between the three small plates, so we did the logical thing. We had them all. You should, too. Vegetarians will swoon over the fresh butter beans ($9) with fried capers and chili oil, but the dish is savory enough to satisfy any omnivore. Ditto for the deep-fried Oregon chanterelles, eggplant and green beans ($12.50), which were given the tempura treatment and served with a cashew and miso dip. We don't even like eggplant and we loved this. The meatballs ($12.50) made from Marin Sun pork and served with a tomato sauce and pecorino, were tasty, too.
There are several main course options as well, including a Bodega Bay albacore ($19), grilled chicken with sweet potato croutons ($19) and the brown sugar-brined pork shoulder steak ($19) that we ordered. The pork was a thin steak, not the substantial piece of meat we were expecting, but it was cooked nicely and served with a flavorful vegetable ragout. It just didn't knock our socks off, like the other dishes did. It's hard to say whether that was the dish's fault or because there are only so many times you can be rendered sockless during a single meal. (The wait staff -- an ebullient and charming crew that subs in and out seamlessly -- is probably used to the sock thing by now.)
Toast's desserts ($7.50) change with the season as well. On this particular evening, the options included an olive oil cake with raspberries, a puddinglike lemon posset and a boca negra with caramel sauce and whipped cream. Our server described the latter as a flourless chocolate cake, although the more apt description is a sliver of the deepest, darkest, chocolatiest flourless chocolate cake imaginable -- all the chocolate in the world crammed into one small, intense wedge. The fluffy, freshly whipped cream was quite perfect with it, but what we really wanted was a big glass of cold milk.
It was a sweet ending to a memorable meal.
Toast Kitchen + Bar
* * *
WHERE: 5900 College Ave., Oakland
CONTACT: 510-658-5900, www.toastoakland.com
HOURS: Noon to 10 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays; until 11 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays
CUISINE: Seasonal California
VEGETARIAN: Several options, including most of the small plates and a penne dish ($17) with roasted peppers and fresh ricotta
BEVERAGES: Craft cocktails; eclectic wines by the taste, glass or bottle; and house-made soda
RESERVATIONS: Accepted via OpenTable; patio is for walk-in guests only
NOISE LEVEL: Medium
PARKING: Street parking
KIDS: No children's menu, but the staff can make mac and cheese or grilled cheese sandwiches for young diners.
PLUSES: Fresh, creative, seasonal dishes plus an eclectic wine list that lets you taste your way through some unusual grapes, such as hondarribi zuri
DATE OPENED: Opened as a wine bar in 2011; major expansion and menu overhaul in June
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