Toast! Kitchen & Wine Bar falls among Pittsburgh's good neighborhood restaurants, especially during this stretch of winter when we crave intimate spaces and the comfort of friends. The narrow room with a dominant bar, wood beam ceilings, chalkboard menus and overstuffed chairs creates a convivial warmth the Germans call gemütlichkeit.
The by-the-glass wine list is also interesting but the food selections overreach by trying to appease those looking for fine dining as well as casual fare. A smaller menu with more skillfully prepared dishes would benefit the kitchen and the diner.
- Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday; 5 p.m. to midnight Saturday; Closed Sunday.
- Basics: Toast! Kitchen & Wine Bar is a strong neighborhood restaurant serving regional American dishes. The wine list and varied options by the glass as well as good cocktails are a draw.
- Recommended dishes: Charcuterie plate, shrimp and grits, squash and goat cheese pizza, chopped romaine salad, Gerber farm chicken, steak au poivre.
- Prices: Soup and salad $6-$10; sandwiches $10-$14; pizza $9-$12; entrees $16-$26.
- Summary: Wheelchair-accessible; Street parking.
- Noise level: Moderate.
Edits would also eliminate sides repeated in multiple entrees such as a bland vegetable medley, as well as pizza dough that's too savory to double as the fried dough ($5) dessert.
Apparently, this transition is in the works. "Right now we're going through our biggest change," said chef owner Chet Garland. The restaurant is in the process of moving back to casual fare and away from the fine dining menu of the past two years.
Toast has seen many changes since it opened in 2009. In October, the restaurant expanded to weekday lunch service, a move embraced by a handful of restaurants as diners seek more lunch options.
Mr. Garland and his business partner, Paul Tebbets, also have been busy with other ventures. Last winter, they opened Benjamin's Western Avenue Burger Bar in Allegheny West and in June the duo opened the seafood-centric Rumfish Grille in Bridgeville, where Mr. Garland is no longer a partner.
There has also been a sommelier switch. Holly Scott moved to Casbah in Shadyside in July, replaced by the knowledgeable Jonathan MacDonald, formerly of Legume. Mr. MacDonald curates the list of nearly 30 wines by the glass. He also makes a good classic cocktail.
"I like to play with spirits but I don't add a lot," he said. Cocktails include the floral Flaneur ($11) with Bulleit Rye, Barolo Chinato and Aperol, a take on the Boulevardier, the Sazerac ($10) and Gluwein ($6), the German-style mulled wine.
While the kitchen isn't always sourcing locally, it is at times paying attention to food artisans from around the country. Take the charcuterie listings. The Barolo salami is from Creminelli Fine Meats of Salt Lake City, which in 2011 won a Good Food award, a national project that recognizes outstanding American food producers. And aged ham hails from Edward's in Surry, Va., which is not as rustic as the famous Benton country ham from Tennessee, but it has won fans.
The cheese selection is straightforward but less interesting, which includes an Italian Taleggio, a Spanish Manchego and a Danish blue (meats are 3 for $10; cheeses are five for $10).
Among small plates, get the Southern-inspired shrimp and grits to start ($11). With habanero cheddar, tasso ham and brown sugar it's one of the more satisfying dishes. Sweet potato falafel ($7) is also fine served with arugula and warm pita, although it's drizzled with a tamarind vinaigrette that was too sweet for my taste.
The daily soup is a strong start provided it's served warm. A velvety lobster bisque can be indulgent. During lunch a chickpea, pork and tomato soup was terrific but served cold. Among salads, the grilled romaine is also appealing, particularly with chicken, short rib, hanger steak or fish ($6-$14).
Look into the kitchen to see the flames of the pizza oven, where cooks slide flatbreads from the peel into the heat. I wish the pizzas were better, but they can be satisfying for non-purists.
I've never been one for lobster mac and cheese, nor do I like it on a flatbread with asparagus. Even though it's less expensive than it has been in years, fresh lobster is too rich and special to hide it among cheese and other ingredients. Duck confit ($12), also a treat that's become more popular with sous vide cooking, is not quite right on a pie with gruyere and arugula. Another flatbread offers ham, Brussels sprouts, garlic oil and Manchego ($13), ingredients I'd prefer on a plate rather than a pizza. Conservative diners will be pleased with the more classic tomato ($9), roasted garlic and chevre flatbread.
Among entrees the Gerber chicken ($21) is a ringer, though it would improve with crispy skin and a little salt. Dollop those roasted vegetables in the jus that's generously poured over the mashed potatoes. The hunter stew ($21) evokes home-cooked simplicity, a combination of lamb, sausage, duck and winter vegetables over puff pastry.
But the risotto ($18) misses the mark. Spread across a plate, it's bright orange and not terribly flavorful, nor is it the consistency that risotto should be. And its served with those roasted vegetables that clash textures with the risotto. The garnish is an unfortunate frico, a parmesan crisp that tastes burnt and oily.
The wine listings next to each entree reinforce that this is a place to drink or learn about drinks. "We're getting a crowd now that wants to be educated about wine," said Mr. Garland. It's a terrific reason to go here.
The specials are another pull, such as $5 wines by the glass on Mondays; a 20 percent discount on the tab for restaurant workers on Tuesdays; the $12 burger, beer and shot of bourbon on Thursdays; as well as Friday's happy hour from 9 to 11 p.m. with $5 wines, half-priced beer and appetizers.
A small dining room and well-trained staff means that service is attentive, knowledgeable and polite. If Toast! Kitchen & Wine Bar offers a menu as engaging as the service, the specials and spirits, it can transform from a good neighborhood restaurant into a great one.