Since Baum Vivant, Toni Pais' much-beloved and much-praised fine dining restaurant, closed in 2006, its space on Baum Boulevard has sat empty. But two years later, with the dining room still set for Baum Vivant's last service, Paul Tebbets and Chet Garland walked in and their search for a restaurant space was over. Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar had found a home.
"We could see that the bones of the place were really great," said Tebbets, who takes the role of wine director with Garland as executive chef. They pulled down acoustic tiles and rubbed the exposed beams with mineral oil until they glowed; took out a small supporting wall to expand the bar, and turned Pais' former office into a private dining room.
It's the kind of cozy bar that seems perfect for a rainy or a snowy night, when you want to linger over a glass of red wine. Broad and comfortable with hooks tucked underneath for bags and coats, it's ideal for single diners and duos. After all, a bar was a communal table long before communal tables were trendy.
Downstairs, the decor is dominated by a rich red wall and dark brown booths and the atmosphere is a little more casual. There's a corner for lounging and a television over the bar. Upstairs, the working fireplace and yellow walls give the space a French country glow.
3 stars = Excellent
5102 Baum Blvd.
- Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m.; Sunday-Monday, closed.
- Basics: A cozy, welcoming bistro with excellent service and an impressive wine list. The menu combines a variety of influences but maintains an impressive coherency -- comfort food with a sophisticated edge.
- Recommended dishes: Shrimp and grits, oysters on the half shell, black truffle beets, sweet onion bisque, king salmon, lamb ribs, scallops with coconut broth, tapioca brulee, cinnamon French toast, chocolate tasting.
- Prices: Appetizers, $5-$11; entrees, $17-$26; desserts; $4-$6.
- Wine: Approximately 30 wines "by the glass"; Toast serves 8-ounce pours in a small decanter (except sparkling and dessert wines). More than 100 selections by the bottle, including 24 whites and 24 reds for $40 or less. Markup hovers at about 200 percent of cost, with some cheaper bottles being marked up slightly more and some more expensive bottles marked up slightly less. Wine list is organized by varietal and price. There is an emphasis on California and French wines, but other new and old world regions are also well represented.
- Summary: Bar and limited number of tables on the first floor are wheelchair accessible; park on street at meters; credit cards accepted; reservations recommended; corkage, $15.
- Noise level: Low to medium-loud.
Toast's menu is hard to classify, but for once that's a favorable quality. There's a Southern bent, luxurious touches such as lobster and truffles, and comfort food such as macaroni and cheese and braised short ribs. But there's also a pronounced French influence and the occasional Asian flourish.
The restaurant's real enthusiasm for food comes through in the knowledge and care of its service staff, which is impressive and consistent.
At its best the food is creative yet simple. The sweet onion bisque ($6), a pureed soup, was smooth and sweet and showcased all of the onion's best features. You may never go back to French onion soup. A generous garnish of spiced crab kept the dish from being too one-note and added a touch of decadence.
Chef Garland has a way of making standard cuts of meat seem new by serving them in unexpected ways. Rib-eye ($31) was sliced, plated and finished with a little coarse salt that really brought out the flavor of the meat. It came with truffled mac and cheese -- the cheese managed to serve as a vehicle for the truffle rather than overpowering it -- which was just the tiniest bit grainy, but still very satisfying. I do wish I could banish asparagus from Pittsburgh winter menus, but the asparagus that completed the plate was properly cooked and seasoned.
Some of the food bordered on rustic, such as the mesquite-smoked Jamison farms lamb ribs with barbecue sauce and apple and cabbage slaw ($10). The texture of the meat was perfect, melting off the bone, with an intense smoky sweetness cut beautifully by the slaw.
Other dishes were strikingly refined. The kitchen noted we were sharing a roasted beet salad ($11) as a midcourse and kindly split it in the kitchen. Though they were plating on the fly, each plate was a work of art, almost too beautiful too eat. Wedges of red and gold beets were topped by a thin round of slightly crunchier candy cane beet, and each trio was garnished with a slice of black truffle and a tiny dot of chevre -- just the right amount. Sometimes, it's best not to play with a classic, but rather to execute it so perfectly you might as well have invented it.
Although some of the food was superb, basic mistakes are hampering a kitchen that could really shine. A perfectly proportioned appetizer of lobster risotto ($10) was moistened by an extra ladle of aromatic lobster broth and studded with gorgeous chunks of perfectly cooked lobster meat. Unfortunately, the rice was still quite crunchy. If this rice had been cooked about three minutes more, it would have been one of the best risottos I've tasted outside of Italy.
Bouillabaisse ($23) is definitely a dish that allows for some creative interpretation, but to serve it without a rouille seems like a reason to call it fish stew. The broth was excellent, with a distinctive taste of anise, and the portions of lobster, clams, mussels and crab were generous, but the crab was cold and fingerling potatoes were a little undercooked.
A few dishes were too salty, as in the case of a hanger steak ($26), which encapsulated flavors of a classic French stew with its rich sauce and beautifully cooked miniature carrots and onions, but whose flavors were overburdened by its unstinting portion of finishing salt.
Occasionally, the kitchen's desire to impress may cause a stumble or two. During one meal we were given a tropical sorbet as an intermezzo between the first and second courses, probably because the kitchen was behind on dishes and they were concerned we'd waited too long. It was a thoughtful move, and the sorbet was pretty good, but at the same time it wasn't necessarily a good choice at this point in the meal.
But, despite some missteps, this restaurant is unquestionably a striking new presence.
Dessert and coffee service show much of the same care as the savory menu. The house specialty is French toast ($6), served this season with Tahitian vanilla bean gelato and roasted apples. The contrast in temperatures and the sweet-tart, just soft enough roasted apples elevated this dessert above being merely a cute idea. The tapioca brulee ($4), tapioca pearls mixed with custard with a caramelized sugar crust like a crÃ¨me brulee, was a masterful combination of textures. It had all the best parts of a crÃ¨me brulee but added a whole new textural note.
And, of course, the chocolate tasting ($7) is a dream dessert for any chocolate lover who never finds cake quite satisfying. A goat cheese tart had some texture problems -- melting in the middle, dry on the outside edge -- but, for the most part, desserts were not just delicious, they also were interesting.
The French press coffee service ($5) is a pleasure; I would, however, suggest using hourglass timers for the coffee, because it's very difficult for servers to keep track of a precise three minutes when they're juggling the demands of multiple diners. Once a press is plunged there's no going back.
Toast has the flexibility to play different roles in different circumstances. It can serve as an upscale bar for after-work drinks or late-evening conversation. It's casual and inexpensive enough to go to "just because," but also serious enough to be a special-occasion destination. This welcoming, exuberant bistro has what it takes to light up Baum Boulevard for years to come.
Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1198.