Toast Wine Bar & Cafe
415 N. First St., Minneapolis
The increasing homogenization of wine is a flaming-hot issue among wine lovers. The controversy is, essentially, this: For thousands of years wine was a rural agricultural product springing from very specific parcels of land and was a seamless part of the culture of the very specific people who lived there. For instance, the grapes, the land, the taste, and thus the wine, of Austrian farmers used to be very different from the grapes, land, taste, and thus the wine, of Sicilian fishermen.
Then came the late 20th century, the advent of 100 point scores, and the entrenchment of a standard all but trumpeting that the only drinkable wines were those based on the traditional French Bordeaux and Burgundy grape varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Markets for traditional regional wines dwindled, and then supplies did, too: Ancient, often rare or even endangered grape vines have been ripped up and replanted with various French clones. If the world of wines were a garden, we would be losing all the buttercups, violets, irises, pansies, and hyacinth, replanting with nothing but roses. This increasing homogenization has been something that everyone complains about, but no one does anything about—until now.
Last month saw the opening of Toast, a new wine bar in the Warehouse District dedicated to doing what it can to assist the wine world's underdogs. To that end, Toast offers some bottles that should have even lifelong wine drinkers running for their reference books: There's Anima Negra's AN/2, from Mallorca, the Spanish island in the Mediterranean ($40 a bottle); Torrecino's Greco di Tufo, from Campania, on Italy's Amalfi coast ($33 a bottle); Ajello's Majus Bianco, from Sicily ($6 a glass, $24 a bottle); and Li Veli's Negroamaro ($6.50 a glass, $26 a bottle) from Salento, a tiny bit of Italy wedged down low on the boot heel between the Adriatic and Ionian seas.
Does all this foreign lingo sound daunting to you? Fear not, because if you have questions, Toast has one of the Twin Cities' most knowledgeable wine folks, Scott Davis, on hand. Davis is famous in the local restaurant community for two things: One, he was the longtime public face of Auriga, spending more than seven years as the restaurant's sommelier, maitre d', floor manager, and person who got yelled at when customers lollygagged at the door and caused a sub-zero draft to rip through the restaurant. Two, he's famous as a sweetie-pie, the man most likely to drive across the state to help an old lady put her artificial Christmas tree together. Davis's partners at Auriga bought him out two years ago to allow him to pursue the dream he and his wife had long had of starting a wine bar.
Erin Tomczyk and Scott Davis met some 20 years ago, as Davis tells it, "In aisle two of Erickson's New Market in New Brighton." Both were children of the northern suburbs, both were in school, and both were working at the now-defunct grocery store. "She was out in the rain taking out groceries, her hair was wet and all I saw were those green eyes; she turned around and I couldn't talk," Davis remembers. (See? I told you he was the sweetest man in town.) In any event, the two married and began formulating a vision for their wine bar. Tomczyk put in many years in IT at Guidant, saving her pennies and planning her escape from the world of 8:00 a.m. meetings.
One thing led to another, and one spring morning when they were biking the Grand Rounds, they came across the space of their dreams. This space is in the northeastern corner of the Warehouse District, close to the Mississippi River, and, this is very hard to explain but completely true, kind of in a basement but also offering striking views of downtown. After discovering the location, Davis and Tomczyk spent six weekends camped out across the street from it, counting passers-by and foot traffic. They liked what they saw so very, very much—the space is a giant, brick-lined L, with windows on nearly every wall and plenty of room for a patio—that when they discovered there was no way to add a ventilation hood, and thus no way to have a real stove, they went ahead anyway, jettisoning their plans to have fine-dining accents in favor of the simplest possible menu: one of pizzas, antipasti, and not too much more.
That said, in terms of doing more with less, Toast is doing wonderfully. The antipasti plate ($9) is, as the kids say, all killer and no filler—it's got some of the best dry salamis and sausages available in the United States, including slices of artisanal Fra' Mani soppressata and night-dark Spanish dried chorizo, presented alongside a little pile of sweet green pistachios, an excellent assortment of various green and black olives, and a bit of farm-crafted cheese, such as a tangy, hard sheep's milk cheese from California's Bellwether Farms. The olives can be had on their own for $4, and if there's a nicer selection in town I've never seen it.
The cheese plate—priced per cheese, from $3 for one choice to $11 for four selections—is as lovely as any I've had in our local four-star restaurants. Order it and you receive prettily showcased cheeses, including, recently, a gorgeous sweet cow's milk blue cheese from Northern Lights, a farm in Ramsey County. The cheeses are presented with all kinds of high-style grace notes—a little mound of violet-infused whole-grain mustard, a bit of Italian pear preserves infused with spicy mustard, thin slices of green apple, the plate itself dotted with perfect circles of a sweet and tangy balsamic vinegar reduction.
The best thing I had at Toast is no longer on the menu, but I mention the beautifully creamy plate of scrambled eggs made with the barest hint of real, not synthetic, truffle oil, served upon creamy polenta ($8), in the hopes that they will bring it back—it was the best comfort food I've had in a year. Toast has a few other food offerings, including pizzas with crusts as thin as tissue paper loaded up with fascinating toppings—the best was made with long, caramelized sweet onions, pungent tallegio cheese, and fresh thyme ($9). The desserts are better than those I see in most fine-dining restaurants. A panna cotta ($5.50) made with orange flower water was as fresh and light as morning dew; a chocolate terrine ($5.50), for which triangles of a fudgy chocolate, almond, and walnut mixture were stacked with fresh berries and whipped cream, was as lively as a cheer.
Did I expect any less? After all, a restaurant lifer launching a dream project is a formidable force. Still, in many ways, Toast does more than just succeed as Minneapolis's newest wine bar. A sense of place is one of the most fleeting of all sensations today, as the same movie stars, the same coffees, the same Chardonnays proliferate, multiply, and suffocate. However, Toast doesn't just pour various senses of place bottled in far-off villages, it adds to Minneapolis's own unique sense of place—after all, a garden is a boon to its neighborhood, as much as the other way around.