Toast gives Carmel Valley an informal slice of fine French countryside.
Thursday, December 2, 2010
Warm sun soothes the comfortable patio. Flowers along its edge quietly radiate calm and add color to the buzz of pleasant conversation. In the background, oak-brushed ridges sweep into the distance with an easy grace. The vibe is peaceful, thoroughly relaxed and vaguely meditative.
So it goes at Toast, the recently opened bistro in Carmel Valley, where long before you look at the menu, you sense there’s Zen in the air.
Then you smell the food.
The range of offerings put forth by Chef Philippe Breneman seems right at home, possessing a rustic yet artful simplicity that is a hallmark of quality wine country cuisine. Fresh, locally grown produce elegantly pairs with sustainable dairy, meat and seafood items. Like the view, the minimal menu is a pleasure to meditate on: brioche toast with Nutella fondue and torched banana ($8.50), fluffy buttermilk pancakes with local berries and fresh cream ($7.50), prime skirt steak with fried eggs, salsa verde and pommes ($14).
My first choice was an easy one: a vegetarian version of the classic eggs benedict ($11.50), a meaningful measure of the craftsmen in the kitchen.
When the dish came to the table, like the others that followed, it was tastefully presented on a narrow plate. The poached eggs were delicately veiled with hollandaise and enlivened by the hint of green and red from the sautéed spinach and tomato tucked underneath.
The spinach, tomato and egg were cooked not a moment too long, while the muffin was soft and fresh and beautifully absorbed the hollandaise and yolk as they blended together with subtle richness. There was barely a bite that I even had to chew; they all just seemed to melt in my mouth. Unsurprisingly, an informal poll among the servers revealed the benedict to be their favorite.
Next up was an omelet of cage-free eggs stuffed with oyster mushrooms, spinach and goat cheese ($10) and sided with potatoes and a biscuit. In parts, the dish had redeeming qualities: The mushrooms were meaty, tender, full of flavor, and went well the spinach and goat cheese. The egg portion, however, was all too easy to separate from the filling, and by itself came off as plain and unsatisfying.
Thankfully, the sides rescued the dish: Thinly scalloped and moderately portioned, the sautéed potatoes were soft and barely crisp, and like the benedict, had a melting quality to them, while the biscuit, quite simply, was incredible – light and fluffy yet infused with a savory decadence. After one bite I never even looked to see if there was butter on the table. Like the biscuits, and appropriately enough for a place called Toast, all of the baked items on the menu (and some spontaneous creations that aren’t) are made fresh on-site daily from the staffer known simply as Bette the Baker.
The themes of simplicity and satisfaction extend beyond the food and the patio’s earthy color schemes, into the dining room and its informal bar, which feels nicely suited for sharing a plate of marinated olives, hummus and whole roasted garlic with house flatbread ($8), sample artisan beer ($5 – $16) or sip “seasonal and serious” sangria ($6.50) in a mellow-but-classy environment.
Carmel Valley resident Shon Whelan, along with his wife and Toast co-owner Natasha, felt that the community was missing something, and that they knew just what it was: Toast.
“We wanted it to be casual, but we wanted it to be good,” Shon says.
He was then able to lure longtime friend Breneman from the highly touted Manresa in Los Gatos, and the two brought their vision into one – French gourmet fused with a local, unpretentious, kind-of-gourmet.
As much as my friend and I enjoyed the breakfast, lunch was less victorious. As I tend to favor vegetables over meats, I felt compelled to try the fall vegetables on a multigrain roll with herbed goat cheese ($10). The sandwich had a pleasing enough taste, but could have benefited from a toastier crunch and, for a change, a more complex flavor. The end product felt like a token handout for vegetarians with no other option.
The pressed sandwich with prosciutto, coppa and manchego ($11.50) also underwhelmed, arriving unexpectedly as a baguette pressed in a grill with fine meats and cheese. While that concept can be a winning one, the tasty but salty sandwich was missing something. A little arugula, heirloom tomato and maybe even some ripe avocado could go a long way here. My companion pledged to try the heirloom tomato-smoked bacon-Humboldt Fog mache ($7/half; $11/whole) or crab-spinach-eight-minute-egg-avocado sandwich ($8/$12) next time.
For his part, Shon swears by Toast’s take on an American classic. “You should have ordered the burger,” he told me later. “Our burger is killer.”
Toast opened with a breakfast – and lunch-only menu, but just expanded to dinner as well. This promises to be an opportunity for Breneman to further refine his take on casual, Carmel Valley gourmet, with tantalizing featured items like mussels steamed in Riesling butter ($11), six-hour lamb shank with crispy polenta ($23) and whole rainbow trout in brown butter ($21).
Toast might not yet be a great restaurant, but even in its youth, one gets the feeling that it is on its way, and when paired with a day of local wine tasting, Garland Ranch hiking or just relaxing and taking in the scenery, represents an opportunity too good to pass up.
It’s as simple as that.