The New New Wine Bar

At Toast in Rockridge, the food is best sampled in small portions.

Whatever happened to wine bars? I mean the wine bars of six years ago, when people went to wine bars: big balloon glasses swirling inky Malbecs; walls painted deep, lurid reds; goat cheese fondue.

Wine bars were sexy, but the shizzle faded when we all started talking about cocktails. Now everybody’s talking about beer, and the wine bar? No longer cool. Some guy from Craigslist tells you to meet him at a wine bar, you know it’s not going to go well — chances are he’ll show up rocking a leather bomber jacket. (Yeah: rocking.)

In San Francisco, the old-fashioned wine bars of the mid-aughts have struggled, and failed (Hayes and Vine, Cav, Red and White). They’ve been succeeded by places that lost the balloon stemware, French farmhouse wall stencils, and “small plates,” and are making a play for younger drinkers.

Vinyl turns up the music, parks food trucks out front, and carefully snips the support wires from the rococo frames an earlier generation worked so diligently to affix, as they made wine the ultimate accessory for getting classy. Barrique ditches the bottle entirely, pumping straight from the barrel, leaching the fancy out by turning wine into currency for the ultimate kegger. And Heart — the extreme iconoclast in an iconoclastic bunch — has menu notes that reel like drunken tweets at 2 a.m. (“Whoa, exploding sour apple bomb cider insane shit so good”) and forsakes stemware for the Mason jar.

Toast, on College Avenue in Oakland, is nothing like that, and yet it still manages to feel aligned with some new expression of the wine bar.

On any given night the room is anywhere from half capacity to full up with couples who don’t look like they’d be at all cool with their $14 glass of Rock Wren Syrah showing up in a jelly jar. You get the feeling Rockridge babysitters experienced an uptick in bookings four and a half months ago, same time Toast opened. On Toast’s menu, in fact, owners Heather Sittig and Kristen Policy self-identify as moms. Proudly.

Instead of reaching out to a new demo, Toast makes an appeal to the last generation of wine bar patrons, ones in their thirties and forties, swirling wine in crystal glassware while picking at dishes that make no apology for referencing classic Cal-Med influences. Still, Toast’s storefront setting (with patio setback) does feel new: steely-blue walls under a pitched ceiling, with white Eames shell chairs and rough-edged slab tables. And the wine list peppered with more obscure varietals would have been unthinkable back in the day.

The food’s Cal-Med influence is from Peter Jackson, who once had a Glenview restaurant named Canvas. When that ended, Jackson reappeared in popup form under the name Canvas Underground, then surfaced briefly as chef of Miss Pearl’s Jam House in Jack London Square. At last year’s Eat Real Festival in Oakland, I stumbled on Jackson launching a cured meats project called Boucherie, hawking his own bacon, tasso, and andouille.

Despite the limits of the wine bar, Toast reveals Jackson doing something more personal than his work at Miss Pearl’s. In Cal-Med fashion he’s sourcing meticulously: Marin Sun Farms, Baia pasta, and produce traced in part to the Temescal farmers’ market. One thing: I won’t dip into Toast’s wine list here — check out Jody Brettkelly’s May 4 Last Call column in the Express for a taste.

The food menu is parceled into bar snacks, small plates, and entrées, plus a few things if you show up with the kids, and Sundays, Jackson fires up the barbecues out behind the restaurant. Good rule of thumb here: Go small. In three visits I managed to try all four entrées, and didn’t particularly like any of them (a flatiron steak had the wooly texture and faded hue of over-marination; shredded, braised pork shoulder tasted burnt; and a thick chickpea-flour pancake called farinata — sort of a trencher for Jackson’s NorCal rethink of summer succotash — was clunky).

The best of the lot was a hunk of pan-seared King salmon, though it didn’t match the sophistication of the room or relate to the skill of the wines. The thing to do is treat Toast like the classic wine bar it aspires to be, and mine the list of small plates.

One of the best turned out to be free. Warm coca (Spanish flatbread) arrived as the kickoff to two of my meals here, once plain, the second time dusted with Moroccan spices. Both times it proved focaccia-like, but slightly denser, chewier beneath a subtly wafery crust.

Beautifully tender meatballs had the pine-needle taste of lamb, in a tomato sauce where the heat kicked. A trio of baked, corn-and-ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms distilled this moment in Northern California’s growing season, while a bowl of seared and wilted Padron peppers glittery with coarse salt showed the kitchen wasn’t afraid to keep a dish simple when it needed to be.

Simplicity would have been welcome in the heirloom tomato salad, a tower of wedges (three or four varieties) and diced avocado topped with an elaborate ploof of watercress, the plate flooded with thinned-down goat cheese and bright green drops of tangy dressing.

It’s how chefs a decade ago plated things, all verticals and packing ingredients in removable ring molds — naturalism, at least a very studied naturalism, rules these days. And the tomatoes were too firm, without either sweetness or prickly, tomato-seed acidity, as if all the effort had gone into getting the form correct rather than making sure the textures and flavors were right.

It was a misstep I wanted to forgive. Unlike the wine bars of even half a decade ago, Toast looks modern. And though some dishes feel like throwbacks, the wines feel fresh, expressing varietal character in a way those big Cabs and buttery Chardonnays poured in the burgundy-walled rooms of old never could. Here’s to that.


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