Good restaurant service is hard to put a finger on. Too much attention is smothering. Not enough, and you're lost and craving. It's a fine line, rarely done well—even in a food city like Portland.
But, at the newish Woodstock neighborhood restaurant Toast, they get it right.
Come in for brunch on the weekend, and even though there's a line out the door, you'll be welcomed with a smile and coffee while you wait. The graciousness unfolds from there: an upbeat presence at the table, a bustling, productive kitchen turning out plates on time and in sync, and knowledgeable, genuinely friendly staff at every turn.
That consistently warm welcome will keep diners like me coming back even though the food isn't always such a slam dunk.
Ingredients are super-fresh and local whenever possible. Owner Donald Kotler, a PDX restaurant scene vet, won't serve tomatoes, for example, if he can't get them from local farmers. Current menus star beets, kale, potatoes and leeks. Preparations show the light-handed approach of chef Jonathan Merritt, which at times could use more confidence to get the most out of those stellar ingredients.
Breakfast is what Toast has become known for. Each morning stand-by has been pared to its essentials and the result can be just a little too…bare.
The three-egg omelet ($8) is an example of that sparseness. Stuffed with creamy herbed ricotta cheese and seasonal vegetables, it's served with hand-shredded, crispy potato rösti. But with so few ingredients, the separate elements never really come together.
Light, lemony pancakes (with ham and fresh fruit, $7.50) are delicate, thin and made from scratch. Yeasty, fluffy breads as well as English muffins and scones are made in-house daily, too.
Although Toast is closed for lunch, some menu items are available in the morning and evening. The Good Monk ($7.50), tofu simmered in an underwhelming onion broth with chewy grains of toasted farro, leeks and Brussels sprouts, was healthy, but also bland. I ordered a side of smoky, decadent seared pork belly ($3) to offset all that "goodness." The lavish adjustment worked wonders.
At dinner, the pared-down approach fits for starters, which by definition intend to tease taste buds. A delicate winter squash soup ($5) was light and sweet, with clean earthy flavors not buried by the addition of too much cream or butter.
Golden beet salad ($7) was a tossed amalgam of toasted walnuts, mint leaves, greens and a refreshing vinaigrette of mellow French Banyuls vinegar and olive oil. Simple and achingly fresh, the crisp greens and fragrant herbs had just enough integrity to stand up to the acidic punch of nuts and beets tasting like concentrated earth and sunshine.
But main courses suffered a bit for want of that heavier hand. Housemade ravioli ($14.50) stuffed with winter vegetables needed another dimension of flavor and seasoning, arriving practically naked on the plate without a complementary sauce. I pined for crunchy tidbits of pancetta, or browned butter with a hint of sage.
Braised lamb ($17) in white wine and herbs could have been more tender, and Alaskan cod ($18) atop a smooth parsnip purée–touched gently with nutmeg—was perfectly seared and seasoned, but could have used one more unifying element. A drizzle of neon-green chive oil, perhaps?
Toast has successfully embraced one of our region's most becoming possessions—its fantastic farms. The next step is to turn those raw materials into finished dishes matching their upscale prices. If you're spending $18 for a piece of fish or $17 for lamb shanks, you ought to be wowed by more than just stellar service.
Toast, 5222 SE 52nd Ave., 744-1040. Brunch 8 am-2 pm Wednesday-Sunday, Dinner 5:30-9:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday. $$ Moderate.