This must be peak toast, we thought, after reading about the $19 prawn-and-tomato toast New York chefs Daniel Humm and David Chang will serve at their NoMad Bar and Momofuku Ssäm Bar restaurants, through the end of September. (You'll be happy to know $2 from each order will go to charity.)
Let the snark commence.
"I get it," said Tessa Velazquez, operations manager for Georgetown's Baked & Wired and Mount Vernon Triangle sibling A Baked Joint, which opened with a toast menu in June. "It sounds stupid to pay for a piece of bread that people think you can get at home."
But, Velazquez and others would argue, these toasts aren't quite the same as the charred Wonder Bread of your youth.
It all starts with good bread, which was one of the motivating factors for opening A Baked Joint this summer, Velazquez said. All the loaves, from baguettes and sourdoughs to ciabatta and focaccia, are baked in-house daily.
A Baked Joint's toasts are available on whole wheat (sometimes it's whole-wheat sourdough) and white sourdough. The goal is to achieve the right balance between crust and dough -- crispy on the outside but chewy on the inside.
Ryan Fleming, who owns the Slipstream coffee shop, eatery and bar in Logan Circle with his wife, Miranda, said they had very specific ideas about the type of bread they wanted to make their toasts with. So much so that they worked with Lyon Bakery to develop a bread that wasn't available anywhere else. Fleming described it as a kind of pain levain, something that's substantial enough for a heavy snack or light meal. While the flavor is neutral enough to not clash with the toppings, it receives an extra boost from a longer fermentation.
OK, fine we get the need -- and there is a need -- for good bread in this town. Why turn it into toast?
"We're kind of tying into what we all grew up on," Velazquez said. That's one reason why A Baked Joint doesn't get too fancy with their toasts -- the idea is exactly that this is something you might find at home. The menu ($1.50-$4) includes slices with butter, almond butter and peanut butter ("not homemade," she said), banana and honey. The more daring can try a Thai-inspired peanut butter, Sriracha and cilantro, but our personal favorite is the Nutella and sea salt, the secret to which Velazquez said is a layer of butter slathered onto the bread before the chocolate-hazelnut spread.
Chef Paul Berglund of Minneapolis restaurant the Bachelor Farmer said he, too, was motivated by tradition, particularly the importance of bread as "a staple of our culture" in the Midwest. The Bachelor Farmer is famous for its toast service, which sees the house-baked bread brought to tables via silver-plated caddies. (He estimates the restaurant grills 200 to 300 slices of toast each night.)
The toasts ($12-$16) typically come with some kind of spread and a topping to be spooned on as well. A current offering features house-made cheese and Minnesota hazelnuts in both chopped and oil form. There's also a cured and sugared salmon, an ingredient which helps contribute to the higher price.
"It makes you connect with the food in a way that's slightly more involved," Berglund said of the some-assembly-required nature of the dish. "It really makes you think a little more about what you're doing." And the diners have fun with it, too.
Slipstream's Fleming, however, prefers serving already plated toasts ($4-$7.50), which came about in part because they're something that can be prepared without a full hood and kitchen.
"It's a visual thing," he said of the appeal. White bean hummus (for cumin lovers only) comes artfully smeared on a 1-inch-thick slice of bread, topped with a brightly colored tomato-pepper confit and framed by a little pile of greens. Other toppings include crème fraîche with jam, and mushroom duxelle with goat cheese mousse, the most popular option. Just like mom [didn't] used to make.
"I think people at first were kind of skeptical, but then they get in there and they realize it's not just normal toast," Fleming said. "We put a lot of thought into the toppings. It turns into a meal."
A meal that people are willing to order, despite the price and no-duh-simplicity.
Prior to opening, Velazquez said, A Baked Joint had kind of branded itself as a toast bar -- they hadn't even figured on using their bread for sandwiches. The negative comments, and jokes, came on strong and fast. Now?
"We sell so much of it," she said, "so much more than I thought we would after all the criticism we got."
The Bachelor Farmer's Berglund recognizes the fact that toast, which he's been doing for years and people in general have been doing for centuries, has gained something of a cachet lately.
"Food is sometimes trendy," he said. "Sometimes it's not. Sometimes trendy food is good."
He said roasted garlic "was everywhere" in the '90s, which made him want to scale back on the ingredient, until he decided it was just too good to give up on. Same goes with toast.
"It's not something that's going to become passé," Berglund said. "Toast bars might fall out of flavor, but toast is never going to go away.
"Toast isn't going anywhere on our menu. If people get sick of it --"
He can't even finish the thought.