"It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you," wrote Nigel Slater, the British cookbook author, in his memoir, Toast. He was writing about his mother, who died when he was a child, so the love he speaks of is rather primal, but there's truth in what he says about toast. I almost always feel a kind of irrational gratitude toward anyone who's gone to the motherly trouble of browning then buttering bread for me. I feel it at home when the husband makes me an English muffin; at chichi restaurants that give me golden brioche on which to spread pâté; and even at diners where the butter in question may not even be butter.
How then could I resist a restaurant like Dinette, where a whole section of the menu is devoted to toast? There's something both humble and fancy about Dinette's crusty bits of bread overlaid with smoked salmon, green beans, and mascarpone; or chèvre, bell peppers, and smoked sardines; or a tangle of julienned frittata. Not only that, but the toast bread in question comes from the Columbia City Bakery, which, since it started wholesaling this summer, has quickly become my favorite local bread bakery.
Brainchild of chef Melissa Nyffler (an old coworker of mine), Dinette serves food of the most welcome kind: unpretentious and low-key, but also a little refined. It's undoubtedly rustic food, but it's also fully thought out, from the splash of calvados that polishes up a big bowl of cauliflower soup ($6) to the hazelnut brittle that adds texture to a chocolate dessert.
Let's hope that food this thoughtful will bring some luck to what has been a tricky restaurant space. It seems like only yesterday the Green Cat Cafe, a long-standing crusty hippie hangout, closed its doors to reemerge as the pleasant, somewhat uninspired Local. And then, less than a year later, it too was gone. One began to wonder if the quaint little dining room was destined to become one of those legendary doomed restaurant spaces, like the supposedly haunted First Avenue space that once was Avenue One and Fire and Ice.
Atmospherically, Dinette is headed in the right direction, despite the odd geometry of the space. Local had a well-scrubbed whitewashed look that ended up just seeming blank, but Nyffler has made things more lyrical by mounting her collection of Florentine tea trays on the wall and adding stretches of soft teal paint and shimmering gold leaf. The combination of a great big round table left over from Local with too much Lillet and pinot noir sparked a very giggly evening for me and five friends.
Naturally we started with toast: We took ours frosted with yummy chicken liver mousse ($8) and prickly-hot roasted peppers. We kept on grazing with an antipasto plate ($14) filled with sundry cheeses, potted duck, Salumi meats, and bits of vinegary onion and mushroom (such pickley bits are deployed with great skill at Dinette). More unconventional and just lovely was a sformato ($10), which was neither flan nor soufflé, but something in that same delicate family. Its urgent carrot flavor was balanced by a crisp fennel salad and shrimp served, of course, slightly pickled. Mussels were steamy and sweet ($10) in a slightly nondescript cream sauce.
Meats at Dinette tend toward the braisy. One special, a brawny pork shank ($18) perked up with lemon zest parsley and horseradish shavings, had such a manly air about it that three of four boys at the table had to order it. Then there was the yummy ricotta gnocchi ($9) swimming in a rich brodo alongside supple filaments of short-rib meat. Not braised, but still tender and juicy, was a game hen ($18) given the full Thanksgiving treatment with cranberry relish and sausage stuffing, which is really just another form of toast if you think about it.
For dessert, we lapped up a freakishly late crop of local strawberries ($7), and a chocolate terrine ($7) light in texture but wonderfully dark and brooding in taste. There was no dessert toast that night, but I'm hoping that Tuesdays, Dinette's official toast night, will bring some classy take on Nutella or cinnamon toast. If savory toast already makes me a little misty, I can only imagine my nostalgic swoon when there's sugar on top.