Fancy toast is having a moment. It propelled Denver’s Carrie Baird to the final four of Top Chef , and at Call, a sleek, next-gen cafe in RiNo, it’s not only a bestseller, but a good representation of the tiny, ambitious spot.
This unlikely standout starts with smoked fish, sometimes mackerel, sometimes whiting, served up in big, meaty pieces, not the finely pulverized threads that were meant to trick you into forgetting what you were facing when you were served tuna-from-a-can sandwiches as a kid. Spoonfuls of garlic aioli snuggle against the fish, voluptuous in their fluffy mounds. Strong flavors call for strong accents, and this fish gets them above and below, with a smear of curried, caramelized onions and a sprinkling of whole-leaf herbs that are as palate-cleansing as they are colorful. But even dynamite elements like these need the right foundation. That’s why culinary director Duncan Holmes built the restaurant from the bread up.
“We had to have a strong bread program at Call to base everything else off of,” explains Holmes, who has a résumé you’d never expect given the casual Call, with stints as culinary director at Boulder’s Frasca Food and Wine and chef de cuisine at Michelin-starred Sons & Daughters in San Francisco. “Everything trickled down off that.” And there’s been a lot trickling down, since Call is just phase one of a two-part project. Next summer, the same crew will open Beckon, an adjacent, tasting-menu-only restaurant more in line with Holmes’s fine-dining background. Once Beckon is on line, Holmes envisions Call operating as it is at night while also becoming an extension of Beckon, a place to grab nibbles and drinks while waiting for a table; during the day, it will continue to welcome the neighborhood folks who gather for business lunches or turmeric-ginger tonics with their laptops.
There’s a lot riding on Call’s bread, so Holmes tapped Tamra Tompkins, formerly of Chicago’s Publican Quality Bread. She puts out loaves that could easily support an entire bakery, like a seeded pain d’epi, a salty pretzel roll and the sourdough used for this fancy fish toast, sliced thick, slathered with extra-virgin olive oil and crisped under the broiler until the crust is charred in spots. You know the bread is there with every bite — not just doing its job without sagging or growing soggy, but adding its own dimensions of chew and crunch.
Fish toast isn’t standard cafe fare, even for a cafe with this much flair and attitude (and, in fact, Call’s fancy toasts are actually called “tartines”). The walls are white, with just a few orange accents, and squeezing into one of the six tables squashed together along them requires that the people next to you stop their conversation and lean out of the way. (But at least there are tables; when Call opened last December, it only had roll-out stadium seating.) If the vibe is Scandinavian, the accents are all-American, and slightly juvenile at that. Orange cans hang from the ceiling above a narrow counter, replicas of the tin-can phones that kids once used to “talk” to their friends next door. The business card features a banana, a nod to the whimsical banana phone. And a neon sign in the bathroom, hung over wallpaper that looks like pages from a phone book, glows suggestively: “For a good time.”
Jokes aside, the food is no laughing matter, even if it’s deceptively simple. A daytime menu of soups, sandwiches and salads runs through breakfast and lunch. Early risers might prefer a fried-egg sandwich to fish toast, with such thoughtful accents as finely chopped, housemade giardiniera and house-cured meats on brioche. Or aebleskiver, barely sweet pancake balls — akin to Scandinavian doughnut holes — with house ricotta and jam to set off their sourdough twang. A chicken salad sandwich appeals to purists, with no grapes or nuts getting in the way. Pair it with a fennel-apple salad or a bowl of potato-leek soup with rye breadcrumbs for a glimpse of what happens when fine dining masquerades as fast-casual.
At night, the small menu transitions to an even smaller one. But a host of specials, laid out on ice and on eclectic serving dishes and platters of various heights on the blond-wood counter, expands the offerings. If you stand there long enough — and most people do, because there’s so much to look at and so little to point the way in print — you’ll feel a rush of freedom as the person behind the register patiently explains how you can build your own platter of four or eight items, in whatever combination you desire, from all savory to all sweet, a mix of ready-made or prepared to order. “We’re working on the spiel and how to convey what it is we’re doing,” says Holmes.
While the menu setup might be confusing, it’s clear that no matter when you arrive, no matter if you squash into one of the tables or head outside to the patio, you’ll want at least one fancy toast. Tartines aren’t just a concept for Holmes; they’re part of his childhood. His mother is Danish, and Danish smorrebrod — open-faced sandwiches — were an annual holiday tradition. Besides that mackerel toast, there’s currently one other on-menu offering: a mushroom tartine with smoked trumpets and maitakes, thick housemade ricotta, and fresh parsley and mint. But give yourself time at the counter to peruse the daily tartine specials, which show off the kitchen’s creativity. Despite Holmes’s family tradition — not to mention his stages in Copenhagen and Stockholm — these are innovative combinations he’s dreamed up, like sardines with butter and radish, as well as feta, grapefruit, blueberry jam and mint, all heaped on the dense seeded rye common in Scandinavia, the ingredients carefully stacked in arrangements worthy of a still life: a feathery fennel frond, a glistening pink grapefruit ridge, a hunk of off-white feta.
Call’s tartines sit out by the register, where some might worry that they’re growing less fresh by the hour. The arrangement creates a different concern for me: Toasts are intermingled with sweets and other snacks in prime impulse-buy territory. On none of my visits did I have the willpower to stick to my original order, instead always springing for something that caught my eye. One morning it was a slice of almond caramel cake and a chocolate sandwich cookie, lined with ganache and dusted with powdered sugar in the shape of a flower. Another time it was a tin of crackly, ribbon-length chips to enjoy with my Winter Made, a tart gin-Meyer lemon drink, while I waited for my light dinner: savory aebleskiver with lardo and leek and porcini powders; Brussels sprouts with horseradish; minty cucumbers and a lemon tart. More than once, I impulsively added a chocolate chip cookie loaded with high-end French chocolate, oversized and worthy of its own trip.
There are many more reasons than fancy toast to toast a meal at Call.
2845 Larimer Street
Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Select menu items
Mackerel tartine $11
Mushroom tartine $10
Chicken salad sandwich $10
Fennel-apple salad $7.50