If you’re like me, you’ve never asked for a grilled cheese but, please, hold the cheese. So it was only warily that I ordered a sandwich described on the menu at Toast, in Kittery, as “not your typical grilled ‘cheese’” — which sounded a little menacing to me, a fan of cheese in the usual sense, sans quotation marks. Fear was, however, unfounded. The “cheese” isn’t the store-bought vegan stuff that’s waxy and vaguely, disconcertingly evocative of something almost familiar. Rather, shop owner Nina Holland makes “cheese” by soaking raw cashews in water and then blending them in a food processor with lemon juice, nutritional yeast, garlic, and sea salt. The texture is creamy — almost ricotta-esque — and the flavor is mellow and earthy. There’s no mistaking it for actual cheese, and that’s quite all right. Holland has built her menu not around pale imitations of animal-derived foods but rather around plant-based foods that stand on their own.
7 Shapleigh Rd., Kittery. themainetoast.com
Sandwiches and open-face toasts $10–$15.
Holland offers wraps, bagels, pizza doughs, and sourdough cookies on Saturday mornings, usually selling out of them by 10 a.m.
Tributary Brewing, across the street, allows outside food and is an excellent place to enjoy a to-go sandwich (and a beer).
That cashew “cheese” gets paired with sweet blackberries, peppery arugula, and basil, all smashed between two slices of griddled gluten-free sourdough, which I only realized was gluten-free when I reread the menu later. (The shop is dedicated gluten-free, it turns out, safe for people with celiac disease.) Holland, previously an elementary-school administrative assistant, opened Toast (stylized “t o a s t”) early last year after going through more than half a dozen experimental recipes for the bread. The one she eventually arrived at uses quinoa flour and Maine buckwheat flour and plays like any good, freshly baked, hearty bread.
Holland spends Monday through Thursday baking the bread in small batches, then she sells sandwiches Friday through Sunday — it takes about 50 loaves to get her through the weekend. The shop itself is tiny. Inside, Holland works solo behind the counter, and there are only four seats. Outside, a picnic table is around back, and Holland has plans for more outdoor seating this summer.
The menu rotates fairly often, with a few staples that stick around. That rotation is partly driven by seasonality — Holland sources produce from local farmers when she can, and even her salt comes from just up the road, at York’s Slack Tide Sea Salt. It’s also partly driven by Holland always wanting to try out new things. For inveterate carnivores, the exclusively meat-free lineup might be a high hurdle, but it needn’t be. The sandwiches are sufficiently loaded up, providing the same sort of messy, work-to-get-your-mouth-around-the-first-bite pleasure of, say, a classically meaty Reuben.
Clockwise from top left: In front of and behind the counter at Toast; Owner Nina Holland.
Plus, working without animal protein seems to spark a good deal of creativity. The VBLT, an all-veggie BLT, has lettuce and tomato, naturally, as well as avocado, black radish, pickled onion, and sprouts. Holland remedies the absence of actual bacon by making what she calls “carrot bacon” — she soaks carrot slices in a mix of coconut aminos (a soy-sauce substitute), maple syrup, paprika, garlic, salt, and liquid smoke, lays them in trays, and bakes them until they’ve just started to crisp around the edges. The result possesses undeniably bacon-y notes, but there’s also no mistaking that it’s a vegetable. And that’s for the best.