Chef Q&A: Thomas Ciszak of Toasted Barrel

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There’s a golden beacon at the corner of Montgomery Street and Oglethorpe Avenue. Toasted Barrel, the latest venture from Chef Thomas Ciszak, invites guests to indulge in classic comforts: grilled cheese sandwiches and quality bourbon. 

Tucked in the ground floor of SpringHill Suites, adorned in matte black and gold accents by Savannah’s Rethink Design Studio, the space embraces big-city chic while holding fast to its Southern roots.

The Toasted Barrel sandwich isn’t your childhood white bread and Kraft singles affair, though: Here, the timeless treat is all grown up, with locally baked Auspicious Baking Company bread enveloping toppings like smoked salmon, avocado, pulled pork, kimchi and more.

Born and educated in Germany, Ciszak came to the United States in 1995 and has been making a name for himself in food ever since. With European training and a unique approach to American cuisine, his first Savannah restaurant will appeal to the kid in everyone.

Chef Thomas Ciszak. Photo by Katie McGee

What’s in a name? I blend my own barrel of bourbon. It’s not just a single barrel selection — the barrel is made of six different wood planks of all different seasons changing and blending the flavor of the bourbon. It comes down to the toasting — how dark you are toasting the wood — and that adds a different seasoning to the actual bourbon. So, “Toasted Barrel” has a double meaning. It’s the method of how bourbon came from moonshine and became a brown, amber spirit. 

On location, location, location: The restaurant is perfectly located on the corner of Montgomery and Oglethorpe. The new Cultural Arts Center is opening, and the demolition across the street opened up the space to become a really nice corner. That’s what sparked my interest — that’s where this all stems from. It’s a great cocktail bar location. 

On bourbon’s big moment: I’ve always wanted to have a bourbon bar. We have recently seen an uptick in whiskey and brown spirits. People like bourbon and want to learn more about it. 

On a can’t-miss pairing: Bacon and bourbon — it’s the perfect match. Our cocktail The Smoky Deal infuses bacon into the bourbon. I take Four Roses bourbon and use a technique called “fat washing” — I wash the fat off, freeze it and strain it. It has this rich, bacon, wooden smoky flavor.

On all-local taps: All of our beers on draft are Savannah beers. That’s a very traditional thing; I come from Germany, and every beer on the menu comes from the town you’re in. It’s a very natural thing for me — people travel around and say, “What beer do you serve in this town?” I enjoy that people in the States are finally catching on. 

On the beauty in simplicity: Everybody expects a bar menu to have sliders, wings, the quesadilla, the taco. I didn’t think it would be special enough. There are so many great restaurants in Savannah, and I didn’t want to be just another restaurant. We decided to do one item — the grilled cheese sandwich — really, really well. 

On dressing up timeless comfort food: We had to have a classic grilled cheese — everyone was going to ask for it. Then we started thinking of variations. I wanted something that’s not protein-forward, so I came up with baked beets and goat cheese. If you really want to eat something substantial, there’s the chicken melt with parmesan, basil and pesto. Everyone around here likes Korean food, so I thought of the kimchi with beef brisket. The menu process was pretty natural.

On Toasted Barrel’s playful spirit: I want fun food, but I want delicious food. It’s casual … we put the sandwich on a tray with butcher paper. We just want to have fun and relax over here.