5-27-16 / Apteka / Pittsburgh, PA

Friday night, my wife and I joined my parents and our family friends for a meal at a new restaurant, as we try to do each month. This month was my pick and I chose the new Eastern European vegan restaurant right at the border between Lawrenceville and Bloomfield, Apteka. I was very excited to try this new and fascinating spin on the traditional Polish, Russian, and Hungarian dishes I was familiar with for many reasons. While I’m usually against a vegan “imitation” of “traditional” food preparations, after reviewing the menu I was confident that those in charge knew what they were doing and wouldn’t try to make dishes identical to their non-vegan counterparts. Equally exciting to me, with a dish comprised of 4 Small Plates, 3 Big Plates, 2 Sandwiches, and 1 dessert, our group was large enough (and adventurous enough) to order “1 of everything”. It was a fantastic experience with only a few missteps/overlapping flavor profiles, which I’ll detail below.


Small Plates

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We started with the traditional Barszcz (borsct). This was served hot, as opposed to the expected cold of the traditional beet soup. Naturally missing its cream (as this was a vegan restaurant), it was still thick and not overly sweet. The warmth was slightly off-putting in the summer, but worked to cool me down by sweating. The toast it was served with was a smoked celeriac and dill toast, atop a bread we’d become very familiar with over the course of the night. The bread was excellent, very nutty, oaty, and heavy on the wheat with a nice crust found on usually on fresh-baked-that-day bread. The spread was quite spicy and worked as a nice and earthy pate, heavy in crunch and hearty enough to hold up against the sweet broth of the soup. A nice tea cup full sized portion, this was the only dish we ordered multiples of, so we wouldn’t have to worry about passing the cup around for small tastes and sips.

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A highlight of the creativity of the kitchen, the Kanapki were 3 very different tartines on that toast that we’d tried with the barszcz.

The first toast at the top was a Polish salad with celeriac, pickle, apple, potato, and parsley, with a dill butter spread on the toast itself. The cubed apple, potato, and pickle provided a nice crunch and sweetness against the earthy and smoky dill butter.

Working clockwise around to the right, the next toast was a Carrot pate, topped with radish and cucumber, dill, and carrot tops. This was by far my favorite of the three. The pate was wonderfully flavorful, sweet and substantial enough to work against the pickled vinegar of the radish and cucumber. This toast also benefitted by having the least amount of topping, which made it the easiest to enjoy all of the elements without fear of losing half of it on the plate.

The final toast was the marinated fennel, roasted tomato, and endive on the bottom left. The tomato was absolutely lost to the strong flavor of the pickled fennel, making it more of a “coleslaw on toast” than a tartine.

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The Cykoria was a fascinating and original dish and worked on every level. It featured grilled endive, beech and porcini mushrooms, over a prune molasses and drizzled with green chili and thyme oil. The meaty, crunchy, and wonderfully seasoned endive complimented the earthy, fresh mushrooms, and was brought all together by the incredible molasses sauce. Almost like over-caramelized onions, the prunes were sweet and bitter with a wonderful softness that enveloped the entire dish. The chili was a nice touch, adding that kick of spice to the dish, keeping it balanced.

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Even more fascinating and probably one of my favorite dishes the entire night, the Kartofle z jogurtem was unlike anything I’ve ever had. It was comprised of extremely salty potato, mild kraut, and slices of dried apples, and lingonberry preserves. The creamy (vegan?) yogurt worked with every other element of this dish to provide something akin to a deconstructed cherry pie. The potato became a creamy element which worked as a base to highlight the light flavors of the dried apple and kraut. The lingonberries provided that incredible natural sweetness. It was a magnificent plate at a table full of very strong and spicy dishes. I’d never had anything like it at any other meal I’ve ever had and I look forward to looking for something similar at every Eastern European restaurant I go to .


Big Plates

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Being such a large group, we opted for the order of 7 Pierogi over the small offering of 4. All orders of pierogi come with both styles, so it was unfortunate that we received 4 of one style (the sauerkraut and mushroom) over 3 of the other (a smoked potato, greens, and roasted turnip). Logically, I would have preferred 8 pierogi, with the nominal upcharge for the 8th, so we could have all enjoyed an even serving of both. Far heavier, denser, and fried versus my preferred method of boiling/blanching. That being said, they were both quite good. The potato pierogi (enveloped in the poppyseed dough to tell them apart), had less potato than the roasted turnips and greens, creating more of a ravioli than a pierogi in the traditional sense. I enjoyed the sauerkraut and mushroom pierogi far more, with big chunks of fresh and earthy mushrooms paired with a mild sauerkraut, very light on the vinegar and heavy on the cabbage. They were all topped with a delicious horseradish (vegan?) cream sauce that had nice hints of dijon and fresh herbs. Not my favorite pierogi and definitely heavier than I expected in the summer, but still well-made and delicious.

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The Salatka was another fascinating take on a dish heavy with expectation. Available in either the half or whole portion, we opted for the whole so it could be shared amongst the table. It’s listed as containing mustard greens, apple, shallot, radish escabeche, dill, chive, and served with a piece of “house bread” which was the very familiar toast that we’d seen many times in this meal. However, not listed were the obvious sunflower seeds, roasted tomatoes, and some incredibly spicy chilis. Possibly a jalapeno, but more likely a more traditional green chili pepper, it overwhelmed the dish when certain bites were taken. The dressing was a standard herb vinaigrette, very similar to Knorr’s Salat Kronung, popular in Eastern European Countries. The greens were all fresh and well-dressed, it was just off-putting to have such spicy chilis intermixed within.

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The Golabki were two nicely sized stuffed cabbages served in a unique tomato sauce. The cabbages were stuffed buckwheat and porcini mushrooms, with a flavor packed full of groats or kasha. Extremely earthy, bordering on a bitter flavor of earth, the buckwheat reminded me of traditional Russian cooking with kasha often served with a bow-tie pasta as a side dish. It easily overpowered the mushrooms and mild cabbage, but held its own against the sweet herbal notes of the tomato sauce. Far from the traditional stuffed cabbage, it was served with a large portion of raw, uncooked fennel leaves sprinkled  on the side (noticeably hidden below the toast above). I would have preferred the herbs mixed in or the buckwheat cooked longer to mellow the flavor out more or some combination of the two.


Sandwiches

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The first of the two sandwiches, the Baba Jaga was a huge slide of a vegan pate (extremely similar to a chickpea patty/meatloaf), pickled beets, polish pickles, with a smoked onion remoulade on their house=made bread. This sandwich was a behemoth to handle. The bread itself was wonderfully fresh, with a soft wheaty and nutty body and an excellently crunchy crust. The perfect kind of sandwich bread, that which holds up to flavorful and messy fillings, but also doesn’t put up too much of a fight in terms of chew. The pate was a very nice rough ground of vegetables, seared before serving to provide a nice crust to hold all of the delicious fillings inside. The onion remoulade worked very nicely with the rest of the fresh ingredients to provide a very substantial and filling sandwich.

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The Horse & Pepper provided a fun challenge in and of itself. Served as you see above to a table of 6, we requested it be cut into smaller pieces, which they cordially obliged and returned the gorgeous sandwich sliced with what must have been an extremely sharp knife and great skill. The horse & pepper came with the same veggie pate on the Baba Jaga, but instead of the pickled vegetables and garden, it opted for a horseradish slaw, a spicy pepper relish, chili peppers, and a black garlic butter on the crusty and fresh hoagie roll. It was like someone had gotten their hands on a magnificent loaf of garlic bread and had stuffed it with horseradish and a fine-ground sausage. I loved the sandwich, but it proved far too spicy for many at the table. Again, not really a summer dish, but who needs seasonality when you have black garlic butter spread on a fresh and crispy crusty hoagie roll?


Dessert

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Far from being someone who stops while they’re ahead, we opted for 100% completion of the (food) menu with their sole dessert offering, an Apple Tart. A fairly tasteless tart shell, covered with what seemed to be an apple and apricot puree, all topped with layered apples, and sour cherries. The sour cherries were the best part, with the tasteless puree and out of season apples providing more of a bitter mush than a sweet dessert. The edible flowers were a strange addition, adding even more of a savory flavor to the already overly savory dessert tart. All being equal, I would have preferred another order of the Kartofle z Jogurtem instead.

(not pictured) We also opted to be adventurous in our libations as well as our food orders, sampling the Wildflower Soda and Birch Water. The Soda was crisp, with a nice honey finish, working to counteract the mostly spicy meal. The Birch Water was not rooty or spicy as I’d grown to expect from a Birch Beer, but had more of a soft molasses flavor in the tall, cold, glass of water. They were both nice non-alcoholic additions to the lagers and cocktails they offered.

Overall, it was quite an enjoyable experience. The Kartofle and Cykoria are can’t miss dishes, unlike anything I’ve had in Pittsburgh. I also strongly recommend the Horse & Pepper if you like heat/garlic. I look forward to returning after they’ve changed their menu, either out of change in feel or seasonality. They’ve only been open for a few months, so it was surprising to learn this was mostly the menu they’ve been serving all summer. I hope to see a few more cold dishes, with a focus on lighter and fresher offerings to help combat what’s sure to be a rough Pittsburgh summer.

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