10 Nov,2016 By Jagabond
“Pittsburgh entered the core of my heart when I was a boy and cannot be torn out.” – Andrew Carnegie
I’m lucky to have grown up in the Pittsburgh area. I value the hard-working mentality, the tight communities, and certainly the devotion to football. I moved away in 2000, never to permanently return. When I left the city was dying…jobs were lacking and young adults were leaving for greener occupational pastures elsewhere. This was a continuation of the previous despair that took place in the early 1980s, when the ‘Steel City’ lost its steel industry, which plunged the populace into a prolonged economic downturn. I’m proud and surprised to have seen Pittsburgh make an unexpected recovery, even being named America’s most livable city multiple times in recent years.
I decided to spend a week in Pittsburgh before moving back to Europe. Pittsburgh has always been influenced by its European immigrants. I remember hearing all the Scottish/Irish last names (including my own), living for a year in the Italian section of the city, and celebrating independence day with a touch of Germany and Poland – in the form of sauerkraut, sausage and potato dumplings. When I lived here, I was never risky with my food choices, often opting for the Pittsburgh cuisine of sandwiches, french fries, chicken wings, and other mega-caloric foodstuffs. I moved from Pittsburgh having never tried sushi, tikka masala, or any Mexican food not from Taco Bell. I’m happy to say I have changed since then, and so I was excited to check out Apteka, a vegan restaurant marketing itself as Central/Eastern European.
Apteka is located in Bloomfield, which is known mostly for its preponderance of Italian cuisine. As pictured above the entrance was unassuming, and the restaurant was set adjacent to a cemetery. I entered and immediately noticed the hand-written menu and the deli-style counter for ordering, which was attached to a normal looking and fully stocked bar. There was definitely a cool vibe here, and the metal rafters on the ceiling made it almost look like a refurbished garage. This reminded me of the ruin bars in Budapest, where locals would take an aging building and put a unique spin on it. The food choices appeared mostly Polish, though recipes throughout the countries in that region tend to overlap and have many similarities.
In a nod to the Polish vibe of the menu, I decided to start with their signature vodka drink, which was outstanding. This was vodka with a mix of black currant and burnt lemon. I had to look up burnt lemon, and found the following description from tastingtable.com – “Using a lighter or match, run a flame along the zest side of a lemon peel garnish. Burn until just warm and a light char begins to appear on the peel. Squeeze the warm peel over the drink to release the citrus oils.” That sounds like a lot of work for the bartender…I’m glad I only had one!
First up for food was the appetizer, which was the tartine plate with three different combinations. I loved the cucumber dill tartine, and the Polish salad with potatoes and pickles…but the cauliflower and jalapeno one seemed a bit off. This wasn’t advertised as one of the tartines on the menu, so I got the idea they ran out of ingredients and just threw something together.
Pierogies are a mainstay of Pittsburgh culture, so I’ve had many culinary experiences with them. Mostly I’ve had them on holidays, and they’ve been boiled, and covered with gobs of butter and onions. These were different – and better – as they were lightly browned and coated in a cream sauce resembling hollandaise. The chives went great with the potato filling, and I’m a huge beet fan so this side was much appreciated. There were actually two types of pierogies presented, one with a potato filling, and the other with sauerkraut and mushrooms…both were amazing.
Golabki, or stuffed cabbage rolls, translates from Polish to ‘little pigeons’. Being a vegan restaurant, there was no bird stuffing here, just buckwheat that gave it a surprisingly filling quality. There’s a myth that a former King of Poland credited victory in battle to a hearty meal of Golabki. I certainly wasn’t ready to fight after my meal, but if there is another world war, I’ll be sure to come armed with cabbage.
In summary, the food here was incredible, and for meat eaters, you almost forgot this was a vegan restaurant. I think most people will leave here with their stomachs satisfied, so don’t let the ‘vegan’ classification scare you. I was also impressed by their beer selection, which had Duvel, one of Belgium’s finest brews. I give Apteka four and a half stars out of five…bring a date here to show your chic European side.
The service was also very nice, as if they knew they were a ‘rising star’ of the Pittsburgh foodie scene, so they served with confidence, politeness and personality. The staff was even so good as to clarify what facilities were available in the bathroom.
Apteka is located at 4606 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15224. It is open Wednesday through Sunday from 5-10 P.M. for dinner. They only take reservations for parties of six or more, so if you want a table hassle free try and show up early. Their website is http://aptekapgh.com.