The bar at Apteka. Photo by Jennifer Baron.

Eat: Pierogi and kanapki at Apteka

The first seeds of Apteka were sown, more or less, from necessity. Back in 2010, options for vegan food in Pittsburgh were scarce. “There was Quiet Storm—period,” says co-owner Kate Lasky. So Lasky, along with Tomasz Skowronski, started Pierogi Night, a monthly pop-up featuring vegan versions of the iconic Pittsburgh food. Though more plant-focused restaurants began to open (not many, but more), the popularity of Pierogi Night only grew. At their most recent event, Lasky and Skowronski fried up pierogi for more than 400 people.

The next step? Open a restaurant. And after months of research, a successful Kickstarter campaign and a largely DIY buildout, that’s exactly what they did. Apteka is now open at 4606 Penn Avenue, on the border of Bloomfield and Lawrenceville. The space revolves around the beautiful wooden bar, which Lasky and Skowronski built themselves: customers order food there, then disperse to tables or (eventually) to outdoor seating on a back patio. “We want to create an environment where people want to stay and hang out,” explains Skowronski.

The food, which is entirely plant and grain based, reflects their heritage as well as the bounty of the Pittsburgh region. “It’s things we’ve tried, Tomasz’s memories [Skowronski’s parents immigrated from Poland and he travels there regularly] and things we like to cook,” says Lasky. “It’s Polish food, but it’s bringing in a lot more ideas that people don’t necessarily associate with Polish food.” The menu is anchored by the pierogi for which Lasky and Skowronski have become justifiably famous. Though there is no meat in the filling or butter in the sauce, the smart combinations of hearty mushrooms, fermented items like sauerkraut and smoke (Apteka’s smoker gets a lot of use) create layers of rich, satisfying flavor.

Though the pierogi will likely be the most familiar items to guests, the menu plunges deeper into the cuisines of Eastern Europe. Seasonally rotating kanapki—akin to Polish tea sandwiches—will be staples on the menu, and their opening menu includes other well-known dishes like borscht and stuffed cabbage. That menu will continue to expand and change as Lasky and Skowronski get comfortable in their new digs. Everything at Apteka is made from scratch, and plans for a sizable fermentation program are in the works.

Speaking of fermented things, Apteka boasts a full bar that is equally rooted in Eastern European tradition. Ingredients like birch water (a close cousin of maple water) and pickled prune syrup pop up on the cocktail menu, and local draft beers mingle with imported bottles. Homemade cordials will also appear regularly, made from local fruits like the Cornelian cherry, a cranberry-like fruit that grows wild around Pittsburgh. Apteka will also serve kvass, a barely alcoholic beverage made by fermenting rye bread, on draft.

Apteka is a bridge between many worlds. It links Old World Europe and a revitalized Pittsburgh; familiar old-school cooking and a sustainable plant-based approach; traditional Polish ingredients and a celebration of our region’s bounty. It may sound like a tall order, but Lasky and Skowronski are up for the challenge. Explains Skowronski: “We’re excited to take this food that means so much to people and . . . color it in.”

Drink: Barrel-aged cocktails everywhere you look

Barrel-aged cocktails are not a new idea. Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler pioneered the technique back in 2010 when he dumped several gallons of a batched Manhattan mixture into a small oak cask. Six years later, barrel-aged cocktails are more ubiquitous than ever, and every cocktail bar in Pittsburgh seems to have a little barrel of something stashed away.

Morgenthaler explains the logic of barrel-aging a cocktail in The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique: “By putting cocktails into oak barrels, we’re taking advantage of two processes: using the alcohol as a solvent to wash the caramelized sugars, vanillin, and other organic compounds out of the wood, as well as exposing the cocktails to a small amount of air, which will slowly oxidize the drink over time.” In other words, the barrel softens and deepens the cocktail inside, creating exciting new versions of classic cocktails.

Pittsburgh bartenders have enthusiastically embraced the barreled cocktail trend, and these days it’s easier than ever to taste the magic of an aged Manhattan or Negroni. The menu at Meat & Potatoes has long featured a barrel-aged cocktail on their menu. When sister restaurant Butcher and the Rye opened, they one-upped Meat & Potatoes, featuring two barreled cocktails and serving them on draft. Barrel-aged whiskey drinks can be found at Tender Bar+Kitchen, Industry Public House and Independent Brewing Company. The bar at the recently opened Ace Hotel is also experimenting with barrels, and their first batch (a 50-50 gin martini) was met with enthusiasm.

Of course, you could also just do it yourself. Barrels are available online, and Wigle sells two-liter oak barrels for $75. The process is simple: pick a cocktail you love (something made entirely of spirits—citrus, dairy and so-forth can spoil), scale the recipe up a couple dozen times, dump it in the barrel and hang tight. The results are worth the wait.

Do: Throw back with a Salt burger at The Vandal

We only get a February 29th once every four years. So it makes sense that on this odd day, something odd and wonderful should happen. Tonight, head to The Vandal for a meal that may not come back for another four years (or perhaps ever again): a genuine Salt of the Earth burger.

The bygone Garfield restaurant’s cheeseburger has become the stuff of legend among Pittsburgh carnivores. It seems simple enough on paper, but the attention to ingredients, from the pillowy brioche bun to the housemade American cheese, sets it apart from your average bar burger. For this iteration, Butcher on Butler has dry-aged a quarter of a cow, to be ground and formed into about a hundred patties for tonight’s one-of-a-kind dinner.

Joining Vandal owner Joey Hilty will be Justin Steel of Bar Marco, Chad Townsend of Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream, and Kevin Sousa of Superior Motors. Bar Marco will provide cocktails (Hilty hints that there may even be a Salt drink or two on the menu). Twelve bucks gets you a burger and fries, and proceeds from the night will benefit the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania.

Things kick off at 6 p.m. tonight. Get there early—with all the Pittsburgh culinary star power in the house, those burgers are sure to go fast.

Drew Cranisky is a writer, bartender and recent graduate of Chatham University's Food Studies program. He enjoys cats, pinball and fancy burgers.