Restaurant Review: The Vandal Hits the Mark in Lawrenceville
A solid menu, welcoming service and hip design make The Vandal one of the Top Openings of 2015.
photos by Laura petrilla
A car with a backseat stuffed with kale was parked in front of The Vandal in Central Lawrenceville when I went there for lunch one afternoon.
Food is served on tiny cafeteria trays. The restaurant’s Instagram feed consistently updates with perfectly plated dishes, new additions to the hand-lettered chalkboard menu and team photos of quirky pop-up events, including that time they turned the restaurant into Bob’s Burgers for Halloween weekend. Decor suggests the result of a twee design magazine meeting an underfunded Lawrenceville flip: raw, white walls studded with holes, wooden beams framing an unfinished ceiling, Herringbone wood floors. The rotating soundtrack glides between electronica to alt-90s to moody throwbacks such as Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz.”
The Vandal is a millennial meme.
And yet, it works for me and it works for Pittsburgh, thanks largely to the vision of co-owner and proprietor Joey Hilty. It’s a much-desired casual spot with good food and warm service.
Csilla Thackray is largely responsible for the menu, which she executes with a small kitchen team that occasionally includes Hilty (he’s generally found front-of-house serving as host). This is the first strong branch of a new culinary family tree in Pittsburgh: both Hilty and Thackray are veterans of the Bar Marco/The Livermore heyday.
Thackray’s menu changes frequently, at times frantically. Most dishes last a few weeks, sometimes just for a few days.
There are only a couple of fixtures. One of those, the pork sandwich, is a crowd-pleaser. Thin slices of roasted pork — I wouldn’t mind a few more of those on the sandwich — are paired with apple mostarda and crispy kale. Although I’m a firm believer that potato chips are almost always the best crunch element on a sandwich, in this case the crispy kale — vegetal, crunchy and good for you — is another example of how the Vandal makes something work that otherwise could be scoffed at as hipster-cool (Kale Chips! Rah!).
The fried chicken sandwich isn’t offered every day, so it’s worth ordering when it is. They tend to sell out when they’re on the menu, so jump at the chance to get one if you have it. Boneless chicken breast is fried so that it’s crackling crispy and juicy, and then topped with peppery arugula, carrot slaw and honey and red pepper dressing.
The side-dish fixtures also are solid. The Mac and Cheese is textbook, and I love the attention to detail in making sure the pasta is toothsome. I also dig the rich, satisfying flavor of the red peas, though I would like to see an indication on the menu that they’re not a vegetarian dish. I had to ask, and that’s not a great thing because, aside from the mac, there isn’t a consistent, substantive vegetarian side dish. Some days there are quite a few options — I had a spot-on, earthy beet dish with tangy, sweet blood orange glaze and hand-pulled Caputo Brothers stracciatella — but on other visits it was only the mac and maybe a salad. (There’s always a vegetarian sandwich or two.)
The seasonal specials and made-on-a-whim dishes that I tried were for the most part successful, though some should have been tested more before making the menu. The squash sandwich was a champion of flavor: sweet, nutty squash; sharp, hot, vinegared pickled peppers; smooth, housemade stracciatella; pungent, bitter greens. Yet it failed as a sandwich; as the stracciatella — a creamy cheese bordering on liquid — began to soak through the crumb of the bread, the sandwich decomposed into a tasty mess on a plate.
On one visit, the mushroom sandwich was good enough to convince mushroom haters they’ve been wrong; it was less successful a second time because it was too salty and the mushrooms kept falling out of the bread. A meaty Hen of the Woods ragu fills a baguette, and pickled Puffball mushrooms add a contrast in texture and flavor. With a little more testing, Thackray would likely have found consistency, and she also may have found her knife so that she could cut the grilled leeks that top the sandwich; a few bites were enough to pull all of them out.
Breakfast at The Vandal is terrific, and it’s served every day The Vandal is open. The ham and egg biscuit has a perfectly cooked sunny-side-up egg, sweet smoky ham and a flaky biscuit. I would have liked a dash of hot sauce to round out the dish but instead added the wildly spicy dressed greens served alongside it. A friend’s ricotta and shiitake tart had a flaky, buttery shell and properly cooked mushrooms. I’d eat this again. The breakfast menu expands into brunch on the weekends. It’s worth waiting in line.
Hilty and Thackray have taken the good and the bad that they learned from their prior restaurant experience and created an inviting space of their own — one that I plan on visiting often. You should too.
4306 Butler Street, Lawrenceville; 412/251-0465, thevandalpgh.com
Joey Hilty, Co-owner/Proprietor & Csilla Thackray, Executive Chef | The Vandal
Where did you look for influences in creating the space?
JH: Conceptually, it sort of evolved over the last year. It stemmed from the need to put an accessible, casual restaurant that didn’t just cater to the nighttime crowd in the neighborhood. I wanted to put something in that people could go to any time of the day. I’ve been to big cities that have the really nice casual spots that people can pop in and then get on with their day, but know that the ingredients we use to make what they’re eating are coming from really good places.
How are you going about recipe development?
CT: For me, it’s super-driven by what I pull up on the [produce supplier] lists for that week. A lot of it is what I know from my [Hungarian] grandmother, and otherwise it’s just really driven by what’s available in the season.
How much of each of your influences is on the menu? I can see each of your sensibilities in the menu design.
JH: We’re still really exploring how our ideas transfer to each other. I think there’s sort of a two-level strainer. We talk to each other about our ideas, and the best things happen when we both work through it. Csilla drives the menu, but we’ll both taste things and tweak them. Personally, I love anything with vinegar and sugar.
CS: Menu-wise, you see the burger, the chicken, more comfort food, that’s Joe really craving something. Beyond that I have a big comfort level doing what I want, especially with vegetables.
JH: We’re still new at this. I’ve never owned a place before. Csilla worked in kitchens, but this is the first time she’s running one. So right now we’re really playing to our strengths, and we’re going to continue to grow from there.
How do you go about creating the vibe front of house?
JH: You want to make people feel something when they come in. The restaurant experience is very much about the plate of food in front of you, but it’s so much more than that. It’s the conversation you’re having while you’re eating and the experience that you have while you’re in here. So music choices, for example, it’s like you’re speaking a language with the customer. It’s a small space so we put details in where we could.