Apteka: A Taste of Home
Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski bring top-notch vegan, eastern European cuisine to Bloomfield.
photos by Laura Petrilla
Apteka in Bloomfield is Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski’s first standalone restaurant, although the pair already had built a significant following in Pittsburgh by way of their longstanding “Pierogi Night” series.
At Apteka, they move beyond the basic formula of “Pierogi vs … ” to a fully fledged eatery focused on the cuisine of eastern and central Europe.
A hater might call Apteka hipster. The design is evocative of eating in a concrete bunker at the end of the analog age. The mood is set by an ambient, perfomance-art-influenced soundscape that sometimes gets downright weird. There are jars upon jars of fermenting and pickling foraged forest, field and fruit finds. Fret not, this isn’t Brooklyn’s Bushwick on Pittsburgh’s Penn Avenue.
It also would be easy to call Apteka hippie. It’s 100 percent meat- and dairy-free. Occasionally a server meanders through the dining room to “cleanse the air” with a pot of smoking sage. In most restaurants, that would be a comical, oddball or otherwise distractingly assertive act of olfactory service. It’s not at Apteka.
In fact, these little details are part of what make Apteka a draw. It’s a restaurant that is as committed as it is spirited, and it’s a prime example of why diners should continue to support a “good food” movement that’s pushed restaurants back to scratch-made cuisine and you-can-do-it spirit.
It quickly has become one of my favorite places to eat and drink in Pittsburgh since it opened in February.
Apteka is a reason to celebrate accomplished sincerity. Often, restaurants are built on the misappropriation of cultural pirating masked as personal enthusiasm — or worse, assembled from a pop-conceptual point of view — but Apteka comes from the soul, and it shows.
Lasky is a sixth-generation Pittsburgher; Skowronski grew up in Pittsburgh but deeply is connected to his Polish roots; his parents emigrated from Warsaw shortly before he was born and he’s spent a significant amount of his life visiting there.
A starter, kartofle z jogurtem migdalowym, is my favorite item on the menu. Soft, boiled potatoes are paired with lingonberry jam and yogurt for a dish that is both sturdy and satisfying. I also love Apteka’s deep ruby, intensely beet-concentrated borscht. There isn’t much to the dish beyond translucent broth and a warm heat, but that doesn’t matter; this is a celebration of earthiness.
Get the kanapki, a trio of small open-faced sandwiches served on hearty, multigrain bread. The trifecta of toppings (carrot pate with radish, cucumber and dill; Polish salad with celeriac, pickle and potato; leek and apple) are a neat demonstration of Lasky and Skowronski’s culinary skill.
At $11, a large plate of pierogi is the most expensive item on Apteka’s relatively limited menu. Diners get seven for that price, or four pierogi for $7. There are two varieties — sauerkraut & mushroom and smoked potato, greens and roasted parsnip — and an order gets you a sampling of both of them. I don’t think it’s possible to replace a potato-and-cheese pierogi lusciously finished in butter as my favorite pierogi, but all things considered, these are excellent and certainly worth ordering. The thin-skinned dumplings have crispy, salty exteriors and distinctive, tempting fillings.
Golabki, cabbage stuffed with buckwheat and roasted tomatoes, had what a friend described as a dusty quality, as if it were a holdover from before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Lasky and Skowronski are quite adept at balancing flavor profiles but missed the mark with this one.
Lack of lightness is the main flaw from Apteka’s kitchen. Nearly everything offered is built with simple starches, root vegetables, mushrooms and hearty bread. When I ran into Lasky shopping at the Bloomfield farmer’s market one morning, I expected there would be some lighter, early-summer dishes on the menu when I visited that evening. There were not. I did have a salad made from a mix of bitter, sweet and sturdy greens topped with pretty and punchy chive blossoms on an earlier visit that showed some seasonal promise, but that dish was blown away by an inappropriately spicy dressing.
Apteka also is an outstanding destination for drinking. Indeed, there are times where I consider it to be a cool corner bar as much as I do a restaurant, and I often visit just to sit at the gorgeous wood bar for a nightcap.
Gin, celery seed and Chartreuse is a herbaceous, slightly bracing way to start your meal. Bourbon, pickled prune and sage is a tad too viscous to enjoy as a traditional cocktail but works when paired with food. Scotch, Fernet, lemon and apple is the perfect drink either to finish your meal or simply to enjoy if you’re stopping by Apteka for a nice drink.
Embrace the sage-burning air-cleanse and the performance-art soundtrack. Celebrate the spirit of sincerity. Apteka is for real, and it’s a refreshing, welcoming and affordable addition to Pittsburgh’s community of restaurants.
4606 Penn Ave., Bloomfield; 412/251-0189, aptekapgh.com
Tomasz Skowronski & Kate Lasky
Chefs & Owners | Apteka
Why open a vegan eatery focused on central and eastern European food?
Kate: For us, it’s two separate things rolled into one. When Pierogi Night started, it was because Pittsburgh has a tight relationship with eastern Europe, but we also have a relationship with it. Tomasz has probably spent a quarter of his life in Poland. Tomasz: My parents didn’t leave Poland to get away from there, which is what most people do. The relationship I have was them showing me all [of] the best stuff from there. I got to travel around Poland and Slovakia and that whole region. K: Seeing, tasting and experiencing… T: Right. There’s such a complexity to this cuisine. There’s also a big awareness to something that’s become more popular here now, which is heritage varietals. There was a lot of plenty in a place associated with scarcity. K: And it’s vegan because we’re vegan. That’s pretty much it with that.
Where did the bar program — the cordials and the way you’re building the cocktails — come from?
K: The cordials are still something we’re working on. During Communism, there was a whole alternative market for food where people would grow things on their property and distribute them. T: It wasn’t even that long ago. K: In the summer, his dad and his family would spend the summers growing stuff. It was one fruit after the other. T: Black currants, cherries, pears. K: So you have this whole culture of preservation, too. For us, it was something we started doing years ago and something that we really like. T: We have notebooks filled of combinations of things we like, such as black currant and black pepper. Those combinations might go into a dressing or a sorbet or a cocktail. And when you want to sell cocktails at a lower price point, you have to think of ways to do that, like handcrafting everything yourself.
That’s interesting, because in today’s market we associate handcrafted ingredients with a higher price point. “We’ve been fermenting these for two years, and they’re going to be a very precious ingredient in a $14 cocktail.” But for you, it’s a way to offer value to your customers both in terms of price point but also flavor.
T: That creative element can be easy to do. It’s not like we’re encouraging people to start a bread program. Sauerkraut is shredding cabbage and covering it with salt. That’s it. And it’s so much better than what you’re going to buy.