Review: Tender Bar + Kitchen
Lawrenceville hot spot Tender, once favored primarily for its libations, now is known as well for its culinary offerings.
PHOTOS BY LAURA PETRILLA
Tender Bar + Kitchen, which opened in April 2013 in Lawrenceville, always has felt like a space in search of a coherent identity. For me, the plus sign in its name reads as an unintentional clue highlighting the longstanding dissonance between the bar and the kitchen.
Tender Bar 1.0, which featured a team of vested-and-capped or flapper-dressed bartenders, intended to evoke a Jazz Age speakeasy. Although it felt a bit stuffy at times, it delivered cocktails that consistently were some of the most innovative and delicious in town. The menu, however, was a hodgepodge of regional American styles that didn’t reflect the spirit of the bar. Moreover, the food was lousy.
During Tender 2.0, jazz — which felt too contrived — was replaced with soul, funk and groove soundtracks. Bartenders shed their costumes, though their attire certainly still complemented the ornate bar, a construction so tall the barkeeps need a ladder to access some of the 300-plus spirits.
Jannamico Super Punch, the sticky, sweet amaro imported directly from Abruzzo to the Penn Hills, was served by the shot and spoonful — and in a wondrously terrible drink called the Corn Popper. Tender the kitchen was an afterthought; I was going to this Tender to drink.
Today’s Tender 3.0 once again is confusing, sometimes disharmonious, but in many aspects the best it’s ever been. The music’s taken a turn for the worse — on one visit I had to sit through an entire album of the pop group Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. For the first time, though, I find myself coming to Tender to eat more than to drink.
That’s because Executive Chef Brian Little now runs the kitchen. Little previously worked at NOLA on the Square and Casbah, but his dishes are most influenced by his two years at Salt of the Earth, where he once was sous chef.
I wanted a bit more lamb in the lamb tagine, mainly because I couldn’t stop eating the warmly spiced Moroccan dish. The duck breast would have benefited from crispier skin. But when your primary complaint is that the chef is a bit too keen on using shaved scallions as a garnish, things are looking good. Some dishes, such as the braised winter greens with lentils, are knee-buckling.
Brunch is in the process of revision and still needs work. Stick to the staples and add a stack of buckwheat pancakes; mine were complemented with an insanely good mascarpone and cranberry mix. Drink the mezcal breakfast cocktail Fire Walk with Me, created by bartender Hannah Morris.
The bar program, overseen by libations maestro Nathan Lutchansky, remains a fixture on any booze lover’s Pittsburgh bar crawl. Credited signature cocktails remain, but classic and tiki cocktails now are featured more prominently on the menu. Either way, you’re in good hands.
I wish I could say the same for Tender’s support staff.
On one visit, I was seated next to the service bartender, who fumbled her jiggers and bottles, spilling and swearing all night long. Her antics were so noticeable that a friend seated at the far end of the bar also commented on them. With a team of some of the smoothest bartenders in the city, this unprofessionalism was especially distracting.
On another visit, several groups of people stacked up awkwardly in the doorway, unsure if they should wait to be seated, even though the restaurant wasn’t particularly busy.
Servers dropped off plates haphazardly. I had to turn nearly every plate at least 45 degrees to see it plated the way I suspect Little wanted it seen. The lighting didn’t help either, as it’s set to perfect lumens for a bar. I had to move my plate under one of the bar’s desk lights to appreciate the vivid color contrasts in Little’s dishes.
I’m still not sure what Tender Bar + Kitchen is. It’s now at once a very serious restaurant and a very serious bar, but it never feels like both at the same time. If you come for cocktails and snacks — get the General Tso’s chicken, it’s terrific — sit at the bar (as far from the central service spot as possible) and let one of Tender’s pros guide you through the night. If you come for dinner, sit at a table, indulge in Little’s cuisine and head somewhere else for after-dinner drinks.
If Little stays the course, it’s all upside for him. At 27, he still has years to hone his craft. He’s the freshest branch of a Salt of the Earth-rooted culinary tree. It seems that Tender’s ownership is giving him the freedom to run the kitchen the way he wants to run it, and that’s a very good thing. I’m excited to see what he does with local produce as we creep into the growing season.
Executive Chef, Tender Bar + Kitchen
What was your first job in a restaurant?
I started working in northern New Hampshire [Bethlehem] as a dishwasher from ages 13-20. They always wanted to give me the opportunity to leave the dish pit, but at the time the last thing I wanted to do was be a cook. The hours were great. I could go skateboarding and go to shows and everything. Plus the chefs seemed miserable; they looked tired [and] when it got busy, they were cursing and throwing pans right at me in the dish pit. I did not want to be a cook.
So how did you end up cooking on the line?
I was 20, and I needed to start earning more money. I needed to do something constructive. I went to a friend’s family restaurant [The Cold Mountain Café,] and even though it wasn’t anything spectacular, they did their best to make good, honest food. They put a lot of heart into it. I started cooking in small amounts and realized, “If this is what cooking is, this is something I want to do.” From there I wanted to move somewhere more high-volume and challenging,and moved to Portsmouth[, N.H.]. Portland, Maine, is where I started to spend time with chefs, and everything started to click.
How did you end up in Pittsburgh?
My stepfather is a native, and he and my mom had moved back here. After working through Maine, I knew I was ready for a change of scenery. I wanted to challenge myself more as a chef so I could grow and thought I could find that opportunity here.
Now you’re running a kitchen of your own. What are you bringing into it from your past experiences?
Most importantly, it’s the idea of keeping a good attitude and keeping focused on the food that we’re putting out. If we work as hard as we can, we can do really special things here.
What drives you as a chef? Where do you see yourself going?
I want to see what I’m capable of as a chef. I’ve spent the last months making sure we have a series of good systems in place. Now that I have the base I can start making food that’s more challenging to me and continuing to develop my technique and get better as a chef.