Faced with a world of international cuisines, vegans know the safest routes —Asian, Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines offer plenty of options. But few would point to the meat- and dairy-centric menus of northern Europe, east or west, as promising options for a vegan meal out.
Apteka upends this assumption with its outspoken focus on “vegan Eastern European food.” Yet its offerings barely resembled the Eastern European standard-bearers of local restaurants, taverns and church festivals. They weren’t completely unfamiliar — the touchstones of pierogi, golumpki and borscht were present — but the flavors and textures amounted practically to re-inventions of these and other dishes.
A big question we had going in was how the kitchen would deal with, quite literally, the meat of the matter, given its centrality to traditional Eastern European cooking. We are personally not fans of meat substitutes, preferring animal-free patties, loaves and pâtés that achieve heartiness and savor in their own right. Apteka scored high in this regard. While it has a few nominal meat replacements, most dishes took an unabashedly vegan route to robust umami flavor.
The surprising exception was borscht, served in a teacup sans spoon and accompanied by a slice of toast topped with smoked celeriac pâté. The borscht was consommé-clear, and it perfectly balanced beet and, somehow, beef flavor. How? We cannot say, but the flavor was so true, it’s possible it might actually put off a committed vegetarian. We were quite pleased with it and the accompanying toast.
The toast was made from a bread that recurred in several dishes, a classic, dense, seedy, brown central European bread of the type Angelique loves and Jason tolerates. But its robust presence worked well with the intense flavors that abounded.
Here is the other way in which Apteka departs from local clichés about Polish food: The food here is vibrant, spicy, sometimes even flat-out hot. The side salad, for instance, was — quite unexpectedly — as fiery as anything from Thailand or Mexico, possibly from hot peppers in the escabeche. The other ingredients made for a simple but inspired alternative to the usual spring greens, tomatoes and cukes: mustard greens, shallot, apple, radish and sunflower seeds.
Pittsburghers seem universally committed to serving their pierogies soft with butter and onions, but here again Apteka departed, using a fairly lean dough that fried up somewhere between pot sticker and empanada. In lieu of butter, there was sour cream-like “yogurt” sauce, and the pierogies were served stacked on a bed of shredded cabbage and beets. A large or small order includes both fillings: sauerkraut and mushroom as well as smoked potato with greens and roasted parsnips. The former was tasty enough, but the latter was a real standout, with poppy seeds in the dough and a cascade of flavors with a kick in the filling. Neither had the pillowy creaminess of traditional potato pierogie, but rather retained the distinctive textures of their own ingredients.
The menu included two sandwiches, both featuring the same vegetable pâté, which was rustic to say the least: more like a soft loaf of finely ground and seasoned seeds and root vegetables. Otherwise, the sandwiches departed sharply. The Baba Jaga added Polish pickles and pickled beets, smoked-onion remoulade, and mustard atop slabs of that hearty, seedy house bread, while the Horse and Pepper went the spicy route, with horseradish slaw, pepper relish and jalapeños on a baguette. We found the Baba Jaga to be a bit one-note, the pâté serving mostly as filler, so that almost all the flavor came from the pickled cukes and beets. But the Horse had a lot more breadth and interest; it probably helped that the light, crusty baguette didn’t compete with the loaf-like pâté in the way the seedy bread did.
Golumpki were a challenge to eat with the lightweight silverware provided, and have very little taste on their own. They were salvaged by the excellent, thick tomato puree they were served upon. Grilled endive was slathered in a cloying, jelly-like prune molasses. The wild mushrooms on top were roasted to perfection, however.
The raw physical space Apteka occupies could read as hipster affectation, but it pretty honestly is what it is: cinder-block walls and concrete floor, lightened by a bare-wood bar and a few decorative touches, most notably flower arrangements that put carnations in a bottle to shame. Apteka demonstrates — in case there was any doubt — that in the right hands, neither vegan food nor bare-bones decor has to be austere.