Joey Hilty and Emily Slagel have continually made minor and, occasionally, major changes to The Vandal throughout their restaurant’s seven-year history. However, their current design refresh and menu refinement are the most significant of the Lawrenceville establishment’s run.
While many Pittsburgh establishments have opened or pivoted to fast food or comfort food in response to the coronavirus pandemic (or, in a few cases like Spork, more formal), The Vandal has gone in a different direction. As a result, it has the potential to be a model for the evolution of ingredient-driven, small-menu restaurants that thrived before the pandemic.
“Over the past few years, we had become much more inspired by being a neighborhood wine bar and cafe than the little sandwich shop we were when we first opened. We continued to make these changes to our menu, but the experience didn’t translate into how we spoke in terms of food, service, or wine,” says Hilty.
The Vandal added a liquor license before the coronavirus pandemic, but that never really changed the dynamic of the former BYOB restaurant.
“We had an abandoned coffee bar that we used for wine, but that didn’t really send the message that we took ourselves more seriously as a restaurant and wine bar,” he says.
So, after hanging around (often quite delightfully) for the past two years, Hilty and Slagel decided to dramatically redesign the minimalist space and closed for 12 weeks to do so.
No more annoying coffee bar and window benches. There is a beautiful five-seat marble bar framing the open kitchen, a long banquette and custom-built and designed white oak tables by Bones and All. Add to that dim lighting, whimsical cartoons and laid-back music, and it all creates an enchanting dining experience.
“I like to call it European casual. I don’t know how pretentious that sounds, but it really isn’t meant to be. It’s more like casual dining can be a little more than serving sandwiches and flatbreads. The feeling of escape in the restaurant is something special and that’s really our goal, even in a less formal atmosphere,” says Hilty.
Aaron Basskin, who worked at Apteka and Reed & Co. before joining The Vandal in October, runs the kitchen; he and the rest of the small kitchen team work collaboratively on building and executing the menu. Hilty, who has run the kitchen on and off since the restaurant opened, says he serves as something of an editor for everyone’s ideas.
It’s still a work in progress, but I saw a lot of promise when I visited earlier this month. Some dishes didn’t quite land – casarecce, a twisty Sicilian pasta, didn’t have the right shape for a heavy noodle of gluten-free chestnut flour and a red snapper crudo lacked cohesion – but most of what was on offer was delicious.
Tart, tangy punches are an emerging food trend, and The Vandal’s black bass with kumquat, grilled leeks and miso brought those flavors to the fore. The meaty fish was delighted with a balanced set of energetic, sour and tart kumquats and sulphurous leeks. The side sauce, boosted with miso, added some tangy, funky sunshine.
Another main dish, the sirloin with potato mousse, bordelaise with black garlic and watercress, presented like a cartoon, with small mountains of soft and frothy potatoes between fillets of black garlic. mixing in the juices of the steak with a scattering of verdant green watercress.
Two fantastic bites at the start and end of the meal framed these larger plates. The sunflower, coffee and green apple Jerusalem artichokes were a colorful touch of storage crops providing a final bridge to the growing season. When I mixed all the components together I found a textured balance of savory, earthy and energetic. An olive oil cake with satsuma, vanilla and rosemary makes for a delicious dessert highlighted with little bits of crunch, another firm and tart citrus pop and spicy, herbal notes from rosemary.
The bar program has just the right amount, with an easy-to-scan list of classic cocktails, biodynamic, organic and natural wines and a few beers. Slagel says there are plans to add more options shortly – I’d like to see an expanded list of appetizers and digestives to complete the vibe.
All in all, The Vandal is shaping up to be a part of the Pittsburgh culinary landscape that offers a great option if you’re looking for a casual yet portable spot, as well as a good pick for a midweek pick-me-up with a drink. crispy wine and a snack such as oysters with apple granita and horseradish.
“It’s a maturation. It’s years of ideas and sometimes it takes that long to come together,” says Hilty. “It’s still a work in progress. But we’re really moving the needle to where we want it to be.
4306 Butler Street, Lawrenceville; 412/251-0465, www.thevandalpgh.com