Why You Should Eat at Apteka in Pittsburgh…Even If You’re Not Vegan!

 Apteka’s backyard garden is open from 5-10 p.m., weather permitting.
Apteka’s backyard garden is open from 5-10 p.m., weather permitting.

Apteka in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh has been on Pittsburgh Magazine’s Best Restaurant list every year since its opening in 2016, and for good reason! It serves truly unique, lovingly crafted Eastern European food that just happens to be vegan. Plus, it’s really fun to say the name – Apteka, Apteka, Apteka – see what I mean? It’s also fun to try to pronounce the dishes on the menu, but probably safer to just point to what you want:)

Upon entering the restaurant, you place your order at the bar for both your meal and drinks, carry your drinks and a numbered placard to an open table, and then wait as the food is brought to the table. Since we never really know what we’re getting (we’re neither Eastern European nor vegan) we usually order a few items and share them.  That’s always worked out well for us. Many of the dishes feature pickled or fermented items, some things are a little spicy, and others are smoked. That was a real eye-opener for me. I had no idea it was even possible to smoke veggies, but it obviously is and the results are delicious!

I believe Apteka also gets recognition for their cocktail menu, which features house-infused tonics and alcohol, but Rick usually orders a Polish beer and I stick with wine. When I’m being adventurous with my food choices, I like to stay with a sure thing on my drink;)

Prices are very reasonable – small plates are $6 and $7, big plates (main courses) range from $10-$12, sandwiches $8 or $9, and Koktajle (cocktails:)) are all less than $10.

Apteka doesn’t take reservations unless you have a party of 6 or more, in which case you can email them to place your request. (I’m not even sure they have a phone.)  There is almost always a line to get in.  We’ve had our best luck coming mid-week or getting there unfashionably early – as in a few minutes before they open. And even then, there will be a line, albeit a small one. For more information about Apteka, a link to make a reservation, or to view the menu, visit: https://aptekapgh.com

Step Up Your Culinary Game with Gaynor’s School of Cooking in Pittsburgh

Step Up Your Culinary Game with Gaynor’s School of Cooking in Pittsburgh

Tired of cooking and eating the same old things every week? Or are your cooking skills such that you opt to eat out and let someone else do the cooking? Maybe it’s time to schedule a class at Gaynor’s School of Cooking in Pittsburgh’s Southside neighborhood!

My son, Jordan, and I recently took a class in Cajun Soul Cooking and had a fantastic time while learning some new cooking techniques. We then recreated a few of the dishes at home for the whole family!

 Our team for the evening!
Our team for the evening!

Class started at 6 p.m. with 12 people milling around, but our instructor, Josh (a baker at Oakmont Bakery, previously a chef at Altius), quickly organized us into two teams of six. I had my doubts that we would finish in the allotted four hours of class after Josh handed out our menu and recipes for the night. Each team would be making a six-course dinner consisting of Chicken & Sausage File Gumbo, New Orleans Stuffed Mushrooms, Shrimp Étouffée, Cajun Blackened Fish, Smothered Okra, and Sweet Potato Pecan Pie!

Our team divided the dishes and got to work chopping, weighing, and measuring.  Josh helped each team debone their chicken and then circled the room offering tips. I worked on the pastry for the pie, Jordan chopped veggies and started the roux for the étouffée. With 12 people crisscrossing the room looking for ingredients and cooking equipment, it looked like a very busy ant hill. 

 Jordan attends to the Shrimp Étouffée
Jordan attends to the Shrimp Étouffée

I learned to use a food scale (The pastry called for 4 ounces of butter, which had to be taken from a two pound block. No cutting through the stick using the guidelines on the wax paper.) and I also learned that even when you don’t have exactly what the recipe calls for, things usually work out fine. The industrial-sized bottle of vanilla extract was empty by the time I needed it for the pie filling and I expected the pie to be bland, but it was delicious!

 Josh, pictured right, oversees final dinner preparations
Josh, pictured right, oversees final dinner preparations

By some miracle, every dish was cooked and ready to eat by 8:30 (I want Josh to come to my house next Thanksgiving and keep things moving on time:)). At that point, everyone worked together to convert the counter-height work stations to a long dining table and we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labor.  

The next weekend, Jordan and I made the Shrimp Étouffée, Stuffed Mushrooms, and Sweet Potato Pecan Pie. Daughter-in-law Silvan made Southern Collard greens and Cajun Rice and Rick rounded out the meal with The Barefoot Contessa’s Tuscan Chicken on the grill. Also our next door neighbors joined us and brought an appetizer of homemade gazpacho! OMG! I’m making myself hungry just writing about this meal. Is it dinnertime yet? (Checks watch.)

Do any of you have experience with other cooking classes in the Burgh? Please leave us a note in the comments section! We’re always looking for new places to try and foods to sample. I’d love to find a foolproof technique for baking bread. Or maybe we’d even attempt croissants or pain au chocolate! (Who am I kidding? For French pastry, I’m just going to head over to La Gourmandine.)

For more information about Gaynor’s School of Cooking, visit http://gaynorsschoolofcooking.com.  

 Shrimp Étouffée
Shrimp Étouffée
 Putting the Sweet Potato Pecan Pie in the oven. Using a cookie sheet prevents spillover messes in the oven.
Putting the Sweet Potato Pecan Pie in the oven. Using a cookie sheet prevents spillover messes in the oven.
 Our at-home recreation of the Gaynor’s Cajun meal.
Our at-home recreation of the Gaynor’s Cajun meal.

Below is the recipe for Sweet Potato Pecan Pie.  IMHO, it’s better than either pastry on its own.  The sweet potato tones down the sweetness of the pecan pie filling and the pecan pie elevates the sweet potato filling. This is definitely going to join the rotation of Thanksgiving desserts at our house (even if Josh won’t be there to run the clock.)

 Sweet Potato Pecan Pie
Sweet Potato Pecan Pie

Sweet Potato Pecan Pie

Pie Dough

1 C all purpose flour

1/3 t salt

2 T sugar

4 oz unsalted butter, but into small pieces

3-4 T water


1 large or 2 small sweet potatoes, baked (enough to yield 1 C cooked pulp)

2 T light brown sugar

1 T sugar

1 lightly beaten egg with 1/2 t heavy cream

1/2 T butter, softened

1 1/2 t vanilla

1/8 t salt

1/8 t allspice

1/8 t ground nutmeg


6 T sugar

6 T dark corn syrup

1 egg

3/4 T butter, melted

1 t vanilla

pinch of salt

pinch of ground cinnamon

6 T pecan pieces or halves

  1. Make the dough: Place the flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse 1-2 times. Add the butter pieces and pulse 4-5 times or until the butter is the size of lima beans. Add the water a little at a time and pulse just to incorporate. The dough should just hold together when squeezed in the palm of your hand. Do not process to a ball. Turn the mixture out onto a floured surface and “frisage” or blend it together with your hands, then form a flat disk, wrap in plastic film and refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour.

  2. Once the dough has rested, turn it out onto a floured surface and roll it our to approx. 1/4 inch thick disk large enough to line a 7-8” quiche pan. Line the pan and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.

  3. Make the filling: Combine all the ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until smooth. Set aside.

  4. To make the syrup: Combine all ingredients, except pecans, in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat a slow speed until the syrup is opaque. Stir in the pecans.

  5. To assemble: Spoon the sweet potato filling into the dough, smooth out, then pour on the pecan syrup. Bake in a 325 oven for about 1 and 3/4 hours or until a knife inserted into the pie comes out clean. Serve with whipped cream.