Tender Bar in Lawrenceville serves regional favorites from across nation
When Tender Bar & Kitchen owner Jeff Catalina hired Neal Heidekat as chef, he gave Heidekat free rein to create an overall concept for the small-plates menu of the Lawrenceville craft-cocktail bar.
Heidekat was intrigued. He had been reading a book by Clementine Paddleford, a 20th-century New York-based food writer who would pilot her Piper Cub airplane to different parts of the country, search out which cooks made the best regional dishes and publish the best recipe for each.
Paddleford's book convinced Heidekat that Americans have an unwarranted “second-class” concept about American cooking.
“I thought, ‘Why not offer (regional American) dishes and not apologize for the food but celebrate it?'” Heidekat says. “We're trying to reinvent and go back to our culinary roots as a country.”
So native Pittsburghers will recognize the city's City Chicken for $8, featuring herb-breaded, fried pork on skewers.
“We are trying to tap into some of the emotional connections people have with food,” owner Catalina says.
Dishes from the South include Hot Chicken for $7 and Hush Puppies for $4. A more unusual offering is Yaka Mein for $8, a fusion of Southern and Korean culinary traditions that Heidekat says occurred after GIs from New Orleans brought back Korean War brides after that conflict. Catalina suggested adding Barbecue Brisket for $12, which originated in Austin, Texas, because he spent many of his growing-up years in San Antonio.
“People love the playfulness of the menu,” Catalina says. Guests have made suggestions for specialties from their native regions.
Late-night specials are available at Tender Bar, with announcements on Facebook and Twitter. A recent announcement that Tender Bar would feature Sloppy Joes drew an additional dozen noshers.
Tender Bar & Kitchen, which opened April 5, got its name because of past and present aspects. The building was originally the Arsenal Bank of Lawrenceville, where it dealt in legal “tender.” In its new incarnation, owner Catalina wanted to offer craft cocktails created by bartenders.
A cocktail area in the bar is papered with vintage checks from the bank, endorsed with graceful signatures. The bank's original marble floors are under foot in the lounge area. Red, flocked upholstered loveseats, striped banquettes and white-leather barstools make the bar cozy and sophisticated. A ladder on a track enables bartenders to reach even the highest wooden shelves of the extensive bar.
Tender Bar also has side rooms for more secluded conversation. Posters and pictures celebrate the 20th century, when cocktails surged in popularity in this country because of Prohibition.
“It's cool to see bartenders take as much effort as (chefs) do in the kitchen,” Heidekat says.
“That's spot on,” Catalina agrees. “Craft bartenders appreciate the culinary aspects of bartending: using fresh-squeezed juices and fresh ingredients, and treating the product with respect and care.”
Heidekat, 35, of Wilkinsburg, is a city native whose mother “made amazing things” and was a Julia Child devotee. Her son worked in and out of the restaurant industry for years, as well as at a freight-forwarding company. About 10 years ago, Heidekat decided to concentrate on food. He enrolled in the former Pennsylvania Culinary Institute while working at area restaurants and catering — all at the same time.
“I really think that crash course helped get me in shape for this industry,” he says. After working at restaurants such as Seviche, Sonoma Grill and Verde, the latter another Catalina property,” Jeff gave me the nod for running the kitchen here.”
Catalina, a transplant here after his marriage to a Cranberry native, says Tender Bar is all about “appreciating the history that exudes from that wonderful space in Lawrenceville.”
Sandra Fischione Donovan is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.
Tender Bar's City Chicken
Tender Bar & Kitchen chef Neal Heidekat says City Chicken, a popular Pittsburgh dish, came about during the early part of the 20th century because of a ban on raising poultry in urban areas.
“So chicken would become a rare commodity,” Heidekat says. “People would substitute pork or veal.”
Heidekat's version is more sophisticated than the one Grandma used to make. Between the sauce, two reductions and brining the pork, preparing Heidekat's City Chicken can take all day. Heidekat recommends at least making the brine, reducing the cider and making the stock the night before. Once the pork has been brined, it can sit overnight in a tightly sealed container under refrigeration to be skewered and breaded the next day.
Home cooks can also eliminate the sauce and substitute ketchup, mustard or an Asian sauce. Or they can do as some 20th-century Pittsburgh cooks did and serve the dish without any condiment. Even without the sauce or prepared condiment, Tender Bar's City Chicken is tender, savory and flavorful.
For the chicken:
3 pounds cleaned pork tenderloin
8 bamboo skewers, 8 inches each, soaked in water for at least an hour
For the brine:
1 cup kosher salt
1⁄2 cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
1 large bay leaf
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 tablespoon dry-rubbed sage
1 quart water
For the breading:
2 cups flour
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
3 large eggs
2 cups bread crumbs or panko crumbs
1⁄4 cup dry-rubbed sage (fresh sage can get bitter during the cooking process)
Mashed potatoes, for serving
Cut the pork loin into 1-inch cubes.
Combine all of the ingredients for the brine in a sauce pot and turn on the burner to medium heat. Bring the brine up to a simmer, stirring occasionally to dissolve the salt and sugar. Cool the brine to about 40 degrees, then pour it over the cubed pork. Allow to brine for at least an hour, but not more than 2 hours.
After the pork is done brining, gently rinse the cubes under cold water and pat dry.
Skewer the pork, 6 cubes to each 8-inch skewer.
Set up four bowls or trays side by side. Make sure the vessels of choice are large enough to accommodate the skewers and that you have plenty of room to work. In the first, combine the flour with the salt and pepper. In the second, beat the eggs thoroughly. In the third, combine the bread crumbs and sage. The fourth is to be used as a receptacle for the breaded skewers.
Lightly dredge the skewered pork in the seasoned flour, thoroughly coating the meat (see photo 1). Gently shake off any excess flour, then coat in the beaten egg (photo 2). Allow excess egg to drip off then transfer to the breadcrumbs and bread thoroughly on all sides (photo 3). (Heidekat recommends using the left hand to dredge, dip and transfer to the bread crumbs and the right to apply the breading. This method helps to reduce the sticky mess factor.)
Either deep-fry the pork in beef tallow, or bake in a 350-degree oven. Place the breaded pork on a rack that will allow air to flow around it in the oven, not directly on a cookie tray or roasting pan. Bake the pork for 15 or 20 minutes or until it reaches your desired level of doneness (photo 4). (Note: The FDA has cleared pork to be consumed at medium-rare.)
Serve with mashed potatoes.
Makes 8 6-ounce portions.
5 pounds pork leg bones
2 pounds Spanish onion
1 pound carrots
1 pound celery
5 sprigs thyme (if using dried thyme, use 3 tablespoons)
5 sprigs flatleaf parsley
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
3 large bay leaves
1 quart apple cider, reduced to 1 cup
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the bones in a sturdy roasting pan and roast until nicely caramelized, starting your timer at 15 minutes and then checking every 2 or 3 minutes. After the bones are roasted, allow them to cool, then place in a large stockpot, then fill the pot with water. (You will need to have a pot large enough to accommodate all of the ingredients for the sauce — except the apple cider — covered with 2 inches of water. ) Place the pot on medium heat and bring to just under a simmer.
Allow the contents of the pot to continue at this temperature for five hours, monitoring the heat and skimming the fat and purge from the bones intermittently. After five hours, add the remaining ingredients except for the cider and allow to cook for 1 more hour. Strain the stock and discard everything but the liquid.
Clean the pot and put the strained stock back in. Return to medium heat and reduce at a simmer, still skimming any impurities until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a metal spoon. This may take a couple of hours. Add reduced apple cider to taste.