The Vandal just might take Lawrenceville by storm with its tasty food offerings
Visit any major city, Pittsburgh included, and you'll find a handful of restaurants that look almost identical. They often have similar decor styles, similar menus, similar featured cocktails. But, every so often, a restaurant stands out in the crowd.
One of the most recent standouts is The Vandal on Butler Street in Lawrenceville.
Owned by Joey Hilty, previously of The Livermore, The Vandal is a tiny, 30-seat neighborhood cafe making waves in the vast Pittsburgh restaurant ocean. Drawing on inspiration from life in the kitchen and his travels, Hilty opened The Vandal out of a need to create a meaningful impact with those around him.
The interior is a minimalist, mid-century-influenced, design lover's dream. Thick, wood support beams, soft, glowing globe lights, subway tile, exposed brick wall and a wood-planked floor in a chevron pattern. The exterior is equally impressive, with its stark white-brick facade, bullet planters and big windows.
If you're a first-time visitor, order at the counter, then sit down wherever you like in the small dining room. Your food will be dropped off tableside as it's ready.
The simplicity extends to the menu as well. The Vandal serves breakfast/brunch and lunch/dinner. Both menus are short, often only featuring a handful of selections. But don't let the slim number deter you. Quality far outweighs quantity in this situation. Ingredients are top-notch, and it's evident that Csilla Thackray, who runs the kitchen and creates the menu, doesn't need to present a novel to get her delicious point across.
For breakfast and brunch, The Vandal serves a variety of one-off items like thick-cut bacon and a firm sunny-side-up egg on a buttermilk biscuit and ricotta cheese drizzled with sweet pear jelly on thick-cut toast. Drinks usually fit for the first meal of the day are limited to coffee and cold brew.
For lunch and dinner, guests can choose from a few kinds of snacks, salads and sandwiches. Portions at The Vandal are far from gluttonous, which is quite refreshing. It does mean you should consider ordering a snack or two, plus a main dish, per guest.
When it comes to snacks, it's hard to not order mac and cheese, especially on a cold day. Many restaurants try but often fail to really deliver the right combination of flavor and creamy cheesiness. The Vandal is an exception. The macaroni noodles were al dente and the cheese sauce was rich and creamy. It was far from fancy but tasted like a million bucks.
We also tried the beets with soft stracciatella cheese tossed in a sweet blood-orange sauce. The beets were tender and served warm, which softened the cheese even more. When tasted together, each bite was sweet, salty and delicious.
Other current dinner snacks include red peas; farro, blue potatoes and fennel, dressed in herb vinaigrette; and a kale salad with ricotta, watermelon radishes and pickled peppers.
When it comes to sandwiches, the chicken sandwich is a favorite among The Vandal fans. The thick, lightly breaded crispy chicken breast was topped with a carrot-rutabaga slaw and a drizzle of chili honey and served on an airy brioche bun.
The cheeseburger is also a solid choice. For those used to a burger the size of your head, you may be disappointed. This burger is appropriately sized and the only current sandwich that comes with a side, fries. It's topped with cheddar cheese, pickles, lettuce and a smear of mayo.
As good as those sandwiches are, I can't stop dreaming about the confit sandwich I had. The melt-in-your-mouth tender-chicken confit is served on a crusty baguette and topped with red cabbage, onion jam and whole-grain mustard. Every single bite was savored. I'm drooling just thinking about it.
If you're in the mood for something other than the water on the table, try the ginger lemonade or the rose tea. Both are made in-house and are dangerously addictive. And if those aren't enticing, you can always bring your favorite beer or bottle of wine, for no fee.
While the menu currently changes on a whim, consistency is coming soon with a new monthly format that will allow for better execution of dishes. Other things to look forward to in 2016: a new coffee program, more chef collaborations and outdoor seating.
Julia Gongaware is one of the food-savvy ladies of eatPGH.com, who contribute a weekly Dining Out column.