Gastropubs offer the pleasing comforts of pub grub without the greasy regrets and food-service ingredients. For friends meeting to grab a bite, their universally appealing menus help sidestep those tiresome “What are you in the mood for?” conversations; for families, especially with little kids, they offer several steps up from fast-food and diner-style chains (plus a drink for mom and dad). No wonder the trend is flourishing. And as new gastropubs open, old bars are overhauling their menus and upping their game. Even hotel restaurants, which could until recently be counted upon as finger-food-free zones, are adopting the gastropub’s more casual, affordable concept.
A case in point is Wallace’s Tap Room, the restaurant in East Liberty’s new Hotel Indigo. The one-page menu is typical of the genre: several appetizers that wouldn’t be out of place at a Super Bowl party, albeit one hosted by foodies; some well-conceived burgers and sandwiches; and a few meat-and-potato entrees for those looking to dine with a knife and fork. Local sourcing is ubiquitous these days, but Wallace’s still managed to devote as much space on the menu to its local partners — including East Liberty neighbor Zeke’s Coffee — as it did to sandwiches or entrees. Still, the formulaic quality of the menu meant there would be only one true way to set Wallace’s apart: really good food.
Wallace’s advantage is executive chef Jose Rodriguez, whose long career with Indigo’s parent company, InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG), sent him around the world before he came to Pittsburgh to work at the Mansions on Fifth. The opening of Indigo brought him back into the IHG fold to apply his extensive experience to perfecting pierogies, wings and meatloaf in revitalized East Liberty.
Those pierogies! They’re not just locally sourced; they’re made in-house from scratch, and they’re excellent. They had a thick, but not chewy, wrapper, and a perfect topping of sweet, softened onions, bacon, chives and sour cream. Since we’re guessing Rodriguez didn’t learn the recipe in Cancun, we give him kudos for picking it up quickly and very, very well.
Everyone knows a gastropub must have mac-and-cheese. Wallace’s served it up straight, without the lobster that was so in vogue 10 years ago, or the short rib that tends to get mixed up in it today. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but a good mac-and-cheese, all by itself, can be a delectable thing. Wallace’s was wonderfully molten and creamy with browned bread crumbs on top. But whatever cheese, or combination of cheeses it used (the menu, surprisingly, doesn’t say, perhaps because it’s offered as a side), it was bland enough that Angelique felt the need to salt it at the table, and she’s not usually one to reach for the salt shaker. Buffalo wings, too, could have had more lively flavor.
Brussels sprouts, another gastropub given, were terrific. Too often since their revival, we’ve seen these little cabbages smothered in sweet sauces or hidden beneath piles of bacon as if they were the sad, boiled brassicas of yore in the witness-protection program. But their beauty comes out in simple roasting, which Wallace’s did to perfection — tender heads wreathed with crisped, lightly seasoned outer leaves.
Creamy potato soup was reminiscent of the baked-potato soup sometimes served in local bars, but grilled corn added a chowder-like quality, while bacon and cheddar helped the flavor pop. The Black and Gold burger, a blackened bacon-cheeseburger on a brioche bun, was tender, juicy and flavorful; our only quibble was that the caramelized onions were not even brown.
The CLW sandwich, named after C.L .Wallace, architect of the historic Governor Hotel which has been incorporated into the Hotel Indigo, was itself quite an edifice. A sort of reuben gone mad, it contained roast turkey, shredded short rib, bacon, corned beef, slaw, Russian dressing, Swiss cheese and, for good measure, mustard and pickled onion as well. Somehow, it was neither too tall to bite nor a cacophony of competing flavors. Instead, the varying tastes and textures of the ingredients ebbed and flowed from bite to bite, the condiments serving as a savory baseline. The hearty Mediterra farm bread held up impressively under the load.
Simplicity is never as simple as it looks. Wallace’s Tap Room resists the urge to tart up its bar food with anything but excellent preparation, and the results speak for themselves.