La Gourmandine will take over the former Penn Avenue Fish spot on Forbes Avenue
BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Pittsburgh food may mean many things to many people, but the city's most iconic dish will always be a sandwich piled high with French fries and coleslaw. So when Mike Poiarkoff, newly appointed executive chef at Brooklyn restaurant Char No. 4, needed to come up with August's Wednesday night special, he immediately settled on a Primanti Bros.-inspired sandwich.
Born and raised in Center, Beaver County, Mr. Poiarkoff was more than a little familiar with the Primanti's tradition. "Almost every Sunday, my dad would take my brother, sister, and [me] to the Science Center, one of the museums, or maybe just to walk around the Strip and Penn Avenue," he recalled. "Afterwards, we would usually stop for a Wholey's fish sandwich, or head to Primanti's."
Cooking was another Poiarkoff family activity. Their father ran a catering company, and both Mike and his older brother, John, started experimenting in the kitchen from a young age. "We would battle Iron Chef-style," said Mr. Poiarkoff. By middle school, they were preparing Thanksgiving dinner for the family.
Mr. Poiarkoff graduated from Seton Hill University, where he studied creative writing and studio art (and went to Primanti's in Latrobe with friends for "pitchers of beer and Pens games"). After graduation, he realized that cooking had been a constant in his life, and he decided to follow his older brother to New York and look for a job in a restaurant.
Growing up, he'd helped his aunt bake for her church almost every Sunday, so he'd planned to look for a job in a pastry kitchen.But after getting advice and looking around, he applied for an entry-level garde manger position at Char No. 4, which had opened in 2008. The restaurant blended Southern style with French technique, focusing on smoked meats and charcuterie, and had an extensive whiskey program. Matt Greco, the executive chef who'd opened the restaurant, had trained under some of New York's best chefs, including Andrew Carmellini, Gray Kunz and Daniel Boulud.
Mr. Poiarkoff liked the restaurant's farm-to-table philosophy, and the emphasis on making everything from scratch. Soon after he arrived in early 2010, he found himself working closely with Mr. Greco. He became a "float," someone who could work multiple stations, and he learned how to prepare the smoked and cured meats such as the lamb pastrami, served with coriander aioli, pickled red onions and grilled rye caraway bread -- the restaurant's signature dish.
Though Mr. Poiarkoff had never worked in a restaurant before, he clearly was determined to make up for lost time. "I'd buy a cookbook, read it, then buy another," he said. Particularly influential books include Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking," Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's "The River Cottage Meat Book," Francis Mallmann's "Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way" and Frank Stitt's "Southern Table." On his days off, he goes to restaurants, often with his brother, now the sous chef at The Modern, an acclaimed fine dining restaurant adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art.
Last September, Mr. Greco left the restaurant and a new executive chef was hired. Then, as sometimes happens, both the new chef and the restaurant's sous chef decided to move on to other projects and gave notice earlier this year. The restaurant owners approached Mr. Poiarkoff and asked if he would like to be considered for the position. He prepared a seven-course tasting of his own dishes, and at the end of the dinner they offered him the job.
The 25-year-old already has put his mark on the menu with new summer dishes, such as a poached scallop and watermelon salad with a champagne and white balsamic vinaigrette, garnished with pickled watermelon rind. And, of course, there's the sandwich. Wednesdays were Char No. 4's slowest nights, until they started offering a new themed special each month. August was Mr. Poiarkoff's first opportunity to come up with the special. His "Pittsburgh-style Sandwich" layers house-made spicy pork sausage or hanger steak, hand-cut french fries and coleslaw, served on a soft, yet substantial white roll, the bread made each Wednesday by a local bakery. Served with a Lionshead Ale and a shot of Rittenhouse rye ($22), it's not so much an imitation of the Primanti's sandwich as an homage to it. Smaller and more refined, the flavors and textures stay true to the original.
By the third Wednesday in August, word had clearly spread. In the bar at least, about half the customers seemed to be ordering the sandwich special. Some people come just for the sandwich, others learn about it from a server, or by eyeing a neighbor's plate. A number of former Pittsburgh residents have come in to try it, said Mr. Poiarkoff, but many more people are simply intrigued by the combination.
After hearing a friend enthusiastically endorse the Primanti Bros. experience, Jono Brody-Felber of Park Slope decided he had to give it a try. Chrissie Cox of Boerum Hill, a Char No. 4 regular, and Jess Payne of South Bend, Ind., both ordered the spicy sausage version (based on my very unofficial survey, it was the favorite), and called it "amazing."
It's a long way from Center to Brooklyn, and when Mr. Poiarkoff first arrived, he felt a bit of culture shock, he said. But he found people respected his desire to learn and to work hard. And when it comes to winning over customers, he doesn't seem to have much to worry about. Fries on a sandwich? Some might think it strange, but now a few hundred more people know it also can be delicious.
China Millman, the former PG dining critic, lives in Brooklyn: email@example.com.