Review: Salt

4 December 2014

I woke up early this Thursday still thinking about that amazing tasting menu at Ö last night…oh, that quail… I was full of energy and headed out the door earlier than usual. I ended up at Tallinn’s Metsakalmistu (Forest Cemetery) for a 3-hour stroll, visiting some of the greatest Estonians ever lived, as well as visiting a few departed friends. It’s odd to visit the grave of someone you had a rather cross exchange with for a final conversation…again…

I almost joined them as their newest denizen thanks to the hills and ice…

After that little adventure I hopped on a bus back into town and jumped off at the Kadriorg neighbourhood and headed to a restaurant that everyone in that part of town raves about, Salt.

Salt is a small basement restaurant that looks like a pure labour of love by everyone there. Simple, but solid and efficient. Only problem for me was that the radiators were blasting and nearly all tables were against radiator-strewn walls, so I had to move to a middle one facing the front door. Perfect.

I relaxed with some wine and enjoyed looking at the Mediterranean-and-Asian-influenced menu. As it was lunch some of the dishes were not available (it’s a very small operation here) since most people went with the daily special. It’s very popular and the place is packed out the door with locals and foreigners with babies (Kadriorg is popular with foreigners with families as houses have more space, alongside the huge park next door).

My starter is something I never order in Estonia, but for some reason I went for it…

mussels

Now this is a huge plate! Garlicky goodness in aroma and taste, these were done brilliantly. Extremely fresh and plump, I don’t remember the last time I enjoyed a large plate of mussels like this. Touch of chilli to bring it to a perfect balance, and very low on the ginger (which I generally don’t like). I even drank the broth!

And that was a starter? Uh oh… My main was coming, the Sicilian couscous.

Sicilian_couscous

Not the usual thing you’ll order in Estonia, especially since shellfish has never had as much traction here, but that’s obviously changing with the healthy amount of shrimp and squid in this dish. I usually hate couscous because it’s so bad when cooked badly, but these were done perfectly, flavourful and plump without losing its texture. Excellent bit of cooking here.

Simple and solid, can’t ask for much more than that! I much prefer solid execution and good cooking than over-the-top creations and over-ambitious “chef’ing” that takes just 1 in the line to kill the plate. I am so over “chef-driven” places…

After a chat with the staff (so glad to be able to converse in Estonian again!) I headed out happily. I would have killed for a place like this when I lived here 15 years ago. Affordable, excellent stuff, a neighbourhood gem. If you visit anything around Kadriorg such as the gardens or the park or the presidential palace, I do recommend a trip to Salt for lunch or dinner. Even if you’re not in the area, it’s a quick tram ride. It’s worth it, trust me.

Salt
Vase 14
Tallinn, Eesti

Review #2: Ö

3 December 2014

I made my way to my favourite restaurant in Tallinn, Ö, for dinner this fine Wednesday evening. I was so looking forward to yet another wonderful tasting menu, taking the best of local ingredients with amazing cooking. My last tasting menu here was very memorable, and my expectations for this place over the years have always been extremely high.

I was given a nice seat near the window close to the kitchen, where I got to enjoy the aroma of their craft throughout the evening. My server was utterly fantastic, professional and knowledgeable of each and every ingredient in both Estonian and English. Generous with the wine pours too for the pairings. I relaxed, already sensing this was going to be a fabulous night.

AB (pix1)

First to arrive was the amuse bouche. What a beautiful display. The first (on left) was moss with shavings of game sausage. Love the texture of these things! The middle was a small potato cake with roe, again fabulous mixture of flavours. The third was a piece of crackling with some berry, a nice mix once again. Not pictures on the side was a “herb shot” — a very concentrated herbal juice drink. Wow, my palate is beyond clean now. A great start!

The pairings also began at this point, and I do apologise for 2 things now. First, I forgot to write down the pairings. Second, the photos came out a little bad once again. This phone camera has a problem with focus when the light is dark and you use the stabilisation feature in low light… In any case, the first course was smoked duck with tomatoes.

01-duck-tomatoes

Now the combination of flavours here was just beautiful. The local sourced duck was sweet and delicious, changed the way I think about Estonian ducks for sure. The heirloom cherry tomatoes were hay-smoked and adds tanginess and complexity to the overall taste. Excellent!

02-celery

The second dish was salt-baked celery root in a celery tasting of sorts. I’m not a big fan of celery though I do like the root. A bit of a “trying too hard” dish here, but done well. The third dish was next, and we return to fabulous.

03-scallop

The scallop was seared just on one side, and retained the sweetness very well; the other side was charred by a burning juniper branch, and you get a strong feel of it that works well with the sweet scallop. The accompanying local apple complemented this dish perfectly. Impressed!

04-cod_cheeks

I was even more impressed when dish four showed up, cod cheeks. They were bathing in a wild mushroom broth what was both delicate and forceful. The cheeks themselves were heavenly. Wow…

05-flounder

We continue with seafood for course five with local flounder. A very meaty flounder from the depths of the Baltic Sea, the wee bit of dill oil was a nice touch. Excellent stuff.

We now shift to the meats with one of the dishes of the year for me, the smoked quail.

06-quail

Wow. The aroma of the hay-smoke was just incredible. This quail, sourced from the south of the country, was just decadent. It was very fatty, with an incredible layer of fat you rarely enjoy with quail. Perfect season for this!  Excellent parsley root and also (hard to see from bad pix, sorry!) a bed of quail hearts under the bird! Wow, what a dish!

I was gushing over this dish so much. I’ve never had quail better than at my much-missed former restaurant Elettaria until this evening. Wow…

07-beef

I’d thought anything after this would be less than awesome but the final savoury dish was spectacular, beef from the island of Saaremaa. Cooked perfectly, utterly tender grass-fed stuff. The Estonian beef industry is really impressing me, the stuff from Saaremaa is fabulous. And cooked perfectly here!

mid

Here now we have a quick palate cleanser of caramel and dandelion foam. Then we moved to the dessert, this time seasonably based on the pumpkin and sea buckthorn.

08-dessert

I love the tanginess of sea buckthorn (astelpaju), one of the treats of the islands. I actually picked off a few of the berries on the decorative branch…

Wow. I really loved this tasting menu, one of the best of the year. Extremely happy with food and service, which was all top notch. Seriously, this place blows overrated Copenhagen hipster-driven eateries away.

As I relaxed with a calvados the petit-fours arrived in a cute decorative box. I soon finished and walked out into the crispy night happy with an amazingly good dinner. Easily the best restaurant in the region, one of my favourites in all of Europe. Worth far more than a detour to visit, trust me.

PF

Ö
Mere puiestee 6E
Tallinn, Eesti

Review: Leib Resto & Aed

3 December 2014

I was still plagued by jetlag on this trip even though it was on its tail end already, which was a bad sign. However, I had to marshall on. I had barely slept, and actually fell back asleep close to 6am…not good, as I have to meet another dear friend at 11am for a coffee. She had just given birth a few weeks earlier (more evidence against fear the Estonian birth-rate is diminishing!) so we had the chance to catch up while the baby slept happily in his stroller in the cafe.

Afterwards I headed back towards where I was staying but wanted to grab some lunch, so ducked into a place I had been familiar with for nearly 2 decades — though it had changed in a major way.

Leib Resto & Aed now occupies most of what used to be Šoti klubi (The Scottish Club), where I have drank way too many drams over the years of hard-to-find single malts, where I also saw an old friend get married. So it was a familiar walk up those stairs through the garden into the restaurant.

It had warmed up enough in Tallinn, from the -15c to positive, and I actually asked for a table outside — to the utter incredulity of the staff. Nope. Got a table inside and they looked amazed I was sweating…

Estonians are almost as fanatical as Latvians over their bread, and the name of this restaurant means “Bread Resto & Garden” — if that says something. So of course the bread service was excellent, good Estonian black bread. Mmm, I’ve missed these. I dug into them so quickly I forgot to take a picture.

I ordered and cooled off with a glass of rose and relaxed. It’s so good to see this place full for lunch, with a crowd that’s prominently local. This is the growing economic confidence of Tallinners I like to see, and supporting good restaurants focusing on locally-sourced foods. My starter soon arrived.

roe_salad

Oh, I need to remind myself not to order salad when I am in Estonia… Not that the greens and veg aren’t good, but sometimes they overwhelm it with other stuff. This was a roe salad, with a lot of roe as you can see. Toasted barley was very nice too. However, this thing weighed about a TON. I almost died eating this, as it was so crazy heavy… I barely survived this, and I have a main course?

At this point I was pleasantly surprised listening to adjacent table of a young Finnish couple who happily ordered in English. This always makes me smile as yelling in Finnish seems to be something an older, ruder generation of Finns do — treat Estonia with little respect as if it was their private playground. Kudos to these two.

And before you say another word, I spoke only Estonian here. And elsewhere. I only switch to English if the staff insist on using English. Even in Latvia, or France, or anywhere I would switch into English only if they spoke English first, or if I ask them to. It’s called respect.

My main course then arrived and my eyes almost jumped out of their sockets…

braised_ribs

This was a beautiful, if not utterly voluminous serving of shortrib. This slow-cooked behemoth, from locally sourced grass-fed beef, was smoked before being treated to its slow braise. Resting on some potato puree, this was huge — and I was already slowing down thanks to the voluminous roe salad.

The beef was cooked perfectly, retaining the smoky goodness but boasting a melting quality. Strong flavours, which worked perfectly with the potato puree. I even took a few bites of the sunchokes (they are in season so they are EVERYWHERE) and my stomach cursed me, so I had to stop. You *know* what sunchokes cause, and its revenge came later in the afternoon…

I enjoyed a bit more wine to cool down (started to sweat again!), enjoying this very heavy lunch. The starter was a bit suspect but the main was excellent, if not also too voluminous for lunch. I enjoyed this, not just for good service (better than last night at Cru, which was a little haphazard and linguistically confused) and nice wines, but to be sitting in a place I had been coming to since the crazy 1990s seeing it reborn in such a nice way.

And once again, I am very glad to see so much of the food sourced in Estonia, as there is certainly much pride from the cooking community for products of their farms and nature!

Worth checking out, but keep this review — all aspects of it — in mind!

Leib Resto & Aed
Uus 31
Tallinn, Eesti

Review: Cru

2 December 2014

Yes, there’s a few missing days between reviews but that’ll be explained after the major reviews are done next week… I had arrived “home” in Tallinn the day earlier and I had a rather busy but productive Tuesday — including running some much-delayed errands, visiting the grave of a martyr of Communist violence, and making some deliveries for people for stuff brought from across the Atlantic.

Finally time for dinner, checking out the much-raved-about Cru in the Old Town. Helmed by the celebrated Dmitri Haljukov, who is leading Estonia’s team to the Bocuse d’Or in 2015, I was really looking forward to seeing what he can do.

My dear friend, who was less than a week from her due date, joined me — so the evening was much more restrained and relaxed. We had a wonderful time catching up at the small hotel restaurant as I sipped at some wine before we both ordered. A quick amuse of “cream of sauerkraut” appeared.

AB-cream_of_sauerkraut

Not what you think, Estonian sauerkraut is very lightly flavoured compared to its German cousin, so this is more of a “cream of cabbage” to be honest. Quite nice. Following this was my starter, the so-called “Nordic Sea” — a seafood salad.

seafood_salad

I do apologise, the Samsung Galaxy S-5 has a great feature called “picture stabilisation” that does better shots in less light, but it has a fundamental problem with focus in that mode…especially when it was confused by that big ol’ slice of radish…

Nevertheless the salad was not bad, though the main ingredient, the king crab, seemed a bit wanting. The salad had a bit of shrimp which was not bad, but nothing special. The star was actually the plethora of seaweed, which was wonderful.

So far it’s been “meh” (sorry I usually hate that word but so apropos this time) but it’s not spectacular. I was very much anticipating the main course, the “Brave Heart” — grilled lamb heart.

lamb_heart

I love offal, especially the harder-to-get lamb stuff, so always take the opportunity to have it. This is one of chef’s signature dishes, with the well-cooked meat accented by onions and ramson. The heart was tender and tasty, would fool most diners into thinking it was another cut of meat. Done very well, the flavours were very complementary.

Me and my friend chatted into the evening until her ride, and we did partake in dessert, but for me was a little after-the-fact (I guess the fact I earlier forgot I had dessert says something?). I would say this meal was good, though it didn’t blow me away. The lamb heart was done very well, and I am very happy to see it on the menu. But perhaps I had too much expectations because of all I’ve heard about this chef, especially comparing it to the unmached Ö — where I will be returning for dinner the next evening.

Lots of potential, but for now it’s just a step above the solid level for finicky me. I’d be happy to see this in Tallinn 5-7 years ago, but the local game has changed (see some of the upcoming reviews…). Tallinn’s best is now Nordic-localvoric or Mediterranean-joie-de-vivre, not creative-formulaic Parisian…

Cru
Viru 8
Tallinn, Eesti

Review: Bergs

29 November 2014

After a fantastic lunch at Bibliotēka №1, I was looking forward to a good dinner after running some errands in Riga. Not a very busy day, but jetlag was dragging me down as it often does on these trips. I noticed it’s getting worse and worse, and my body clock has a bad habit of going the exact opposite direction of my travel…

So after a short rest I headed out slightly outside of Old Town Riga for the much raved Hotel Bergs, which contains the restaurant of the same name Bergs. I was looking forward to a nice tasting menu for the evening. Considering my lunch, my expectations for this place was sky high.

When I was led to my table my server said in an almost apologetic tone that since I had no booking on a Saturday night the only tables available are near the piano…not sure why that was such a problem, but I learned that the hard way later…

I sat down and relaxed and asked for a martini — a good way to test establishments. I’ve received undrinkable swill and even a tumbler of Martini vermouth on the rocks from Michelin-starred restaurants in the past, so I was pretty happy with this one with a nice twist.

martini

I happily went with the full tasting menu as I chilled. But by now I’m starting to think, this piano player has a pretty bad repertoire. These are about as “standard” as it gets, and it’s the stuff you remember being played going to Sunday brunch with your grandparents… Then the amuse arrived…

AB-cream_nuts

It was meant to feature the nuts but honestly it did absolutely nothing even with that dollop of gooey frothiness. Hmmm… At least it distracted me from what I thought was “You Light Up My Life” from the now worrisome piano…

By now the pairings have begun, and I do apologise I forgot to jot down the wines on this dinner. But for the most part they worked pretty well. The first course arrived, a very regional typical dish — beets.

01-beets

I personally love beetroot and would have done this dish a la carte too. The different coloured beets brought out a different tinge of the beet range, from the sweetness to the sharpness and everywhere in between. Nice dish, simple but delicious. Next up, scallops.

02-scallop

Believe me it’s under this, seared lightly. Nothing special to be honest, foam did little (I do not like foam as my readers know) and the strings seemed more nuisance than enhancement… Oh well. This lowering in expectation for tonight was sadly augmented (or should it be diminished?) by the worsening output from the piano. The courses were divided by a quick intermission of sea buckthron sorbet.

mid-sea_buckthorn

The tanginess of this beloved berry was much needed with my growing headache. I gotta say when he decided to play some light jazz it was perfectly good and complementary to the meal. But when he sunk back into “standards” it was disastrous. For the third dish we had sturgeon.

03-sturgeon

I love sturgeon and this was a good dish, the fish cooked well. The cauliflower was a nice touch and the horseradish cream was an excellent accent. The dropping of a bit of caviar on top of the cream was showy but unnecessary — sadly a relic of places that thinks it’s not “top dining” without caviar or gold-strewn desserts.

At this point we hit the absolute bottom from the pianist as he now visits The Godfather… It felt so, so POST-SOVIET. It so pains me to say that…

04-lamb

The fourth dish was lamb. This was excellent, cooked very well with the aubergines a good addition. Sadly this is New Zealand lamb, and this led to a real-time Twitter discussion about the lamb industry and sourcing in the Baltics. But this was tasty, and helped on by the pianist taking a powder…

I sense the waiter knew my struggles so the dessert came quickly.

05-apple

Based on apples, this concoction features many components from sorbet to sauce to caramelised strips. A nice creation, tasty, without the parts clashing at all. Solid stuff. I actually stayed for a drink with the pianist missing…

Overall it was an okay meal. Some soft parts, some good parts, nothing overwhelmingly good. The pianist really made it far less pleasant. Nowhere near as good as lunch, which I was still dreaming about when I walked out into the cold night…

Bergs
Berga Bazārs
Elizabetes iela 83/85
Rīga, Latvija

Review: Bibliotēka №1

29 November 2014

After an excellent evening at 3 Pavāri last night catching up with a dear old friend, I spent Saturday morning having a coffee with another friend before I went to explore the food of Riga on my own. Even though I was on the other side of the centre, I decided to trek all the way back and explore a much-talked-about restaurant called Bibliotēka №1 (Library No1).

This relaxing restaurant on the edge of Vērmanes dārzs (Vērmane Garden), which just celebrated its 200th anniversary, is decorated with its namesake in mind, with books as a nice decorative touch. I was looking forward to this lunch, and was even more excited when my excellent server told me the specials. One of my goals of eating Latvia will be reached today in a pleasant surprise. Will say more later.

bread

As the bread arrived my server told me about all the dishes. Extremely smooth and knowlegeable in both food and wine issues, this is a very welcome and excellent change in Riga over the years. You got some damn good professionals now, and everyone was this place was certainly there. The bread was excellent, especially the rye and the beet (no prize for guess which). Remember, the Latvians are fanatical about their bread…

AB-tuna

Then they presented a small amuse on a cute wooden trunk, a small tasting of tuna. A nice start, but I was really looking forward to my starter, which is just in season and was the day’s special — lamprey.

lamprey

I know, some of you are like…yech… But these house-smoked treats are really a delicacy. Many hate it, but if you like it, you really like it. These were in season, and were extremely plump. You can see they are full of roe, which are utterly decadent. There was even the liver of the lamprey (not show) inside, with a rich creamy taste that just added to the depth of this generous serving. Wow! The eggyolk was a nice touch.

I know there are people in Asia who would pay 3 figures for this plate…

I was extremely happy already, enjoying a bit more wine before my main arrived. At first it came fully baked-in, for my server to crack the crust at the table…

chicken_before

This was a beautiful baby free-range local chicken, baked in a traditional Latvian rye crust. When it was opened, the aroma of garlic was nearly mesmiring…

chicken-final

Then it was brought back to the kitchen for plating before it returned. The meat was extremely tender and juicy, the rye crust more than doing its job keeping everything moist. Didn’t need much of the sauce, as the chicken was one of the best chickens I’ve had this year since the excellent jidori I had in Tokyo at Hinaiya.

I was spent after this, no room for dessert. Now this was a fantastic meal, and it turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip — and certainly the best meal I’ve ever had in Riga. Excellent service, attentive and knowlegeable, with good wine (and generous pours) and fabulous food. You can’t ask for anything more!

If there is a place in Riga that’ll drag me back it is this place! Heavily recommended!

Bibliotēka №1
Tērbatas iela 2
Rīga, Latvija

Review: 3 Pavāru Restorāns

28 November 2014

I got to Riga after a simple flight on Norwegian, but goodness are Danish pensioners slow in de-planing… Took ages, plus the traffic this Friday evening was a mess and it took nearly an hour to cross the Daugava to the edge of Riga’s historic Old Town, where I was staying.

I legged it out to the historic Jacob’s Barracks (Jēkabas Kazarmas) on the other side of Old Town and found 3 Pavāru Restorāns — or “The Restaurant of 3 Chefs” in English. Often cited as the best cooking in town, I was really looking forward to this meal with a dear old friend — to also celebrate his recent election to Parliament. Oh it’s good to be back in Riga, it’s been too long…

We enjoyed a Valmiermuiža beer from a nice small brewery in Latvia and spent a bit of time catching up. It’s been a few years since our last really long chat, I remember, on a night in NYC trying to avoid all the weird costumed people from ComicCon…

But soon began the feasting. The restaurant is known for its bread service, which is presented on butcher paper on the table in a very artistic way. Check it out.

bread_service

The variety of sauces range from those based from forest berries to dill oil, as well as local nuts. The bread was, as usual, fantastic, as Latvians are obsessive over them. I was told kids love this. Well, adults love it too, as the two of us destroyed this beautiful piece of art…

Then we got to the real stuff. We decided to split two starters, the first being smoked eel, a local delicacy.

eel

The eel was fantastic, with a rich taste that you get from Baltic eels you rarely get elsewhere. I love these things. Only sad part was how small the portions were, but these are getting expensive… The second starter we shared was black pudding, another regional specialty.

black_pudding

I personally enjoyed this preparation, which was taking a very traditional Latvian product and twisted it for those who may not enjoy this delicacy as much as I do. Again, a modest portion.

We enjoyed more beer and looked forward to our entrees. I had ordered a special that featured beef heart and tongue.

beef_heart_tongue

A very offaly good selection, as I enjoy both immensely. Unfortunately some of the meat was not cooked very well. The chunk most visible was like a brick, which was sad as the other pieces were excellent. Not sure what happened there…

venison

My friend had the venison, which he assured was excellent.

At this point we were spent, as we continued with the beer and chatted on into the night before he had to catch his ride home. Few things are as wonderful as catching up with a dear friend, accompanied by good beer and good food. 3 Pavāri is a good place with some good talent there, and I am glad to see Latvian cooking evolve so well. Looking forward to the next 2 days of eating!

Side note: You may see this place described as “3 Pavāri” instead and that just means “3 Chefs”. The I-versus-U thing is just a grammatical feature of the Latvian language. I can explain the genetive case to you now, or you can focus on the nice food…

3 Pavāru Restorāns
Torņa iela 4
Jēkabas Kazarmas 2B
Rīga, Latvija