Review: Ö

Tallinn,
22 May 2013

After a restless night (from aforementioned vertigo, jetlag, draftless heat and tourist noise), I got up feeling not that great. Several meetings today, and for some reason I felt very knackered and ropey. Nevertheless I trudged on, and had a nice lunch with a dear friend at Mekk. Sorry, no review as was busy conversing, but it’s a good place for lunch or dinner. I’ve always enjoyed Mekk. I promise next time I will do a proper review of this fine eatery.

The day was knackering and my original dinner plans sort of fell through, so I went solo and headed to Ö — one of the best restaurants in the city. I had a good a la carte meal the last time I was there a few years ago, when it was rated the best restaurant in the country. Although it had fallen to second, I was keen on checking out the tasting menu.

I arrived at the stylish restaurant just outside the Old Town early, and sadly it was empty. Odd, this restaurant just doesn’t have the same appeal as last night’s busy Bocca, even though it’s runned by the same group. And through the night there were pretty much only foreigners there… Maybe locals have not gotten used to this type of dining yet, especially tasting menus? It was a little disappointing.

I was given a nice corner elevated section and enjoyed the evening from a nice position overlooking the rest of the restaurant. I immediately went with the tasting menu and to test them, I also asked for a full pairing. Let’s see how well they do. I’ve never had a tasting menu and pairing in Estonia before, despite living here for so many years (well, those years were before the era of tasting menus…nor did I have the resources to afford anything that grand).

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We began with a fairly simple amuse bouche of whitefish in broth. Simple, nothing special, a rather salty broth to get the palate ready (and thirsty). I was waiting for my wine pairing to begin, and it wasn’t too long before I was presented with a glass of sancerre to go with my first course, a goat cheese salad.

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I love goat cheese, as I have said so many times on this blog, and this features goat cheese produced by the Kalamatsi dairy. It was nice, the whole production, but I do wish it had a little more of the goat cheese. But at the end, it’s a salad.

Not a bad start, and I was ready for round two. My server presented something different, a local Estonian apple wine for the next course — the smoked eel.

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I love eel to death, smoked or fresh, broiled or fried, freshwater or ocean. This generously-portioned chunk of smoked eel was flavourful, though some may find the skin off-putting. I don’t mind it at all, I actually like it. The apple wine really worked well here, despite my earlier apprehension. The parsnip and carrots were an afterthought for me as the main ingredient really shone strongly by itself.

After two courses I was pretty happy. There were some guests at the restaurant now, so it’s not deathly quiet — which was welcome. I still wish more locals would come here, though I do understand it is rather pricey by any standards. My server brought me my next wine, a solid chianti classico, to accompany the third course, the baby lamb.

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I’ve been having spectacular luck with lamb recently, from the amazing one at Steiereck in Wien/Vienna and Costes in Budapest to last night’s at Bocca. This was also solid and tender, executed well. Not at the level of the aforementioned wonders, but good. The beets were a welcome addition to this plate.

At this point we reached the half-way mark and my palette-cleanser of apple sorbet arrived. I spent this time reflecting on how far Estonian cooking has come since I first visited in the early 1990s and the dodgy meals I had over the many years. Ö can easily compete with the top restaurants of the region, and it deserves more recognition outside of Estonia.

The break soon ended, to my delight, and I was greeted with a serving of a local whitefish (hard to explain but in Estonian is siig — similar to the common whitefish).

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With a chilling Italian white on the side, this fish dish went down nicely. Now I’m not a big fan of this fish, but was executed well. The fennel worked with the fish’s texture and mild taste. I’m glad they went with a local fish despite it not being one of my favourites.

The server soon poured me a glass of valpolicella and presented the pentultimate course, the venison.

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This exhibition of Estonian game cooking, at which they excel, was a treat. I love venison and game meat in general (as opposed to game birds, which I generally dislike), and Estonia is rich in game. The venison was tender and extremely flavourful, a richness you cannot get with the “farmed game” in the US. A fantastic final savoury course!

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I am not a dessert person, but I was hoping for something nice in the marzipan-centric final course. To be honest, it was boring — except for the sorbet made from sea buckthorn. Estonians have a deep love for the tangy and sharp tastes of this berry, which they call astelpaju. This was indeed a treat, though I remember nothing about the other “boring” parts of the dish…

I finished up after a digestif and thanked the attentive staff and headed out into the still-bright Tallinn evening, happy to have enjoyed this tasting menu. Again, this shows the Estonians can do it. A bit more polishing and this restaurant can be pushed up to quite a high international level. It certainly kicks the rears of many others that have received a Michelin star. Probably too soon for one, but sooner than later.

Ö
Mere puiestee 6E
Tallinn, Eesti

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Review: Bocca

Tallinn,
21 May 2013

I woke up in Warsaw with my head dipped between pillows and a sudden relapse of an old problem…vertigo. Damn it! This happens to me once every few years when my head is positioned bad from sleeping…but never whilst travelling. Damn it! I don’t need this! Ugh…that damn spirits pairing from yesterday could not have helped…

My flight to Tallinn was pretty busy so I went a little earlier, in case the vertigo forces me to move slower than usual. It did, but it was not too bad. I arrived in Tallinn, my former home town, a place that I still think of as a “home” in some ways, and immediately felt better. Still a little vertigo when I shift my head up-and-right, but for the most part it was better.

Hopped onto a cab and to my hotel at the edge of the mediaeval Old Town. I usually hate to stay in the touristy Old Town, but my “normal” place had a change of ownership/branding and pushed the rate up to some stupid level…

In any case, I needed a good dinner to recharge the batteries from an already tiring few days of travel, so I decided to go to a place that has always delivered a good meal — Bocca in the Old Town. Many people don’t know that in the first year they did this in 2003, the (now-referred-to) SanPellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list placed Bocca at number 15. Now I love Bocca, but this was a hell of an overshot.

I was surprised and heartened to be told that there were no tables available (on a Tuesday early evening), but they gave me a nice place in the bar section — a sprawling, lounge area. Now that is comfortable… It was early so bar wasn’t busy, so it was perfect, with the bright sun gleaming through the large bay windows adjacent to my table.

As I enjoyed some nice chilled gavi di gavi I took a deep breath…and relaxed. Damn the vertigo, I was gonna enjoy this meal. They told me the starter would take half hour to prepare — the risotto al nero di seppia — and that was fine with me. I like it when they do things right…

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The rice was creamy and flavourful thanks to the ink, and the servings of various seafoods (prawn, baby octopus, squid, etc) was both generous and enhancing. Done perfectly as usual, I was happy to be enjoying this classic dish under a bright sun through the window.

Smiling at this nice start and wine in hand, I noticed that the restaurant was already filling up at this early hour (this is early for summer dining in Estonia). And I was very happy to hear Estonian from the crowd, meaning that the clientele is a mix of local and foreign — a sign the economy is doing well enough for people to dine out on a Tuesday evening.

After a little rest my main course arrived, and I was looking very much forward to it, the herb-encrusted grilled rack of lamb.

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I always love a good piece of lamb. Juicy and flavourful, these small morsels of lamby goodness melted in my mouth. The kitchen left just enough fat to savour, which so many restaurants trim unnecessarily. Now that is nice…

I was a happy chappy at this point so I ordered a grappa and, unusually, a dessert. I opted for something fruit-based, and I went with the stewed pear…

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Now this was a sight…looked almost radioactive! The pear was flavoured with saffron (explaining the colour) and the Drambuie-based sauce was rich and decadant, a perfect contrast to the tangy pear. I have to say this has been the dessert of the year for me, as it was so balanced and cute at the same time.

I headed out of the now bustling restaurant happy, with my first meal “home” being such a success. This beat even my first meal here years ago, and just reaffirmed to me that Tallinn can cook. I have a few more meals coming up so let’s see how much Tallinn’s culinary scene has really matured. For now, I am very happy, strolling back to my hotel hoping the vertigo won’t cause me to do something dumb on the centuries-old cobblestone roads…

Bocca
Olevimägi 9
Tallinn, Eesti

Review: Atelier Amaro

Warsaw,
20 May 2013

When I planned my Warsaw trip, my target for the dining portion was focused on Atelier Amaro, the first Polish restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. For the growing Polish culinary scene, this was a major validation — especially as this was a restaurant focused on Polish cooking and ingredients. I was particularly excited about this dining experience, having eaten well so far on this trip — especially during lunch at Nolita.

As Warsaw’s rush-hour traffic is known to be utterly horrendous, I decided to walk and take the Metro to Amaro. From broken ticket machines to poorly labelled streets, it was a bit of an adventure to find the restaurant. Again, I was quite sweaty when I arrived, but soon chilled by a nice martini.

The small and cute location at the edge of a wooded park made the experience so much more natural, as Amaro focused on Polish natural products. The restaurant was also busy at an early hour, which was a very good sign. A combination of foreign and local diners also indicated the healthiness of the dining scene here.

I opted to enjoy a full experience and chose the 8-course tasting menu. And in addition, I risked the “spirits” pairing — an idea I’ve not seen in other restaurants. Maybe it’ll be too much, but who knows. Odd to go through a meal like this without wine…

Things moved quickly once I ordered and the first of three amuse bouche arrived, a tasting of local lettuce.

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It’s not something to get too excited about really, just lettuce with a beet-y jam. This type of presentation I see a lot now, but I still think the one at Die Quadriga in Berlin did it best. The presentation of the stone was nice tho. The second amuse bouche came quickly, a cute broccoli dish that also featured prominently Polish lard.

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The lard tasted dreamy, with a consistency that is just rich but not “lardy” for the lack of a better term. Excellent. The third and last amuse bouche arrived next, a “sandwich” of goat cheese.

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Very nice. As a lover of goat cheese, this was a fine way to end the pre-dinner tasting. So far I am pleased with the service, presentation and taste of the evening. Getting excited for the main segment of this meal.

The only thing that was annoying me was a table on the other end of the restaurant that featured a lady bearing a piercing and nasaly voice that went on-and-on in loud English. Really just cut through the entire room, and she (and her dining companions) seemed utterly oblivious that she was twice as loud as everyone else and offered her opinions on everything frequently… Sadly this got worse through the evening. To say this affected my enjoyment of this evening is a total understatement…

But I digress. The first course soon arrived, a fried eel morsel with a green apple and sorrel soup.

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Sorry I missed the eel in this picture (noticed this the next day…it’s on the very top edge). To be honest, it was a bit of a miss. The eel was nice enough, but I just didn’t see this as a unified dish. I was told to eat them separately, and it just seemed like two incongrent dishes together. However, the pairing of a Kaszubian potato vodka was interesting, and helped the sour-ish flavours of the soup. Maybe this pairing scheme is going to work after all.

The second course was quite fantastic looking, featuring snails and smoked asparagus. I love both, so I was really looking forward to this dish.

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When the smoke jar came out, I was totally excited. The aroma after it opened was just heavenly, and I joked if they could keep it out so I can savour it. I should have taken a photo of it…but the smoking asparagus was plated (though rather messily by the nervous server as he basically dismembered the delicately plated dish…) quickly. The asparagus was dreamy with a deep smoke that tantalised the tastebuds and nose. However, the snails were rather bland and the various treatments of wild garlic was really not strong enough. But the taste of the smoked asparagus will stay with me for a long time.

The spirit pairing for this dish was the Litworówka — a digestive vodka with honey and lemon. Now this really did not work at all with this dish. It clashed badly with the smoke. I considered asking for a switch to wine at this point, but resisted to see where it went — if it would favour neutral or sweet as the evening went on. Then came the third dish, the venison tartar.

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The server had a lot of trouble describing this (and other) dishes in English. As someone that speaks enough Polish I should have asked for it in Polish, but they probably need the practice. But the meat was delicate and flavourful, a totally balanced dish. Pairing-wise, the quince nalewka honestly didn’t work either, was way too sweet — to the point it was intrusive of the balance achieved on the plate.

Approaching the half-way point of this meal I was becoming a little underwhelmed by the food, to be perfectly honest. Perhaps I expected a little too much from this evening. The pairing scheme has not worked out well at all, and it is likely damaging my enjoyment of the food. And frankly, it also doesn’t help when the aforementioned shrieky woman moved into subjects such as “colon cleansing” at full volume…

The fourth course would have been a puzzle if someone didn’t tell me it was sweetbreads…

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Huh? It was basically dusted on top of a vegetable dish. Sure, the greens, especially the asparagus was nice, but it really was not a sweetbread dish. And the paired rose petal vodka was once again too sweet and just ate into the taste of everything, leaving a strong aftertaste that really did not help the enjoyment of the food.

I was beginning to become concerned especially with the arrival of dish number five, which was a serving of various vegetables — carrots, artichoke and so forth.

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This meal is feeling like a vegetarian meal with token meats and seafood. Sure, I love vegetables as much as everyone, but it did not have the basis to be a strong tasting menu. It didn’t have the uniqueness of the vegetables at Steirereck in Vienna, for instance. And it did not have a strong central feature; it seemed very mixed and scattered. Half the time the featured ingredient was barely found on the plate or dominated by what was listed on the menu as a minor ingredient. And the sticky-sweet pine-based vodka was really not helpful… I could not even drink half of it and abandoned it…

I was really starting to worry now, though according to the menu two strong dishes will be closing out this meal. The sixth dish was the turbot. Now having had turbot at lunch as well (Nolita) I can directly compare the two restaurants’ offerings.

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To be honest, Nolita won. The use of pea shoots at lunch really complemented the fish. Tonight’s version was very nice also (shows that Polish seafood can indeed shine!), but I have to be honest I was still tasting the sticky sweetness from the pairing of the last course… Even the potato vodka served for this course could not erase that taste, which really disturbed the entire flow of the meal. Shame. I stupidly should have switched to wine by now, but chose to stick it out as designed by the team.

The final savoury course, number seven, came after a sufficient time of rest. This was the veal:

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A nicely cooked piece of veal, with strong jus and good vegetables. The meal ended on a strong note, which was very comforting. The one comment I do have is the constant incorporation of “chips” into the dishes…for me, they don’t help, they are more of a distraction.

The staff noticed my aversion to sweet drinks, so they told me this paired herbal vodka was dry… Erm, no, it was not. It was sticky and sweet, maybe less so, but it was not “dry” by any means. It intruded on the flavour of the food so much… Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy these types of drinks, but they are digestifs for a reason.

My tastebuds were completely messed up by now when the rhubarb-centric dessert dish arrived…

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It was pretty good, but as my readers know I don’t chime in often about desserts. Plus, I honestly was still tasting the previous pairing — even as I washed it down with a nice apple liqueur that was paired now. This pairing idea was just a very bad idea, as the sweetness overwhelmed everything, leaving a sticky taste in my mouth for most of the dishes…bad move… My bad for choosing it and sticking with it.

I took in a coffee to clear my tastebuds and was also given a chance to speak with Chef Wojciech Modest Amaro, and was a nice opportunity to hear his take on how the Michelin has changed so much for him and his restaurant. I then took my leave once the taxi (who got lost looking for the place) arrived. I said goodbye to the excellent and friendly staff and headed back, feeling rather torn about the experience. Ironically the taxi ride was the only time all trip I had a full conversation in Polish, so my thoughts on the dinner would have to wait for a little while…

Did the pairing (and the annoying woman) ruin my ability to enjoy the food? But when they promote the pairing, they should know how many of these digestifs intrude on the balance of taste much more than any wine, partly due to issues like viscosity and sweetness. Maybe I would have enjoyed the meal much more with a proper wine set. But it’s too late, all spilled mleko now.

But for me the verdict was completely mixed. If I could recommend a place for one single wonderful meal in Warsaw? I would sadly not say Amaro, but would opt to recommend Nolita. This is definitely a very good restaurant, Chef Amaro is extremely talented and creative. The staff is wonderful and attentive, and it is comparable to other 1-star restaurants around the world. But for me, it didn’t live up to my own hype of it, and definitely put me off herbal vodkas for a long time.

Atelier Amaro
Agrykola 1
Warszawa, Polska

Review: Nolita

Warsaw,
20 May 2013

As I was exploring my short trek back to Warsaw, this most wonderful of cities, I was doing research to find the best places to eat. Having been gone for over 1.5 years, there were plenty of places that are new — as well as ones I have not had the chance to explore. As much as I wanted to revisit Osteria, my fave seafood place in town, after last night’s debacle I was not willing to do this again this trip…it hurts to be screwed by something you like so much…

So I took the recommendation of someone I follow on Twitter, who told me the cooking at Nolita was as good as anything else in Warsaw. It was another warm day and I trekked through central Warsaw to check this place out. 40 minutes later, I was sweaty but seated at this chic and modern eatery — ironically a block away from the aformentioned Osteria. I already felt comfortable the minute I sat down.

As I usually try to do, I skipped the lunch menu whenever they have an a la carte available. Many things looked good, but I made my choice and relaxed…and tried to cool off. Sadly, the air conditioning I can see blowing, but across the room… The wine and water helped plenty in the meantime.

And soon I was greeted with my starter, a set of excellent and plump razor clams…mmm, one of my favourite things to eat.

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Sure, they may not be as large as I’ve had, but they were juicy and delicious. This just shows that Warsaw can do seafood damn good, nothing fancy but the herbal goodness accentuated the razors just that tiny bit not more than necessary. Delish.

I was happy with what’s been served already, and I took another chilling swig of wine in the meantime before my main arrived. I don’t usually order turbot, but I felt like it today for some reason — and it was a cracking choice.

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This beautiful piece of fish topped some risotto and pasta in ink. More importantly, the pea shoots really added to the flavour of this fish. A rare order of turbot for me, a rare winner. Darn good.

I was extremely happy with this meal, but it was very filling — especially for a 40-minute walk back to the hotel. I was gonna hop onto a tram, but when the downpour began the minute I stepped out, I decided to walk as it finally cooled off.

And as comic relief, walking up Wilcza, I saw someone’s Porsche Carrera convertible parked in the midst of the storm…but the cover blew off and it was flooding inside. I was being nice so didn’t take a picture of it… #oops

But the 40-minute walk in the rain was very nice, felt good. Hopped over some ridiculously large pools of puddled water, but it doesn’t remove my love of Warsaw…especially after this lunch. New favourite.

Nolita
Wilcza 46
Warszawa, Rzeczpospolita Polska

Review(s): Folk Gospoda

Warsaw,
19 May 2013

It’s been over a year and a half since I’ve been back in Warsaw, and to be honest, I’ve really missed this European gem. I have a short break here before heading “home” for Estonia, so I was determined to enjoy it. However, having been fighting a bought of sleeplessness (going on about 4 hours of sleep a night for 4-5 weeks now), I also needed to rest…

Warsaw was glowing under a strong sun, and this city of rather beautiful people were out enjoying the sunshine. Oh, to be a young man here… Anyway, for those of us wee older, the sun was almost too much. I rushed to the air conditioning in the hotel before I popped out down Grzybowska and headed to one of my guilty pleasures in Poland, Folk Gospoda.

Folk Gospoda is kind of a stereotype of a Polish rural pub, serving traditional dishes and large beers. I love it, it’s hearty and just adventurous enough for it to not be boring. It was too hot outside so I opted for a table indoors…thank goodness for air conditioning (learn something, Britain). With a large Żywiec in hand, I finally relaxed. It’s been a long two days of travels, waking up at 4am to do JFK-LHR and then 4am again for LHR-WAW.

Soon my starter arrived, a fabulous dish of kołduny (dumplings) filled with lamb, topped by rosemary and generous amount of pepper — cooked with a sheeny glaze of clarified butter (ghee).

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These dumplings were fantastic, with a good kick thanks to the pepper. Maybe the butter would have been great with some bread but I had a main coming, so did not risk my cardiovascular well-being by mopping up the ghee…

With another half litre of beer in hand, soon the main course arrived — the traditional Polish schabowy, or Schnitzel. More hearty than the Viennese version, I always liked the Polish way better. Meat is thicker and juicier, and the breading is also done more sensibly as to not overwhelm the meat.

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After this large and delicious piece of pork I was ready for a kip, so I wandered back to my hotel for a much-needed kip…and the review should end here, right? Wrong…

I had planned to go to my favourite restaurant in Warsaw — Osteria — for a seafood treat that evening, but it didn’t turn out that way. I took the long walk across central Warsaw, and a half hour later walking down Piękna my heart sunk…I saw darkness. It was closed. WTF, the website says they are open Sundays. Damn it, and it was warm too… I wandered around seeing what else works. Lots of places I wanted to try were closed, and I did not want to eat at the few that were open (pizzeria, curry, chain places). So I walked back towards my part of town and…ended up back at Folk Gospoda for round 2…so it’s a second review…

They chuckled when I walked in and greeted them “wracam”… Sadly the outdoor was closed by then, and it was stifling warm inside, but had a good evening despite that. A large beer was forthcoming and I relaxed after that hour+ fast walk through Warsaw. And needed a change, so ordered some different dishes than I would usually do.

After draining most of the half litre of beer, being drained from the fruitless trek through town, my starter arrived — an assortment of game sausages.

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Nothing too special, but it was good. With a generous amount of mustard and horseradish, they were quite delicious. A great beer snack, to say the least. I relaxed a little with more beer before the main course arrived, a traditional zrazy — beef roulettes.

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These roulettes were served with a rich mushroom sauce, which really added to the overall flavour. A cute but oddly kinda-tempura’d carrot sat looking lonely next to the casserole dish. Again, nothing too special, but it was comfort food at its best. I think the lunch selections were better, but this was after all second choices each.

After finishing the food and draining the beer, I took my leave after a quick wódka and trekked into the cooling night. Took a quick stroll around on a very beautiful night, heartened to see the locals still enjoying the beautiful night on foot or on bikes. Folk Gospoda has twice done its job, a solid and thoroughly Polish dining experience. Happy.

Oh, Warsaw, I missed you.

Folk Gospoda
Waliców 13
Warszawa, Polska