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When you come across a fashionable bistro with an open kitchen and a list of natural wines in a remote village in the centre of Latvia, you realise something has changed.
The new wave of modern gastronomy has arrived as far as the backwoods of the Baltic Republics where traditional recipes of potatoes, smoked fish, smoked pork and yet more potatoes are still an important part of the diet – and where the lifestyle and economy of the rural areas still greatly resemble scenarios the rest of Europe cast off after the Second World War.
Meanwhile in Cēsis, 90 km from Riga in the centre of Latvia, three young restaurateurs have opened a venue that would not look out of place on the streets of Paris – the Izsalkušais Jānis, the Hungry John. A former redbrick fire station has been revamped with warm vintage furnishings, an open kitchen and large floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the street. The cuisine is contemporary, seasonal and based on local ingredients, served up in generous bistro-style portions on plates decorated with splashes of sauce à la Pollock. As you leave the venue, a sticker effectively expresses the aspirations of these young chefs: “Not recommended in Michelin guide 2018”. They are beckoning to the famous red guide and, as you travel through these countries, you realise why. They are ready to welcome it.
The local cuisine is largely based on beer, cabbage soups and rather mundane stews; in cities like Vilnius, Riga and Tallin a new interpretation of Italian cuisine is greatly in vogue while luxury restaurants offer '90s-style menus of French inspiration. At the same time, vegetarian restaurants and hipster cafés are also starting to spring up. The gourmet scene is still in its early days and there tends to be a widely-shared preconception that Nordic cuisine with its lichens and wild herbs has influenced the work of these new chefs, making everything look like a poor copy of its Scandinavian equivalent. On the contrary, there are restaurants intent on carving out their own path and identity, rooted in tradition but with new techniques and original ideas. They would appeal to Massimo Bottura and also to the new philosophy of cuisine that is converting international critics. And if the Michelin guide were to look them up, they would deserve their place in heaven.
In Vilnius which, of the three cities, is the one that still retains an East Berliner spirit, new restaurants such as the Dublis go down beaten trails while the Sweet Root serves traditional Lithuanian dishes with a new take, from a rustic salad of lamb’s tongue with ewe’s milk yoghurt and blackcurrants to the milk pudding and blueberry dessert reminiscent of the afternoon snacks the local children used to eat. The project is a well conceived one and, venue aside, recollections and emotions play an important part in it. A refined wine list and a seven-course gourmet menu at 50€ (it would cost at least twice as much in another country).
In Riga, the search for a new haute cuisine produces a couple of addresses such as the scintillating Restaurant 3 and the 3 Pavaru, but the most interesting Latvian contemporary cuisine, that of chef Valters Zirdziņš, can be enjoyed at Valtera restaurant – there is no gourmet menu but, on request, they will make one up for you.
In Tallinn, Nordic cuisine has had a greater impact, also owing to the historical influence of Scandinavia.
Reindeer, horns and animal skins are proudly displayed in the restaurant windows downtown and liquid nitrogen vapour rises from the trendiest tables. In a courtyard rather off the beaten track, at Leib (meaning bread), diners are served beautifully prepared bistro dishes in an English-style environment of wood panelling. The bread is delicious and the quail memorable. But outside town and along the bay where it enjoys a charming view of the sea, stands Noa, a restaurant with annexed bistro and parallel projects which, anywhere else, would be a two-star establishment.
The importance of the investment is to be seen in every detail, not only in the food, from the quality of the tableware to the attentive dining room service. Dining in the chef’s hall is by reservation only, and it is necessary to choose between the two available menus in advance. The best tomato eaten in the year and an excellent technique for pigeon, all seven courses for 80€. Until Michelin turns on the spotlights.