The international love affair with Italian food has of course enraptured Estonia has well. When well executed, there’s nothing finer than the simple, fresh flavors of regional Italian cuisine, all they need is a garnish of olive oil and salt. La Bottega has been Tallinn’s darling for many years. The no-fuss Sardinian cuisine served by its long-standing Executive Chef Nicolo Tanda is as comforting as a passionate embrace. There are no tricks here. Each dish is prepared with a minimum number of ingredients, like braised veal cheeks with porcini polenta or beef carpaccio with arugula and Grana Padano. Eat slowly, choose multiple courses and enjoy them with a glass of Chianti.
The moment you’re inside the door you realise that they know what they’re doing here. This is France, in Helsinki. La Maison is a serenely calm, comfortable and cosy restaurant that is oh-so-stylish without having to shout about it. They have only been up and running for a year and a half, but Madame knows her stuff because she ran a similar eatery before. She says she planned to retire but wasn’t able to, so she made a comeback that many have welcomed. The menu stems from the wines she favours at any particular moment. When we visit it’s all about Languedoc, and the chefs have come up with matching fare – like the pretty lamb pastrami dish with onion, shiitake, shallots and sundried tomato that works nicely with a 2014 red Saint-Chinian from Château Bousquette. We switch to a white Le Clos du Serres for the parsnip soup, which is just a tad too thick. The atmosphere is soft and laid-back. Although Helsinki is a long way from Finnish Lapland, we are treated to wild trout from right up north plonked in beurre blanc, accompanied by vegetables that are so green they look Photoshopped. We're sure the proposed 2015 Les Agrunelles from Mas Haut Buis is a match made in trout heaven. The cheeses include a heady brie from Normandy, a goat’s cheese that grows into rock-steady flavour, and a Roquefort that’s sexed-up with the wine pairing, a port-style Rivesaltes Grenat. The soundtrack of the evening is, as you would expect, French chansons, with the occasional guest appearance by Melody Gardot. Yes, La Maison is a consummate Francophile, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
At the top of the Ounasvaara Ski Centre chair lift in the middle of the forest sits Sky Hotel. It’s a quaint little place in need of a facelift with paint chipping off the walls and a lot of stairs everywhere. Inside is the Panorama Restaurant, built on three levels with floor-to-ceiling views on three sides. The interior is simple, inviting nature in. When the food starts arriving our focus shifts to the works of art on the magnificent bowls and plates designed by Finnish artist Anu Pentik. Award-winning Chef Roope Kotila uses reindeer, fish, spruce, mushrooms and vegetables from nearby. Arctic char is crisply grilled and surrounded by fans of steamed, charred and fried leeks on a bed of spinach with a buttermilk sauce and sweet lemon curd foam. The slightly smoked reindeer tartare comes on a round slab of wood. It’s covered in petals of pickled red onion with pungent little bombs of dried capers that explode in your mouth. This creamy, smoky dish is paired with Little Beauty, a New Zealand pinot noir aptly named for its alluring fruity spice. It fills in the gaps, complementing every bite. The main course of pink-roasted reindeer fillet and barbecued reindeer rib-eye is paired with a bold California zinfandel. The dish is rich with a hint of wildness and the jammy and full-bodied wine is reminiscent of Christmas. Just when we think it’s over, after a heady blueberry cake with liquorice sorbet and chocolate pudding, they surprise us with another sweet, this one topped with an intriguing mushroom cream. The menu is thoughtfully composed and the beverages are curated to such a degree that the water comes from a subterranean source in Lapland. The service staff can read your mood like a book and tell stories if they see you want to listen. There is no sommelier; the crazily spot-on pairings are decided on collaboratively. Only one complaint: no aurora borealis to sprinkle more magic throughout the velvet skies.
A beloved Helsinki institution is back after a renovation that kept it closed for more than a year. The enormous venue called Lasipalatsi, meaning “Glass Palace” has been returned to its former 1930s glory. Many original details, like the furniture, lights, and colour scheme, are back. Lasipalatsi will be part of an entirely new and innovative art museum, Amos Rex, which has been constructed underground and is supposed to open in 2018. The menu has many familiar elements but the classics have been given new pondus. Vorschmack, which consists of minced lamb, minced herring, and tomato and is braised for hours, retains its place as a starter here together with baked potato. Zander à la Mannerheim, the war hero’s favourite dish, can be found in many restaurants in town, but some connoisseurs consider Lasipalatsi’s version of the perfectly crisp-fried fish, creamy mushrooms and horseradish braised in butter to be the best. Local wild fish has its place on the menu, now in the form of lake perch with asparagus risotto. The desserts have a new finesse. Domestic wild berries, for instance, might come in the form of a sea buckthorn sorbet with some Moscato d’Asti poured over it. Traditions are observed here and they sell thousands and thousands of pancakes during blini season. In springtime asparagus dominates the menu. Since the restaurant has only recently reopened and many of the staff are new, the service still needs some polishing. That said, their knowledge of wines is evident and there is no doubt that they want the best for their guests.
Yet another one of those nondescript Vilnius canteens? The eatery on the ground floor of a residential building might have windows from floor to ceiling but it doesn’t scream “Come hither”. Not until you actually see the menu that is, and realize that it’s a top-notch place, offering simple and affordable lunch options, creamy octopus soup with rice that looks and tastes like it should cost more. Nighttime Lauro Lapas magically changes into an even more appealing dining destination. Those water glasses from lunch service have morphed into champagne flutes. The Mediterranean-flecked, à la carte menu now features ravioli with shrimps and sepia or rabbit. Lauro Lapas, bay leaf in Lithuanian, is a key ingredient in marinated mushrooms––one of this country’s most popular foods, the flavorful herb lends a fragrant aroma to a humble dish. At lunch these mushrooms look rather common, at dinner they turn into something undeniably festive. Looks can be deceiving.
There is always smoke hovering over the Blue Lagoon because, whatever the season, the air temperature is always colder than the 37° volcanic water. A lunch or dinner at Lava with its tall panoramic windows facing the lagoon reinforces the surrealistic experience. In the strictly elegant dining room the food is wild-caught and locally-grown. A rich langoustine soup has deep flavours with sea notes from the seaweed. Smoked haddock takes on the character of rutabaga and dill oil. On a turquoise plate, hot as lava, rests a perfectly cooked piece of cod on a bed of barley grains and sliced fennel to go with the cauliflower variation. It’s very beautiful. Do not miss the Icelandic donut called Ástarpungar. They have a good wine list and the service is particularly competent. By 2018, the competition around the lagoon will increase with restaurant Moss in the new five-star hotel.
Le Benjamin is the kind of what-you-see-is-what-you-get place where everybody, from first dates and work colleagues to chefs and gourmands, meet to relax and enjoy the French bistro-style kitchen. The atmosphere is friendly, busy and laid-back, and at least the sofas around the edge are comfortable. Evidence of the service team’s many accomplishments covers the wall in the bar and at least one of the staff members delivers a spotless performance with a welcoming and professional attitude. The à la carte menu offers a selection of about ten starters and ten main courses plus desserts and cheeses (there’s a kids’ menu as well). The crab cakes contain delicious, well-prepared crabmeat but the chilli mayo is more chilli than mayo, which dominates the dish and overpowers the suggested white Vacqueyras. The mussel soup has just the right mouthfeel and the mussels are “à point” but we taste mostly cream and the soup lacks the promised touch of saffron. The turbot serving with sweetbreads and brandade is an enormous portion with a well-executed fish and rich flavours, but the deep-frying of the delicate sweetbreads leaves limited opportunity for them to shine. The “almost-there” feeling continues throughout the meal, leaving us with the impression that it wouldn’t take much for the kitchen to go all the way. We finish off with a couple of safe bets: a delightful crème brûlée with chocolate and berries and a selection of cheeses served at the perfect temperature, which we would have enjoyed even more had we not been forced to share the smell of the cheese fondue served several tables away for the last few hours. The wine list at Le Benjamin is – not surprisingly – very French, and lovers of Burgundy wines in particular will have little to wish for. The suggested red from Anne Gros captures both the fish and meat as advised and is professionally decanted but sadly not maintained at the initial perfect temperature during the meal. There it was again: very good, but still not quite there.
Leaven is living a quiet life in Copenhagen’s city centre – so quiet, in fact, that we’re all alone in the restaurant on the evening we pay a visit. This must be pure chance, because although it’s a Tuesday, the combination of such low prices for such excellent cuisine and good wines should make Leaven a sensation among diners. We start off with king crab, morels and apple in crab bisque, and it’s precisely as delectable as it sounds. We also make room for a serving of lumpfish roe – ‘tis the season – with cool potato cubes and a mild citrus mayo that is equally satisfying. This is followed by one of Leaven’s heavenly classics: strips of Danish squid with ventreche in a foam of Vesterhavsost cheese. Paired with these dishes is a 2014 riesling from Fritz Haag and Montagny 1er cru from Boillot in Bourgone, both of which are superb choices. The next dish is an unconventional serving of chicken in the form of succulent roasted breast and sausage with a warm remoulade sauce, followed by delightful, perfectly fried sweetbreads with a robust caper vinaigrette and sauce with leeks. These are paired with a glass of Morey-Saint-Denis 2014 Clos Solon. Or rather, two glasses – but who’s counting? Time for dessert: Jerusalem artichokes, both raw and sugar-pickled, and fudge with a wonderfully rich milk ice cream and thyme. For anyone who doesn’t particularly appreciate veg-based desserts, this is a pleasant surprise. A wonderful Tokaj from Leonis concludes a truly fine meal for the price; the four-course menu costs DKK 400 and the à la carte options are also available at reasonable prices. Heed this advice: put the money saved to good use by exploring Leaven’s impressive Burgundy list, be it Tuesday or any other day of the week.
Leib - Bread - is a bold name for an Estonian restaurant. Estonians have a special relationship with bread, specifically black rye bread. Itis synonymous with food in general. Several years ago, the restaurant started slow in a house with a big garden in Tallinn Old Town. It gained confidence with every passing year and has since become synonymous with simple honest modern Estonian cuisine. Visitors often witness a farmer with a sack of potatoes or onions on his back making his way to the kitchen. The food comes straight from the farm not just figuratively, but literally. Estonia has fairly few restaurants dedicated to local cuisine. This country is too small tooffer something that is not found elsewhere. Estonians are too few to make food that noone else makes. Modern Estonian cuisine is a way of cooking. In a departure from tradition, Leib serves homemade spiced sprat with cucumber stew; lovage oil flavors the farm tomatoes. There is something novel to every dish. Except for bread. The bread at Leib is always the same, traditional. It is too holy here to experiment with. Leib puts forward an outstanding selection of homemade drinks (beers, cider, house liquor) as well asoneof the best wine lists in Estonia. We recommend looking out for their specially imported wines - small-batch products from small winemakers. Such as the Laherte Frères Ultratradition Brut biodynamic champagne for apéritif.
At the forest's edge, a stone's throw from the water, one finds Hesselhuset and its phenomenal view of the Great Belt, where the simple and pure concept of Patrick Lieffroy’s restaurant has brought gastronomy of the highest class to new shores. A three-course menu is extremely reasonably priced, and additional dishes are available according to the occasion and budget. With bubbles of chardonnay and pinot noir from Taittinger in our glasses and a delicious serving of snacks that includes an exquisitely seasoned tartare of veal and a crisp chip with lumpfish roe and shrimp, the stage is set for a evening in the company of the finest ingredients. Classic craftsmanship doesn’t come much better than this, and many of the evening’s dishes stand out with their brilliance. The freshly caught cod from the Great Belt approaches signature status for this establishment, prepared to perfection and topped with a thin and porous toast Melba providing a crisp “skin” on the cod’s succulent meat. The dish is accompanied by small potatoes from the restaurant’s home island of Funen with Osietra caviar, lovage oil and an airy clam sauce with a touch of smoke from a mild smoked cheese cream and small morsels of smoked eel. The stout and impressive body of a weissburgunder from Rheinhessen provides a fine balance with the dish’s notes of sea and smoke. Danish lobster is served with an excellent light hollandaise with sage and classic peas à la française with shallots and bacon, a tasty twist of pickled gherkins and a black cream of fermented garlic. The Mâcon-Villages from Jean Marc Boillot, with its minimal oaked notes and fine acidity, goes well with the sweetness of the dish. Lieffroy is an alluring virtuoso and absolutely well worth a trip to experience.
Spontaneously queuing in sleet and snow may have one advantage. Namely that, once inside, you have a shot at the best seats, at the bar, with full view into the kitchen. At 5 o’clock sharp the door opens and then – bam, they’re off! Yes, it’s an adrenaline-fueled gang here, five in the kitchen and three on the floor, all men, most with beards and several with cooking medals in their back pockets, and they’re in a particularly good mood. “How cool that you got the last seats. Welcome!” The motley public is warmly received. A roughly chopped horse tartare intermingled with thin slices of semi-dry pickled kumquats is nicely balanced with the chilli kick of a broth and foie gras mousse. One does not always get the visually beautifully along with the flavourful here; the lightness that meets the eye is sometimes contradicted by too much food on the stoneware plate. It can also get a bit fratty and (deliciously) indulgent. The salmon is cured and blackened, and the Swedish-Asian rendezvous comes with a real perk: gari with a rice paper sail askew. The foodie eating alone looks sick with longing at the iron pan with potato pancakes that rushes by with a cone of caviar on the side, which is among a handful of dishes only offered to parties of at least two. It is charming here, but it goes by too fast, sometimes so much so that they seem to lose their grip. The small, yuzu-sour kohlrabi package does its best but fails to liven up languishing pieces of char. And the sabayon with cherries might have had a few too many swigs of marsala. And then – bam! Time is up. Barely two hours have passed. We stagger slightly dazed out onto the street and watch others sit down on the chairs we just possessed. How nice it looks in there, where we would still really love to be.
In a hidden away spot in the centre of the city, behind an inconspicuous metal door, you’ll find a restaurant whose reputation has reached far and wide. In a story in a local paper from another town a good distance north, Linnéa & Peter has been presented as “Umeå’s best restaurant”, despite the distance of 140 km, and fierce competition from a very tight Umeå restaurant scene. In the crowded and pleasant dining room spontaneous conversation between tables is highly likely. The staff contribute greatly to the light-hearted mood by offering both relevant information and amusing anecdotes. The hospitality here is really in a class by itself. The menu has a strong local character and the staff gladly present the origin, preparation, and seasoning in depth. They also serve a very affordable prix fixe three-course Sunday dinner. The perfectly balanced seafood soup is a great start both in terms of portion size and its ability to awaken the taste buds. Three cuts from the pig form an interesting combination: shoulder, leg and secreto. The latter is a small muscle found in the throat, which is often not used in Sweden despite its status as a delicacy in Spain. The crispy oven-roasted sides are served in small cast-iron forms with each and every main. If you want to explore the kitchen’s specialties further, we recommend a seating at the chef’s table, where just about anything can happen. But no matter when you want to eat here, book a table in advance.
Do not let the casual, nondescript and cosy atmosphere fool you – Lux houses both artisan perfection and creative height. Season, origin and change have always been part of the Lux DNA, which is partly reflected in the current suffix “day by day”. Yes, each day there is a new bill of fare. In autumn a four-course menu honours not only the seasons, but also felled deer. The dinner subtly weaves a story based on the achievements of protagonists like Daniel, the hunter, and Niki, a forest-harvesting friend, who have made possible the kitchen’s refining of what we see on the plate. The ingredients are excellent and the processing sometimes brilliant, like the mushroom dashi with the venison shank, with its salty umami and deceptively transparent red broth, and the tartare of lightly smoked venison with mushrooms and moss. The latter is like agreeably stumbling through the woods, a gastronomic collage of autumn’s every scent with notes that force the amygdala to recall childhood memories of similar outings. When we get to tonight’s big main course, young venison with Gotland truffles, we reach meat overload. Not even the poor Gotland fungus can compel the gluttony to continue. The finish, a pear simmered in woodruff, is certainly not epic, but it is rescued by a good sauternes from tonight’s competent beverage pairings. The imprint of the entire experience is epic, and Niki and Hunter Dan have taken on the same status as legendary heroes in our urban folklore as Ulysses and Njal once did.
Tired of pared-down Nordic design? Then make your way to Lyon. The restaurant opposite the Opera is like a time capsule: nothing has changed since it opened in 1966 – and even then the place was über French with cafe curtains on brass bars, wall-to-wall carpeting, sconces and Piaff tunes streaming from the speakers. We are met and shown to our table by the almost stern, black-uniformed waitress (who turns out to be kind, knowledgable and attentive to our needs). Then we put our evening entirely in the hands of Chef Tuomas Vierelä and his colleagues. While the decor might be perceived as dated, the kitchen delivers contemporary, technique-driven cuisine that digs deeply into the Finnish soil – but Vierelä is not afraid of carefully selected Asian elements. Soon the snacks come flying across the table: a dense, chartreuse-coloured turmeric-cucumber soup with delicious herby oregano oil; a beautiful creation consisting of chicken liver under thin slices of fermented kohlrabi on small papery meringue bottoms; pike roe and cream of roasted yeast... The flavors are intense and acid-driven with umami as the underlying mantra. Everything whirls along at a high pace and soon our waitress starts filling our glasses at the same rate. No natural wines here, but well-made French vintages – what else? With a small tartlet with pumpkin, kombu and homemade goat’s cheese we enjoy a mineral Les Perles Rares from Laurent Vogt. The same producer’s pinot gris is served later with the restaurant’s most famous dish: foie gras with red beets, raspberry and hazelnuts. The dish is stylish and well-composed, but we miss a little of the funkier notes that Vierelä lets shine through now and then. Like when he scatters the ashes of dried Japanese shiso leaves over a cream flavored with wasabi. After sweetbreads with an umami-laced chicken broth enriched with black garlic, mustard seeds and oxalis, things begin to calm down a tad with a sheer white meringue tuile, pollen and sea buckthorn. A Coteaux du Layon is paired with a construction of smoked white chocolate with rhubarb and a citrus-scented gelée cap. Can we really manage another dish – peppermint ice cream with flakes of dried milk and fir tree powder? But of course we can. Then we go dazed out into the night, along with the other, surprisingly young, hip diners.
Here to brighten the scene: Viru Lyon, in Tallinn’s Viru Keskus mall. It labels itself as a café, serving coffee and excellent pastries in the morning, then cranks things up for lunch and dinner, featuring a long, French-tinted à la carte menu and an impressive range of tipples usually only found in more ambitious restaurants. When Viru Lyon opened with two locations, three years ago, nobody predicted that they would enjoy any greater success. By now, there are three branches, each with its own characteristic features. How Chef Jürgen Lip manages to prepare such excellent food in a shopping center setting is an enigma, everything is leagues above what we expect from an eatery that rubs elbows with 109 shops competing for your hard-earned cash. And if you don’t spend it at Zara, River Island or Armani Exchange you deserve a glass of champagne or apple wine.
Just as a journey begins the moment you’ve booked it, with high expectations, an experience at Lyran begins once you call and secure a table. On social media they lists the day’s ingredients – though you do not know exactly what will be paired with what until you sit at the table. Spoiler alert: it’s done really well. Crispy Danish rye bread with lingonberries and herbs is a small bite off the edge of the forest. After that, a variation on a recurring house favourite – wafer-thin carpaccio of portobello with an emulsion of roasted poppy seeds and Scottish cheese aged 36 months. You fold the panels into a mini taco and slip it down in a flash. Then things get exciting – carrots poached in carrot juice, glazed with fermented carrot juice and garnished with sesame seeds, cumin and dill flowers is an original smash hit, regardless of whether or not this is accompanied by Norwegian king crab. Though it’s a fun and bold way to address the slightly tricky crustacean, and the wine embraces it without restraint. In this case, the match is almost flawless, even in colour: a glass of orange wine (except it’s white) from the Pyrenees producer Matassa draws toward acidity and crunch. Most the wines are natural, subtle rather than garish – and good. This also applies to the long line of homemade, pressed and fermented beverages, flavoured with the joy of discovery. One exception is Frank Cornelissen’s Contadino from Etna’s volcanic soils, which is more interesting than good. But if you should drink it with something, it is probably with this: tartare from a Swedish Red Polled cow resting under a blanket of beets along with sour cream, fermented elderberries and crispy buckwheat marinated in the cow’s browned fat. The smokiness and fat balance each other somewhat, but not entirely. The dishes are, with few exceptions, safer on their feet than a gymnast and the many house-made broths make us philosophize about whether that might be what separates a good kitchen from a fantastic one. It becomes interesting and original again when we are offered a glass of sweet hawthorn liqueur – in fact considerably sweeter than the only dessert, which is on the refreshing side: raw and intense blueberry sorbet under a blanket of fluffy cream, and a liquorice powder so light that it is mostly a sensation. Jorgen Lloyd and Melissa Gardarsdottir together with their team create, in all simplicity, an experience in multiple dimensions.
During this last year Lysverket has seen several changes: The nightclub concept is gone, lunch is back on the menu, and the front of house team has been strengthened. But even if the DJ is gone, the dining experience is as rough and informal as ever. Rough and informal are two words that also describe the premises. The restaurant is dark and stylish with handmade Danish wooden furniture, industrial ceilings and rough concrete floors. The museum is one of Bergen’s most stylish buildings, and once produced the city’s power. Lysverket is still pumping out energy to this day. With its neo-fjordic concept they have moved the boundaries of traditional Western Norwegian cooking and put Bergen on the international gastronomic map. The meal starts the same way as on our last visit, with a classic succession of small homages to tradition: a warm fish pudding, a taste of mackerel cream on rye bread, and a miniature Nordic kebab made with pickled salted herring. The last nibble before we commence with the menu is a classic Bergen-style fish soup. In keeping with tradition the soup is creamy and acidic with tiny bits of vegetables, but without the characteristic fish balls. The soup is served in a small bowl so you can slurp it up – this is not a place for the prim and proper. The Lysverket menu is a natural result of the restaurant’s location in Western Norway. Instead of writing a menu of ingredients that then need to be sourced, the kitchen works in the opposite way. The natural fauna and the soil of the supplying farms dictates what meat and produce they receive. The first course on the menu is grilled shiitake from Trondheim, layered with raw scallops from Øygarden. Last summer’s salted plums from Hardanger are strewn on top, adding acidity to the smoked, toasted mushroom and the sweet and pure scallop. Hake from the Osterfjord is served with flowersprouts and sea belt seaweed. The restaurant staff pick up fish on the quay in order to get the freshest fish, enabling them to serve it 24 hours earlier than they otherwise would be able to. The result is fish that melts in your mouth like fresh cream. With the exception of the Chablis Premier Cru from Billaud-Simon, the recommended wines harmonise well with the food. The wine menu is good value for money and follows a classic but not very exciting theme. For a more stirring experience, request some input from the knowledgable bar staff. As a non-alcoholic alternative pairing with the Mangalitsa pork, we are offered a crisp drink of celery, ginger and pear juice with fresh flavours to fight this rich dish. It is an interesting experience to taste how this drink and a deep pinot noir with tannins both lift the pork in very different ways. As a part of the KODE art museum, the restaurant has a lunch menu that interprets the present art show, and a dinner menu that is defined by the best produce from the local flora and fauna of the west coast of Norway. Lysverket continues to develop towards an even more defined identity than before.
With over 100 Masters Level restaurants, the Nordic countries offer a wide variety of excellent culinary experiences. The Top 30 are all at the Global Masters level and they include some of the best restaurants in the world.