Paju Villa in Nõmme, one of Tallinn’s leafiest residential districts, is a handsome, hundred year-old house. The restaurant within its walls, however, is almost brand new and utterly contemporary Nordic-chic with a rambling set of dining rooms, catering to both large and small parties. The short but exciting menu features several dishes from the Siigur Restaurant group’s other establishments, albeit with slight variations. We especially love Paju Villa’s tomato, a trompe-l’oeil creation that looks plucked straight from the garden, but is filled with mozzarella and pesto. The drinks menu includes many small batch, local craft beverages produced exclusively for Siigur. The newest of them is Paju Villa Cider, prepared by Jaanihanso Ciderhouse, using the traditional champagne method. While the young wait staff is enthusiastic and hard-working, they’re still at the beginning of their professional careers.
In the early 90s fine dining in Oslo was a stuffy affair, with predictable menus and besuited waiters. Palace Grill changed all that when it opened in 1994. You got great cooking with high-end ingredients, but it was all presented in a way that was both rebellious and delicious. The “rockekokk” – the “rock and roll chef” – was born. The great food combined with the no-booking policy soon meant that queues of diners formed, with a separate line of young chefs wanting a chance to work in the kitchen. Most of Norway’s celebrity chefs have had a stint at Palace Grill. Twenty-three years on, a lot has changed in the restaurant world, while at Palace Grill much has stayed the same – from the brown decor and the empty bottles on the wall to the background rock music and the mischievous attitude. But that doesn’t mean Palace Grill is outdated: Rock and roll will never die. As we’re seated, our glasses are filled with a Pouilly Fumé, “Triptyque” from Alain Cailbourdin. The compulsory ten-course set menu kicks off with a soup of halibut, shore crabs and miso, a punchy taste of the sea. Crispy chicken skin with lamb tartare and shiso give a quick jab of umami. The meal progresses through a bountiful selection of seafood and shellfish, featuring scallops, langoustines, oysters, and skate wings. A dish of mussels with bone marrow is delicious, in which the marrow offers an interesting contrast to the briny mussels, both in flavour and texture. But the high point of the meal is the pan-fried crispy-skinned mackerel with browned butter, white asparagus and hollandaise. On first tasting the buttery mackerel, one expects the composition to be too rich, but a beautifully balanced hollandaise with plenty of acidity counters the fat, and the toasted quinoa adds crunch. The volume is turned all the way up for this classic rock anthem of a dish, but the execution is of such a high standard that every note is clear. A subsequent dish of pan-fried duck breast with foie gras is classic French cooking at its best, and the rich sauce makes us want to lick the plate clean. The dessert is a fun and delicious interpretation of the chocolate-covered popsicles from childhood. The wines are traditional and of a high standard, with an emphasis on France and Spain. Service is professional, but with a rowdy attitude that only sometimes seems feigned. They want you to leave gorged and inebriated at Palace Grill. After all, it’s better to burn out than to fade away.
A hotel restaurant based on a faddy and restrictive diet may not appeal on first sight, but don’t be put off. The paleo diet encourages the use of fresh and natural ingredients while eschewing grains and sugars, allowing for good if somewhat rich food of a quality seldom seen by real cavemen. Seated in cushy turquoise and gold chairs you can observe the staff in the orderly open kitchen grilling marrowbones, provoking primal pangs of hunger in an environment with modern comforts. The clientele consists mostly of hotel guests, vacationing families and solitary businessmen, with the odd walk-in couple. An amuse-bouche of puffy fried parsnips the consistency of prawn crackers, with cured coppa and a green kale mayonnaise, is delightfully moreish. A hand-chopped beef tartare with marrow, deep-fried shallots and thyme is also a rich treat. The low-carb, high-fat feast continues with pan-fried hake served with turnips, apples and a pleasantly rich but tart sauce of kefir and whey. For dessert, creamy chocolate mounds with crunchy sheets of caramel and refreshing goat’s milk ice cream round out the meal. Sourcing local, seasonal and natural produce is high on the list of priorities for Brasserie Paleo, and the kitchen’s quality cooking lets the ingredients shine. The staff are relaxed and charming, and the wine list is long if somewhat conventional for an otherwise unconventional establishment. All in all, we get an appealing if not so realistic glimpse of the Stone Age lifestyle.
Where to go for the ultimate smørrebrød? The answer can only be Palægade. The prolific team behind formel B brought in Simon Olesen and Karina Pedersen from the classic smørrebrød establishment Schønnemann, and together they have given rise to a fantastic mix of classics and innovative versions of smørrebrød. This is not only evident on the plates, but also among the clientele of all ages and the decor, which features classic furniture and late modern touches in a well-lit, dark brown room. The spirit of service permeates every iota of the restaurant. Palægade is begotten of the preeminent smørrebrød purveyors of yore, delivering proper yet unpretentious service. The guests are a good mix of smørrebrød connoisseurs, businesspeople, young couples, celebrities and designer types, all swooping in quickly to relieve vacant tables of their empty chairs. The unfiltered beer in our glasses and the many interesting aquavit choices on the menu are merely the opening act for the gastronomic crown jewel of Denmark: the smørrebrød. We order a variety of toppings for our open-faced sandwiches, including a classic breaded plaice fillet with mayonnaise and shrimp, and an innovative signature dish with tartare of lobster, pickled pearl onions and a breaded poached egg. All the ingredients are of the finest quality and everything is homemade. Each of these dishes make a deep impression in our culinary memory as being perfectly fresh, soft, sweet, salty, crunchy and creamy. Once again we choose two different slices: a by-the-book chicken salad with crisp bacon and toasted wheat bread, and a re-interpreted tartare with semidried slices of tomato on dark rye bread with pepper mayo. The tartare is hand-chopped, and we enjoy the excellent contrast from the pepper and solid umami from the tomato. It’s a fitting choice for those looking for something new, while the chicken salad once again underscores this immortal classic’s permanent status in the pantheon of smørrebrød; its creamy delectability and crisp bite make it one of the most pleasing options on the menu. Yet another iconic representative of Danish lunch classics is the potato smørrebrød: it may well be the most proletarian of them all, served here with slices of Skagen ham and ramson mayo. Should your hunger remain insatiable, you can conclude the meal with a Danish layer cake or a rich, crunchy biscuit cake with a wisely innovative and refreshing orange twist. Good French press coffee rounds out our lunch. Palægade is the Parnassus of classic and innovative smørrebrød – and what’s more, it’s pleasantly cosy.
There’s a tropical bird in Tallinn’s Old Town. An exotic creature that can’t live without glitter and lush plants. At Parrot the “aloha theme” is in full swing; the staff uniforms sport loud patterns that compete with the in-your-face wallpaper. Tropicana has left its mark on the drinks list as well as the toothsome menu; flavors are informed by juices, dressings and seasoning are made with exotic fruits, and the service is Caribbean-attentive and friendly. In addition to Tropicana, the creators of Parrot also found inspiration in the secrecy of America’s prohibition era. The ground floor is influenced by art deco and the basement by art noveau, both look beautiful. These two styles and stories are joined by a surprise. As was common during prohibition, the entrance to the downstairs bar is through a closet. Creative cocktails rule the beverage menu, the selection of wines is limited, though our waiter promised it will soon be expanded. The most exciting tipples play along with the carefree 1920s theme, there are, however, alcohol-free options for non-bon vivants. Befitting the minute bar, dishes are tapas-sized, meant to provide a taste experience rather than fill your stomach. A bite-sized burger and a macaroon-shaped fish cookie are delicious but you need pay close attention to pin down the actual flavors of either, as these starters are truly small. Mini-mains weighing a hundred grams are one step up in size, there are also a couple of larger offerings for hungrier guests. Tropical Oysters is the most surprising of Parrot’s desserts, taking a bit of help from molecular gastronomy; mango and peach have been turned into a “mollusk”, served as oysters usually are––on an oyster shell, surrounded by seaweed. It’s a fruity greeting from a sandy beach, flavored with sweet sunshine.
Restaurant Pasfall is relaxed and informal, yet proper and sufficiently mannered in a way that’s only possible when all of the members of a staff master their roles. The style is traditional with a local twist from the island of Funen. We begin the evening with the Danish classic of fried pork belly and parsley sauce – but not in its usual form. Instead it’s served as a snack of small crisp flakes with parsley emulsion. It’s a little tip of the cap to Pasfall’s roots on the island of Funen. An intense and foamy mushroom soup with pickled beech mushrooms is partnered elegantly with a dry S de Suduiraut, whose aromatic notes of gooseberry and fine, slightly bitter finish is delightful with the rich soup. A cold-poached cod is cured, cooked at a low temperature and served with variations of celeriac and a blanket of black truffle – a hearty but delicious dish whose lack of acidity is partially offset by the accompanying Montagny 1er cru 2013 from Jean-Marc Boillot. We stay in Burgundy with a glass of velvety Hautes-Côtes de Nuits from Michel Gros to go with a deep and umami-saturated consommé with pigeon confit in crisp packaging with pickled onion. The service is top-notch, With just over a year under its belt, The Balcony is already firmly established as more than a passing fad with delusions of grandeur. We begin a spring evening in March with a glass of champagne blanc de blancs from Henri Mandois and a rain of snacks. The most memorable ones include the caramelly Jerusalem artichoke purée in its own crisp, fried Kenneth Rimmer Sørensen heading up the front of house, and the wines are well chosen and mature. Pasfall long ago established itself in Odense’s restaurant scene as a classic, with culinary excellence and good service at the forefront. The preparations are precise and the flavours intense, but we sense a lack of balance in the menu between the light and heavy dishes. It’s almost too much of a good thing, one might say; after our evening at Pasfall we are glad, but also very full.
This continental-style brasserie attracts an international audience. On some days you can hear American, British, Korean and Swedish being spoken amongst the diners. The staff handle everything correctly and in perfect English so there are no misunderstandings. The entrance is in the middle of the restaurant, so it can be a bit draughty if you get a table by the door – especially in winter. But the friendly staff warm you up, and so do some of the dishes. Normally, you can choose between three or five courses. The latter is preferable, but when the amuse-bouche enters you will think it’s the starter, given the size. It is pig’s cheek, paired with egg yolk, red beet cream and yellow beets. When the real starter lands on the table it takes the form of salmon, including its roe, potato cubes and crumbs of dark bread. It’s very good, even if it lacks a bit of saltiness. The house version of onion soup contains pieces of wheat bread that almost taste like sweetbreads! All this is swept up by the restaurant’s own unfiltered APA, whose bitterness matches the sweetness of the dish. The rest of the courses are paired with wine, preferably from the Piedmont. With the black sea bream we drink Arneis from Langhe that’s powerful enough to handle both the snails and pickled red onions included in the dish. Unfortunately, there are six or seven additional ingredients, making the preparation feel a tad overloaded. The lamb racks are presented as Baby Lamb, accompanied by a hefty piece of porcini mushroom, and parsnip purée. We receive a palette cleanser before the dessert – sea buckthorn sorbet with liquorice cream and subtle fennel strips. It’s complex and delicious enough to work as a stand-alone dish.
Pastis is the kind of French bistro we all dream of having nearby. The moment you step into its cosy bar and dining room a few steps down, you are transported to Paris and voila, it’s “la vie en rose”. In fact, the menu almost feels like a parody of French cuisine with frogs’ legs, snails, bouillabaisse and quenelles. But that doesn’t mean that the food lacks sincerity. Chef and owner Timo Linnamäki’s love for all things authentically French is deep, honest and appreciated. The crispy-fried, breaded frogs’ legs are tender and filling – we have not seen the like in many years – but perhaps we would enjoy them even more if they weren’t surrounded by so much eggplant caviar. But oh, the veal tongue! Served with a silky parsley root purée with a slightly mineral taste, and a deep red wine sauce seasoned with lovage, it is by far the best tongue we’ve ever bitten into. The wine list has a strong bias towards France, naturellement, but the selection is personal and the breadth is rather impressive for a restaurant of this size. The charming staff are happy to assist with their tips on good pairings. Finish with chocolate parfait and coffee with armagnac!
Pastor has the sort of rough-and-tumble feel that we associate with Brooklyn. It used to be a primary school, to which the chairs still bear witness. It morphed into a hardware store, then a nightclub with an adjoining strip bar. The walls at Pastor surely have tales to tell, as do the friendly and garrulous staff who happen to look strikingly similar to their patrons. It’s Nikkei cooking at Pastor Drink & Dine, that fashionable fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine. We’re off to a smart start with sea bass and lime, coconut sauce, jalapeño and deep-fried lotus root. It’s not bad, although the attractive plating outshines the dish’s flavours. Most people who dine at Pastor seem to favour beer but we go for a passable Toni Jost riesling from Mittel-rhein in Germany, which suits the fish well. On a weekday night it’s relatively quiet at Pastor, but on weekends DJs move in with music that matches the brute, industrial, no-nonsense look of the place. Grilled red and yellow beets are served with a quinoa salad, mustardy mayo, crème fraîche and beet juice. A glass of Italian Blauburgunder is a fine match with the slow-cooked veal neck, presented with grilled celeriac and a tamarind sauce. Next to us sits a bearded hipster in a red t-shirt and a girl in a hoodie with the name of one of the capital’s top restaurants printed on the back. Apparently this is where restaurant people spend their hard-earned cash.
Per sé, near Riga’s Stock Exchange, is a perfect casual dining place; brick walls, unusual zig-zag flooring, comfortable sofas, and a clever layout, it all looks rather glamorous. There are big wine cabinets along the walls with a fine collection that covers all bases; a wide selection of champagne, Old World classics, and intriguing Lebanese choices. Despite the Latin name, Per sé also makes room for Latvian dishes on the Mediterranean-leaning bill of fare. The lamb tartare with poached quail egg, pickled onions, mustard and lemon, and the lightly smoked shrimps with sour cream and dill sauce on brioche are both excellent. Porcini risotto with truffle oil and Danish pike perch with asparagus and black mussels will also make your evening unforgettable.
For nearly 20 years, Piaf’s Head Chef Marc Noël has served attractive plates with the gastronomic DNA of his childhood in southwestern France, a touch of Italian sensibilities regarding ingredients and seasonal herbs of central Jutland. The restaurant appears modest from the outside with an awning, a faded display case on the facade and a cast iron doorway – an appropriate symbol of the informal southern European style that characterises our visit. Noël welcomes us in as if we were his closest friends, as the tones of iconic French crooners such as Aznavour and Gainsbourg fill the room; the decor is stylish yet old-school with draped fabric tablecloths, fresh white roses and spotlessly polished, high-quality glasses. The fish dishes stand out during the evening’s seven-course programme. A cut of steamed turbot shines in the company of a crunchy garnish of julienned Granny Smith apple, salicorn, celeriac purée and a creamy beurre blanc with terse citrus. Textures and flavours cover the full gamut, complementing one another while also singing in their own right. The dish is washed down with a biodynamic Alsace riesling from Bott Geyl, whose mature fruit character interacts brilliantly with the richness of the beurre blanc. Noël’s presentations are informative and unpretentious, but never negligent. The maritime highlights of the meal also include a fried monkfish tail in a foam of Vildmose potato and drizzled with an intense ramson oil. The piquant, garlicky ramson balances the intense flavours of the crisp fried crust of the fish, as do the toast notes in the well-paired Burgundy from Leflaive. Beautiful and classic. The meat dishes and desserts round out the evening with a certain laid-back routine; precise preparations and top-shelf ingredients, but not that innovative. The sweet finale in particular, a moelleux au chocolat with chocolate sorbet and crème anglaise, was heavy on top, lacking both acidity and variation in texture.
Papli tänav is one of Pärnu’s most architecturally interesting streets. It’s quiet, with imposing residential homes, showcasing a panoply of building styles, from classic, old wooden villas to low-slung and very modern glass- and concrete building complexes. At Piparmünt, Chef Vladimir Upeniek (voted Estonia’s best chef 2012) offers food that is imminently suitable to these surroundings, based on traditional recipes, but prepared with the latest possible techniques. During the peak of summer, the restaurant and its generous outdoor terrace are usually overly crowded, resulting in dishes that don’t quite reflect the chef’s full potential, this is why it’s wise to visit off-season, when you can really experience the stillness of Papli Street and Upeniek’s true genius. Situated in the Kurgo Villa Hotel, Piparmünt, or peppermint in English, gets its herbs from the verdant hotel garden. The seasonal menu changes frequently, you might find Atlantic halibut with sunflower seeds and 12 hour-baked wild boar neck, they pair nicely with the house cocktails and mocktails on offer. There are two dining rooms, a formal one and a more casual café serving lighter fare.
Step down into Pjoltergeist on any given day and you’ll find a bustling little bar filled with everything from tattooed youngsters to suit-clad businessmen. There’s hip-hop on the stereo and staff in hooded sweatshirts or ironic printed t-shirts, serving the best wines known to humanity. This is not your average fine dining establishment. The name “Pjoltergeist” is derived from the classic Norwegian name for a drink of brandy or whiskey and soda (a “pjolter”) but wine takes centre stage here. We’re looking for something orange to drink and the friendly but busy waiter suggests a South African bottle of Testalonga Sweet Cheeks to go with our order of “zuper pakki” – a seven course set menu, which is compulsory if you’ve booked a table. The food is an eclectic mix of Icelandic, Korean, Japanese, classic European and Mexican. To start with we share a bowl of puffed pork rinds with smoky bacon mayonnaise. It’s followed by the best dish of the evening, the house classic of takoyaki, fried balls of octopus in batter, with spring onions and mayonnaise. A dish of battered cod tongues with chive mayonnaise and seaweed is crunchy, juicy and delicious. The next course is white asparagus with hollandaise and fried grasshoppers brought back from a recent trip to Mexico. The grasshoppers are crispy and nutty, but the tiny legs get stuck between our teeth and make the insect-eating experience more of a novelty than a pleasure. The service is more laid-back and the presentation less sophisticated than on earlier visits, but Pjoltergeist is still one of the best places in town for great atmosphere, exciting wines and fun food.
Deep down in the jungle of Hegdehaugsveien lies a restaurant so Thai it even has official approval from The Office of Commercial at The Royal Thai Embassy saying that it’s very Thai. They even imported a playlist of that essential lounge music that could be played in any luxury hotel in Bangkok. But jokes aside, Plah is the very essence of Thai fine dining, rooted in Norwegian produce and inspiration, and it has been going strong for thirteen years. Chef Terje Ommundsen has managed to merge the cuisines of these two countries together in a way that is incomparable to anything else. Here you can sample the great tastes of Thailand, and everything is made on the premises from the ground up using only the finest of ingredients. Choose either a large tasting menu that mixes the different styles and regions of Thailand, or a vegetarian menu that is mainly inspired by the north. “Khao griab goong” – a dish of prawn crackers and fish sauce – starts off a serving of three small starters, soon followed by poached chicken in coconut and chillies. It’s not mouth-wateringly delicious, but a great start. The wait staff is great, with a perfect comeback after a slow-and-not-so-welcoming beginning, now they are as proficient as can be, explaining all the different ingredients and the idea behind each dish, pairing it with excellent wine, mainly from the classic regions of Europe. Unfortunately, the interior is a bit passé – and we honestly have no idea why a dressed-up manikin doll is hanging in a swing over our heads, but as soon as the next dish arrives we focus again on the food rather than the décor. The flavours are authentic and not too adapted to the Nordic palate. Plah neung follows – roasted hake in sour garlic and chilli sauce – a perfectly executed dish with a balance of sourness and spiciness. Our dessert, grilled coconut and rice with pineapple and malt sugar, is the highlight of our meal. We wish we were on a beach in Koh Chang instead of in windy, cold Oslo.
Right between the ferry terminal and the heart of Tallinn, Platz, with its magnificent stone arches, is perpetually busy as it sees constant foot traffic between the two. It’s the oldest of the new Rotermann Quarter’s restaurants and it begs for some self-control as you might just get carried away ordering; the Platz burger and portions of slow cooked pork belly are huge. Another thing that requires a bit of restraint is the drinks menu, boasting a fascinating and diverse selection, don’t try mixing Estonian craft gin with ditto beer! The ambience here is usually electric, thanks to the palpable enthusiasm of celebratory guests on their way to- or from the port, heading off on vacation or coming home from one, with all of Tallinn’s temptations at their fingertips, and zero fear of getting carried away, with heaping platters of food and brimming glasses of hootch.
Valdemāra iela 121, Ainaži, Salacgrīvas nov., Ainaži
It’s right there on the border, between Latvia and Estonia, an unassuming roadside establishment that doesn’t make much noise or advertise with any greater gusto. Blink and you might miss it, but know that this is a pleasant pit stop on your way in- or out of the country. Plavas Hotel and Restaurant serves typical Latvian countryside food. Nothing fancy or overly impressive, just honest, hearty fare that is significantly better and fresher than the fast food that is otherwise found along motorways.
It is impossible to visually differentiate them, the glasses containing López de Heredia from Rioja and the one with clear pressed apple juice from Urshult. But the former is creamy and sweet to the taste, the other tart and cool – and both are equally suited to the parade of amuse-bouches. But first some healing! Everyone gets a hot stone, first burning hot and after a while delightful to hold in your hand. It works. It’s actually calming – and it makes you focus, so you can take in everything that’s about to happen at PM because it’s the details that make the experience. The bread alone comes with three spreads: a house-churned cow and goat’s milk butter, wonderful smoked whitefish rillettes and lard topped with spruce tips. Oh yes, there are a lot of logs and stones to cross over. “Eat the quail egg in one bite so you don’t spill any of it”, says the waiter thoughtfully. Yes, that’s a good idea, because you don’t want egg yolk on your shirt, nor Carelian caviar for that matter. The langoustine is one of the few ingredients that does not have its origins in Småland or Öland. With a square, smooth stone as a backdrop it lies, quickly charred and naked in one of the year’s most sacred presentations. A ball of butter-basted kale keeps its distance, while a gelée-shimmering mustard emulsion watches like the full moon over them both. The service staff are calm and pedagogical and take plenty of time to explain everything in spite of the full dining room. With the buttery zander, the white gloves come on for the truffle grating. Those who want may have another glass of pressed apple juice, this one diametrically different from the first; it is cloudy, austere and so tart that it feels bittersweet in the back of the mouth. Time for snacks! The chewy macaroon with sweet black pudding cream is really something to write home about. On the whole, the entire PM establishment with its beautiful hotel, its grand roof terrace and bar, its bistro and fine dining restaurants, its lovely bakery, and its florist, is a world of its own that you cannot wait to initiate others into. Few are those who end up in PM’s dining room by chance. From old restaurant veterans to young wine nerds, they usually come from far away and purposefully. We are surprised to learn that Smålands Gräbba, a high-octane blueberry beverage, can replace a sancerre pinot noir from Vincent Pinard because each of them plays equally well with the scoop of natural foie gras that you get to spread on brioche. Tender moose comes next (respectfully accompanied by a Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Chateau la Serre), but the king of the forest is overtaken by the next presentation: a brännvin case from which emerges a threesome of homemade schnapps. The one made of nettles and fennel is purely, wonderfully audacious. Yes, everything related to beverage making is in a class by itself here – beer, wine, liquor, juice – the alcohol content does not matter when it comes to the level of dedication. Lemon verbena lends the perfect green note to the sorbet in the apple dessert with beautiful flavours that transport you to a Småland apple orchard on a chilly morning. Four hours at the table and still it is with a kind of melancholy that we nibble at the last thin coin of chocolate and juniper. Oh, Småland! We will be back soon.
The casual dining side of well-renowned PM & Vänner is far from a scruffy little brother but a restaurant that stands strong on its own merits, and indeed, “bistro” may be an understatement. The comprehensive menu admittedly incorporates both French classics like steak minute and Småland blockbusters like three kinds of isterband sausage, but there are also considerably more refined dishes that, in terms of flavour, are like high level spin-offs from the mother ship in the room next door. One example is the delicious, gently baked char with sweet-sour pickled cauliflower, chanterelles, dill and an airy, caramelly brown butter emulsion. The meltingly tender pork belly from Olinge farm is more rustic in style but equally delicious. And, like everything served at this address, it is extremely wine-friendly. Just imagine what it’s like to have Sweden’s most knowledgeable wine geeks on the payroll. On our visit the beverages are brilliantly handled by Swedish sommelier champion John “Patjanga” Nilsson who guides us through the wine bible that makes every visiting wine enthusiast tremble with glee. The dessert, too, shoots well over the bistro target with a delicious pistachio and strawberry terrine, flanked by a small salad of orange-marinated strawberries, elderflower gelée and vanilla bavaroise, sprinkled with violets and marigolds. It is quite rare that “something for everyone” equals a culinarily interesting experience – but PM & Vänner Bistro delivers exactly that, every evening.
History has not been kind to Põhjaka Manor. From a distance, the lone building in a thicket of trees really doesn’t measure up to standards. Sadly, it doesn’t get any better up close. The house has been renovated just enough to include the bare essentials for operating a restaurant. While manors usually serve very luxurious food, Põhjaka is the exception to that rule. This kitchen prepares very humble and mostly local, country fare. But something curious happens when you eat here, right after the first course has been served, that feeling of gloom and peeling-paint-hopelessness disappears. Over the course of the past seven years, Põhjaka’s culinary ambitions have been cranked up, albeit while the building itself has remained untouched. In the summer, there’s al fresco dining, under a cozy canopy, to the sound of tweeting birds, with farm animals gamboling just beyond, and a kitchen garden a spade’s throw away. Põhjaka is no longer just a roadside attraction; the kitchen now prepares products sold in Estonian supermarkets known for championing sustainable, local food. Põhjaka Distillery makes sea-buckthorn aquavit, rowan ditto and spruce needle vodka, which you can buy on the spot. The restaurant was the first to put goat cheese on the menu, a move that was copied by many others. Several of their dishes have become legendary, such as the Baltic herring and the pâté, the pavlova and the napoleon cake. Sure, it doesn’t really look like a manor, yet it operates like a chateau, offering the same old simple food as they’ve always done, with an easy-going and sincere way of treating all their guests like royalty.
Tartu is a special Estonian city. It does not immediately open up to strangers and first-time visitors have a hard time understanding its essence. What makes Tartu special is called the spirit of Tartu by locals.
Years ago, the Tartu spirit lived in the beer restaurant that used to reside in the rooms of the current restaurant Polpo. This was a place for people to come together, drink some beer, and discuss the town affairs.
Restaurant Polpo is far more respectable than its predecessor, as well as entirely different for its interior. Nevertheless, the spirit of Tartu reveals itself on the premises from time to time. Especially when there are a lot of Tartu residents gathered here at the same time. However, town affairs are now discussed over oysters and champagne.
The pace of life in the centre of Tartu is sometimes faster, sometimes slower. Restaurant Polpo is like a reflection of the Tartu spirit. The mood here is exactly like the one present in the whole city.
This affordable lunch restaurant with its backyard entrance has held its own on Helsinki’s competitive lunch scene largely thanks to its seasonal buffet table. But the charm of the place comes from the firefighting tradition. The main dining space is a former firemen’s club with paraphernalia and photographs going back 150 years. The soup is always good, for example the tomato with a green sour cream topping. There are usually seven different inventive salads that are far from the ordinary drab cucumber and tomato set-up. A main course of chicken really tastes like it is supposed to. The atmosphere is casual with regulars often lingering at the long communal tables. There is a limited selection of beer and wine.
There is a wide range of restaurants in Copenhagen operating at altitudes just under the gourmet heavy hitters – Pony is one them. While they offer fewer elements on the plates, and the comfort and service are not quite as extravagant – the flavour is beyond reproach. We choose the changing four-course menu, dubbed “Pony Kick”, and a corresponding number of à la carte dishes to ensure a thorough exploration of the menu. The vegetarian starter is comprised of baked beetroot with fresh goat’s cheese, pickled mustard seeds and ramson capers generously sprinkled with freshly ground pepper. The salty cheese and acidic capers elegantly counter the sweetness of the tender beetroot – and had it not been for the earthy and bitter beetroot wafers, it would have been a perfectly balanced dish. The great flavours continue with thick slices of salted brill. The firm fish rests in a fiery horseradish cream, while the raw Brussels sprout leaves on top add juiciness and a touch of sweetness to the dish. The accompanying grüner veltliner from Arndorfer is an invitingly drinkable choice – as reflected by the one-litre bottle – whose palate-cleansing crispness goes particularly well with the sprouts. The wines are consistently natural wines, featuring small winemakers. A nest of Tuscan kale encircles an orange egg yolk confit, which flows nicely out into the sauce of reduced chicken stock split with parsley oil. The depth of the chicken stock is unforgettable – if Pony sold it to go, people would stand in line for hours to get their hands on it. A standout among the main courses is the flaked cod with a crystal-clear centre, served with baked, shrivelled Jerusalem artichokes and a subtle cream of cod roe reminiscent of the Swedish specialty, Kalles Kaviar. Our delight continues unimpeded throughout the evening, as we are treated to exemplary service by the team of waiters, who exhibit flexibility and a keen sense of each diner’s needs. Pony goes all-in on delicious cuisine, without digging deep into your wallet.
The room is more authentically Italian than a trattoria in Milano. That’s what you get when you use the best interior designers in Norway and the brief says, "Italian style". The wine list is naturally focused on Italy with bottles made by heroes of the non-interventionist wine world as well as more classic producers. The array of antipasti della casa varies every day; today we feast on bresaola with pine nuts and Jerusalem artichoke, salad with bread and capers, truffle tortellini and Parmesan crackers. For the main course we choose grilled boneless rib-eye served with roasted marrowbone and a good heap of butter. The food comes in vast amounts, and we seriously struggle to eat it all. The recommended skin macerated white from Friuli has a glorious orange sheen. A ravioli filled with oxtail is one of those dishes that everyone in Olso has had for lunch at least once. The fatty and gelatinised meat is perfectly tender and the deep taste of the broth makes this a dish worth returning for. The service is attentive in the beginning, but when the room fills up with guests it is harder to get the waiter’s attention. Trattoria Populare is a good place when you’re hungry for pasta, or if you just want to nibble on olives while drinking Tuscan rosé. The outdoor seating area is jammed full of people clambering for a glass of what in Norway is known as “utepils” (a beer outside) even though there is just a hint of sun peering out of the cloudy sky.
The “Love Stew” is heartwarming and seductive: a creamy egg foam surrounded by potatoes and onions shouldered by hearty dollops of Kalix bleak roe. It’s one of the tastiest things we’ve eaten at the city’s top restaurants this year. And the dish is in many ways typical of Klas Lindberg’s ambitious first effort. He is well known from competitions (Chef of the Year and Olympic Gold Medalist), but don’t expect any convoluted contest creations. Here Lindberg has sought out his inner chef – and he is apparently a sympathetic and downright uncomplicated guy. The style is mature and unpretentious with excellent ingredients and the cooking is precise. Dinner is a steady journey through culinary geography and restaurant history. The gastronomy takes no great leaps forward but cherished classics are tightened up. Many of the dishes are finalised tableside. A coarsely ground beef tartare made from dry-aged topside and tasting heavily of iron is mixed by the waiter’s nimble hands. It is simple and good along with flavourful friends in the form of cucumber and horseradish. The scallops get a quick pick-me-up in a red-hot cast iron skillet and are further enlivened by lemon, mushrooms and bottarga. And the sweet conclusion’s showpiece, Baked Alaska, gets a shower of flaming rum. Such flourishes in the dining room add as much to the experience and the taste as they do to the cosiness. A brilliant pork chop is elegantly rustic in its deliciously crunchy, breaded coat served along with sardines, potatoes, and onions in different textures and temperaments. Occasionally the aesthetics and the straightforward flavours are out of synch. The excellent chuck steak with béarnaise potatoes and smoked pearl onions is a welcome ruffling of this populist dish but it looks like a pretentiously arranged pile of leaves. Probably a vestige of all that competitive training. The setting is stylish, comfortable and well groomed – in that generic way that many modern restaurants are. The crowd is savvy and affluent. Some are dressed up, but most are smartly casual, which fits with the relaxed atmosphere. When it comes to what ends up in our glasses, sommelier Totte Steneby performs seamlessly. In a short time the wine experience here has established itself as one of the best and, in accord with the tone of the place, it’s knowledgeable but uncomplicated with a twinkle in the eye. At first glance the wine list is a string of world-renowned prestige players. It’s not cheap, but relax. The wines by the glasses are very good, and so is the whimsical selection of domestic beers. The latter works fine if you’re just there to hang in the bar. Be sure to try some of their snacks, like the tasty house-made version of pancetta and an airy duck liver mousse in bite-size format.
Listen to the murmur spilling out from the Postboxen wine bar and relax at the fine dining restaurant where every serving in the seven-course menu becomes a little adventure. We start lasciviously with seared scallops that melt in our mouths together with a lobster emulsion. Then, with a tart, fresh pumpkin from Vassmolösa paired precisely with a nutty chenin blanc, we are off on a taste journey – the Småland way. The broccoli is a surprise. It comes planed and dried paper-thin, in the form of a cream, and as a vinaigrette based on the stem, together with poached Swedish oysters, almonds, and horseradish snow. Beautiful. Sweetbreads with chicken mousseline, cream of local corn with sherry and black trumpet mushrooms together with the oxidized yet crisp white Rioja makes a sparkling combo. Chef Johannes Persson comes to the table and puts a knife in the perfect, pink, pan-fried venison from Kåremo, lying on a bed of twigs on a rustic cutting board, wilderness-style. That he is flying solo in the kitchen and yet gets everything out at exactly the right tempo to two crowded dining rooms suggests incredible control. Pure love comes out of the oven in the form of a syrup loaf based on grandmother’s recipe. It comes with lard flavoured with thyme and apple, and house-churned butter with cider-marinated mustard seeds. Served in a wooden box with four kinds of bread on straw, the bread serving is a dish in itself. The house apple juice from the juice press is like an exclusive wine. The Postgatan gang’s friendship and appetite for knowledge has led to strong gastronomic development since its inception two years ago. This is how crazy good Småland tastes!
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.