Three Chefs has a second name, which is probably the longest restaurant moniker in Latvia: Tam labam būs augt, meaning “The good must grow”––it says everything about the place. The three toques who run the kitchen, Mārtiņš Sirmais, Ēriks Dreibants and Artūrs Trinkuns, aim to provide “more goodness” and have become legendary over the years for their delicious ambitions. Their names are synonymous with Latvian cuisine and they’re frequently featured on television, in media, as well as in culinary competitions outside the country. Guests are always welcomed with bread presented on white parchment paper that is decorated with liquid spreads, artfully painted in seasonal colors, with contemporary flair and a very temporary nature––those tasty dips will not stay long on that paper. The menu may be confusing for first time visitors. Don’t worry, it’s purposely that way. Chef Dreibants claims he “wants to pile the whole world on every plate, but only so that the main characteristic of each ingredient is prominent”. Hence, you can enjoy dishes like cod filet, pearl barley, red king crab and citrus or Iberico pork, braised cabbage, leek and, Brussels sprouts with a mustard demi-glace sauce. And once you leave this eatery you’ll really understand the meaning of that convoluted, complicated name; the good really does grow here.
Jurmala, on the Gulf of Riga, might just be Latvia’s most unique resort town. Nowhere else can you find such an intriguing mix of architecture (wooden art nouveau villas and Soviet-era sanatoriums) and such pristine nature and sandy beaches. Even the people are happier here than anywhere else in the country. 36. Linja is a restaurant for happy people. Located directly at the edge of the sea, Jurmala, becomes beautifully deserted at the end of the season. Few guests visit the town’s other restaurants during low season, yet scoring a table at 36. Linja requires making a reservation far in advance. Everyone who goes to Jurmala ends up here. The menu is very long, featuring everything from vegetarian avocado tartare to the world’s most precious beef; Wagyu. Don’t ask the waiters for advice, just order what you wish to eat and they’ll accommodate you. The same applies to the beverage menu, it’s designed to cater to all tastes. You’ll never be bored here. Even when you dine alone, there is always something new to see and experience in this happy place.
For over 115 years, visitors have been getting first-rate delicacies along with edible eye candy in the city’s beautiful market hall. Immediately upon entering you encounter a symphony of top-notch produce. At the other end is 4 Vuodenaikaa (Four Seasons), which quickly fills with people around lunchtime. Old and young, locals and tourists, everyone wants to eat here. In the queue you can see the city’s trendsetters in their checkered shirts, with beards and skateboards. The chefs are as tattooed and on-trend as their patrons, but the food is traditional with a French orientation. The bouillabaisse is a classic, available in two sizes. The fried fish is served with Hollandaise and a delicate potato purée. Nowadays the wine is presented in an ice chest beside the register where you can choose from several different really good bottles. But the hard wooden stools do not encourage you to sit for long, so we drink our espresso standing up, before hurrying off to buy ingredients for dinner.
Imagine a kitchen garden you could raid year round to create inspiring seasonal vegetable dishes. Now you know what von Krahli Aed is up to. Its menu is fit for vegan royalty. In fact, it was one of the first restaurants in Estonia to shift to more vegetarian/vegan-friendly cuisine, and the kitchen crew does so masterfully. The starter of celeriac carpaccio is the only thing that sneaks in meat, it comes with thinly sliced, maltose-marinated duck breast but can also be served meat-free. All main courses focus on one main ingredient; The onion, with “ryesotto” and Jerusalem artichoke; The carrot, with sea buckthorn cream and beet noodles, and so on. Aed’s drink’s list is equally eco-friendly. And the milieu stands true to the restaurant’s name, “aed” is the Estonian word for garden. Also worth noting: the restaurant is housed in an avant-garde theater building, for those of you who want a side of culture with your kohlrabi.
Artful, chic and effortlessly cool, Amandus is housed in the equally tasteful, ambitious and new hotel Artagonist in Vilnius’ quaint old town. And while Amandus’ street level, à la carte dining room has its charms, the real gem here is Chef Deivydas Praspaliauskas’ tasting menu-only basement lair with vaulted ceilings and white washed walls. The multifunctional environment here is high tech, resembling a culinary- and communications studio––a nod to our social media-obsessed culture, perhaps. A large, white table dominates the space and serves as a chef’s counter where Praspaliauskas shows off his talents, both to curious diners and to a live camera as the chef appears frequently on TV and the shows are most often filmed in the restaurant. We made a curious reflection as the waiter asked us how we would like our duck filet cooked; the restaurant recommends medium rare. We found that the same “medium rare” characterizes Amandus very well in two respects. On the one hand, it’s almost got the doneness preferred by the chef, on the other, given time, it has plenty of potential to mature nicely. The nine-course menu, made with seasonal, locally sourced ingredients and hand picked “pedigree” imports, changes monthly.
It’s all in the details at Antonius, the cuisine here is a whispered study in subtle details and aromas. Small, considered accents such as flaxseeds, chervil oil, birch syrup, spruce sprout vinaigrette, cornflower and buckwheat muesli create enticing nuances and rich flavors. The plates hold few ingredients, focusing on a pair that carries the dish. Trout and avocado, lamb and Jerusalem artichoke are perfect examples of Chef Taavi Adamson’s stellar use of this unassuming cooking style. His food, made with locally sourced ingredients, from carefully vetted purveyor, matches the surroundings. The restaurant is located in the Hotel Antonius, a handsome edifice boasting a rich and storied past, once the Livonian Noblemen’s Manor House Credit Association, later a hat shop and a police station. The dining room is in the basement, affording guests the pleasure of admiring rare historical and architectural elements, impressive rib vaults among them. An affordable, seasonal prix fix, three course menu has recently been added, proving old time values can be preserved and presented in a fresh, exciting manner.
Through the panoramic windows the Helsinki night passes by but at Ateljé Finne the atmosphere is warm, welcoming and filled with heart and soul. The restaurant is located in the former studio of the sculptor Gunnar Finne and the walls are covered with his artwork. There’s history in these walls, to say the least, and it adds a lot of personality to the restaurant. The menu is anchored mainly in Finnish cuisine, but the cheese pelmenis give us a taste of Russian food heritage – pasta dumplings cooked to perfection served in a rich bullion that, together with shredded beets, has a nice, earthy sweetness. A whitefish is up next, served in a generous amount of butter. The skin of the fish has a lovely crispiness and the grilled gem salad adds a nice, bitter taste. The competent and incredibly sweet service staff know their wines, so let them come with suggestions. The experience that awaits you here is in all aspects a genuine treat.
Seven years of success have proved that distinguished Chef Marko Palovaara made the right decision when he left one of the best restaurants in Helsinki and opened a bistro of his own in a small town well outside the capital. O Mat has become popular particularly among commuters. There’s nothing posh here (the restaurant is actually situated by the parking area of a large supermarket) and the food speaks for itself. Dinner on an ordinary Wednesday night shows that their kitchen keeps up with the trends. Parsnip has become increasingly popular in Finnish restaurants of late. Here it’s made into a creamy, almost foamy soup where strips of duck leg balance some of the root vegetable sweetness. The main course is perfectly roasted zander, and it seems to be tagging along on another popular trend, namely the adding of a surprising amount of smoke to ingredients where it does not usually belong, like in the butter sauce. At this bistro they know their wines, and they recommend sauvignon blanc from New Zealand with the dessert, a crème brûlée with rose hips. It tastes new and unusual, and comes with a trendy fennel meringue.
Ten years in the business and nothing has really changed since Chedi first opened. Chefs have come and gone, but the cuisine––modern Asian––has remained the same. Occasionally, a dish has been swapped out for something new, the former sorely missed and the latter welcomed with open mouths, like the terrific steamed bao bun. Stir-fries prepared at very high temperatures (800°C) have a special, unique consistency and flavor that you cannot forget. Addictive, we’d say, partly thanks to the cooking method and the woks developed by Chef Alan Yau of Hakkasan fame. The one thing that’s been updated to mirror more contemporary tastes is the beverage list, now featuring craft tipples such as Põhjala beer and Tori-Jõesuu cider. It turns out local drinks pair very well with Asian cuisine, and the knowledgeable wait staff is happy to make recommendations.
Wild game is popular in Latvia, there’s an increasing number of eateries featuring it on their menus as more and more hunters from near and far are finding their way to our land. If you have an irresistible desire to eat wild dishes, you should definitely journey to Dikli, a minute palace in the middle of forest that serves game throughout the year, because––you guessed it––the owner, Egons Mednis, is an avid hunter. Of course, not all dishes are game-based, but we’ve never eaten anything here that hasn’t come from the nearby forest or the estate’s private pond; quail, rabbit and pike perch are just a few of the star attractions that Chef Jānis Siliņš will regal you with. Refurbishing ancient residences and transforming them into hotels and restaurants has become a way of preserving the country’s architectural- and cultural heritage, touring these treasures allows visitors to experience the country in a completely new way. Largely thanks to its restaurant, Dikli is probably the most well known of Latvia’s grand old houses. Its dining room is located in the exposed brick-cellar; a proper, white tablecloth-affair with a particularly warm,atmosphere.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a fresher meal. The fish at this rustic seaside eatery in Dirhami Port goes straight form the boats, through the kitchen and onto your plate. The ever-changing menu is dictated by what the anglers catch, and it really doesn’t matter what they pull up, as there isn’t one aquatic creature that the chefs here can’t turn into an extraordinary meal. Extraordinary is not an exaggeration here. Every Estonian loves Baltic sprat but the ones served here are nothing short of amazing; accompanied by rye bread and devoid of that bitter sprat taste so common with this Baltic fish. The flavor is elegantly sour-sweet and the texture is melt-in-your-mouth tender. Always on the menu: three types of traditionally prepared fish dishes, again rivaling anything we’ve tasted anywhere else. You can’t go wrong with the pan-fried pike perch, and for those less interested in local catches, there are plenty of non-fishy options on the menu. Chef Joel Kannimäe is one of the three legendary founders of the equally legendary Põhjaka Restaurant. Finally, consider this: the Fish Café is open year round, there are very few places serving fresh fish straight from the boat in the middle of winter.
Dublis is not one restaurant, it’s two; a lively, crowded brasserie for more casual meals and a fine-dining establishment that is constantly rated as one of the city’s best. And while their menus differ, they do share a kitchen with partial views of both dining rooms, a kitchen with a very special feature: it has no chef. Not long ago, when the head toque quit, his brigade continued to cook as if nothing had happened, they quickly realized that it was possible to work this way and make decisions collectively, as witnessed by the sign above the stoves, it reads “A team works here”. That team churns out inventive dishes and equally ingenious drinks––the silkiest chicken liver paté and tomato-apple tea. The flavor spectrum and textures make this a particularly enjoyable meal. Start the evening off with a glass of wine and a stroll through the art gallery below the restaurants, it’s sets the mood for this creative dining experience.
A half step below ground level on a leafy square in a restful neighbourhood lies Elite Restaurant. This is a happy place with a fantastical Art Deco interior that bathes you in flattering colours of orange, yellow and green. Just staring at the art is enough to give you a real lift. Families are welcome and even the littler guests are treated with deference. Whether the paintings were in lieu of bar bills or gifts from grateful patrons, it shows off the clientele that have been frequenting Elite since 1932. Tauno Palo, singer and actor, was one of these and his favourite steak is still served today. The Artist’s Menu looks more appetizing than a slab of meat with onion sauce (Tauno Palo’s favourite), and it begins with salmon and crayfish galantine with a slice of brittle, almost transparent rye toast. Trout as a main comes with a crispy skin and if it were not for the pimento, it would be quite bland. Pine nuts contribute some crunch. The crème brûlée is as it should be, nice and hard on top and creamy underneath. But the wine selection, alas, is too dull and lacks imagination. Elite is a classic and almost everyone in Finland knows this restaurant. It will always be here, it will always be frequented and the interior is absolutely worth the visit.
Helsinki is quite small and most eateries are reachable on foot. EMO is no exception, just a few steps off the lively Esplanadi. The place has a toned-down, Japanesy feel to it with vertical textile screens that do very little to stop your neighbours from hearing or seeing what you’re up to. Our waitress is friendly and down-to-earth as she hands us the impressive wine list. A glass of German riesling from Haus Klosterberg should work with the beetroot soup, she says. It’s fresh and clean as a whistle, and does wonders for the deeply flavoured soup. Goat’s cheese cream and chopped chives add to the experience. There’s a low-key sophistication about Gastrobar EMO that seems to appeal to businesspeople. The ground beef from Eastern Finncattle (Kyyttö) comes with quinoa, mushrooms and yoghurt souped up with saffron. It’s well-executed in EMO’s characteristically unpretentious style. A glass of Madiran courtesy of Alain Brumont helps things along. We finish with a lovely dessert: crumbled chocolate sponge cake with milk chocolate ice cream, passion fruit sorbet, passion fruit gelée and flaky meringue. Plus a macchiato, which – somewhat mysteriously – arrives before the dessert.
It could well be that there are too many Italian restaurants in Tallinn. Their numbers, however, don’t necessarily mean quality. Thankfully Enoteca Lucca offers the finest of just that, without making much noise or trying to attract too much attention. The chic wine shop and eatery is nestled on the ground floor of a contemporary, multi-story building, you have to know it to find it. All wines sold here are offered in the restaurant, they’re hand picked, personally imported and not available anywhere else. Best of all, you don’t have to commit to a whole bottle as a large number of them are offered by the glass, opened and preserved with a Coravin device. The predominantly Italian wine selection pairs very well with the classic, Mediterranean-tinted fare, Don’t miss the vittello tonnato if it’s on the menu, nowhere in Tallinn will you find such gastronomic stand-out of such excellent quality. If you forgot how exquisitely tasty a schnitzel can be, Enoteca Lucca’s version, fried crispy in butter, will remind you immediately. By all means, do trust the astute wine suggestions that come with each dish, though if you enjoy surprises and rarities, be sure to ask the sommelier for alternative recommendations. Enoteca Lucca is a little Italian gem that grows on you; it’s very easy to spend more time here than you originally thought you would.
A restaurant located in a building that also houses a culinary school? You know it’s going to be great. Chef Māris Astičs’ Ferma is all stylishly decked out in exquisite dark furniture, geometric wine shelves, black ceiling fans and paintings of plants on the walls. The name speaks for itself, everything is local, straight from the farm. And naturally, when the chef heads a hospitality school on the same premises, technique and execution are not going to be shabby. Latvian tomatoes, venison, herring, beef and that most Latvian heavy-hitter bukstiņputra, a real farmer’s lunch stew of barley and potatoes. That’s just the tip of the gastro-iceberg. Astičs highlights the unique character of each ingredient. Try to experiment with wine: scallops with mashed peas go beautifully with an American Riesling, its lemongrass- and passion fruit aromas are an exquisite match for this dish. And if you’re visiting in the summer, squeeze yourself onto the restaurant’s popular verandah that abuts Viesturdārzs park, it’s like having a picnic, only without the ants.
These exact words describe Ken Trahv, the chef at one of Tartu’s newest restaurants. The status quo of the city’s restaurant scene had dragged on far too long, young and angry energy was bound to hit it at some point. Now it’s here, flexing its muscles at Fii, in Hotel Sophia, next to the Lõunakeskus Shopping Center; two things that can make a food enthusiast cautious––hotel dining and shopping mall malaise. In this case, however, you might want to swallow those preconceived notions, or you’ll miss out on a stellar young and angry food extravaganza. Trahv has worked in Estonia’s best restaurants, forming his culinary style along the way. It’s interesting to observe how his previous experiences are maturing into something personal; facsimiles of dishes he cooked elsewhere are gradually becoming his very own creations. Fii’s menu offers familiar main ingredients with somewhat surprising finishing touches, such as eel with mango, Jerusalem artichoke with pumpkin hummus or lamb with edamame beans. Tartu’s new generation of choleric chefs is rapidly making up for the culinary stagnation that has hitherto ruled in the city’s kitchens; Fii is the best place to get a taste of this development. And if you don’t like it you can always go shopping instead.
There is no need to throw a coin in the wishing well that you pass on your way to the underground lair in downtown Reykjavik where “The Fish Company” is housed – not to improve your chances of having a great meal anyway. This is one of the most popular restaurants in town so rest assured they can handle a full house and still give you a singular experience. Fresh local ingredients appear in interpretations inspired by exotic kitchens from around the world. The presentations of all of the courses are outstanding – starting with appetisers served from a log and nitrogen cooling at the table. All of our taste buds are triggered. The connection to France is established through deliciously sweet and mild fried monkfish and langoustine with a foamy and elegant nutty foie gras sauce, both fresh and pickled Jerusalem artichokes, Jerusalem artichoke ice cream, and crunchy roasted hazelnuts, all embellished with watercress and parsley. One of two Icelandic starters on this world tour is “all in” on cod: a slowly cooked fillet of cod is served with cod caviar mayonnaise, chunky cod and almond crumble, smoked cod foam with sharp notes from pickled celery, and a refreshingly sour lemon and celeriac purée. The trip to Malaysia is a decorative, tasty serving of mild and buttery diced tuna with a soft, rounded mustard emulsion, restrained green chilli notes, a fresh liquorice taste from fennel, and sesame crisp. The kitchen has won our confidence, so we dare to enjoy the contribution from Canadian cuisine in the form of a very pink pan-fried duck breast with a crispy skin, tender and juicy duck leg confit with exotic apricot jam and fried wild mushrooms, egg yolk sauce and honey-glazed carrots with smoked almond and apricot granola. After such a great world tour, we cannot help but wonder if perhaps all those coins are from satisfied guests flipping one in the well on their way out.
Gaijin takes Asian food to a whole new level. Only in this context could China, Japan and Korea join forces to take us on a joy ride. Ingredients are carefully picked and pickled, the fish is of the finest quality, and all kinds of ingredients, from hamachi to daikon and wakame, are combined in mind-boggling ways. The starter is simply called “Sashimi Tasting”. It comes with hamachi, and salmon so soft and tender it nearly falls off your chopsticks. The wakame seaweed is a bit tough but subtly sweet in flavour. Daikon, a winter radish, comes thinly sliced adding some bite to the creaminess of the fish. Served with Vouvray from Marc Brédif, it works well enough but lacks punch. The Veal Hot Pot is a triumph. It’s comforting and a perfect balance of spicy and sweet, umami and meaty. As we listen to the rap music, and look around the room, the crowd makes us feel our age. This is a hipster spot and all you need to fit in is a tattoo.
Vilnius is a large city, but foreign chefs are not very common. Supposedly because people here are not willing to embrace food cultures from elsewhere, something we find hard to believe when visiting tiny Gaspar’s. One look at its patrons makes that seem like a complete myth. In Southern Europe people drink wine with lunch, but definitely not in Vilnius. Or, if they do, they are not Lithuanians. At Gaspar’s, however there are wine glasses on every table, and we cannot hear a word of anything but the local language. It’s a neighborhood restaurant, dominated by a wooden wine rack and a dark blue ceiling. Everything else is discreet and unostentatious. Yet, many things all around are strikingly different from the rest of the city’s restaurants. To start with, the food. In most cases, the ingredients are very familiar, but each dish has an exotic component that makes the otherwise familiar food unique; dorade (gilt-head bream) with bulgur salad and shrimps with cumin, for instance. Gaspars has encouraged Lithuanians to live a more cosmopolitan life and experience new, interesting flavors. A great achievement for a small restaurant.
Smart design is the first thing you think of when you enter Geiri Smart at the Canopy Hotel, another one of the many new establishments on the recently fancied-up Hverfisgata. The name is taken from a famous Iceland song, “Sirkus Geira Smart”. With a smile we are guided to our seats in a nice, warm room with sapphire-coloured chairs and banquettes. Though we are surrounded by lot of staff, it’s still cosy and relaxed and strangely not even noisy. Cocktails are currently in fashion, and they sure know how to make them here: “You Sexy Thing”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, or maybe you would like to try “Wicked Games”? It’s a good selection. You can choose from among the set menus for the whole table or order à la carte. From the “A side” options (they like their music puns here) we choose beef tataki with soy and horseradish, and smoked cod with fermented potatoes. They are both very good. A shellfish soup with scallops and shrimps is nice and warming on a cold night. Blue ling fillet with fried broccolini is super fresh when in season, and the best of the main courses we have tried here. The beef is also tasty and the tagliatelle with Havgus cheese is elegant. We try a red wine from the Canadian grape, baco noir, for the first time ever – it’s an interesting pairing from the well-educated sommelier. Both the Madagascar chocolate with blood orange and the crème fraîche ice cream are tasty desserts. Geiri Smart is a great new choice in town.
The Grillmarket has been one of the hottest places in town since it opened. The bold interior design gives this place quite a unique look and is reminiscent of an American steakhouse. The dried skin of spotted catfish is certainly something to look at on the wall. The restaurant spans two floors, the first floor and basement. On the upper floor you can watch the chefs grilling the food over an open fire. The service is very much alert and attentive. The style of cooking is rather American; though the portions are not as big as usual, which is nice. As a starter the shellfish soup is good and hot, and served with fresh dill. The grilled king crab is rather tasteless and served with seaweed from the south coast of Iceland. The main course of a hefty redfish fillet and smoked pork cheek is a nice duo served with corn and chanterelles. The skyr and liquorice with crispy meringue is really good. Overall we enjoy our visit, and the place is packed as usual on a Sunday night.
A large meat cabinet is the centre-piece in the light and elegant dining room. With meat as the star, the menu presents cuts of premium beef carefully cooked on a charcoal grill. But do not overlook the other sections of the menu! The Black Angus tri-tip is juicy with a seductive salty taste, charred by flames and served with tiptop sides: triple-fried French fries, a sharply acidic béarnaise sauce and roasted tomatoes. The salmon is paired with pickled red onions, fresh cilantro and herby dill pesto – a well-balanced dish, although served with a slightly dull chickpea salad. A plate of brutally black and grey colours is an explosion of flavours with a heavy liquorice taste and sour lemon curd – a dessert with attitude. The service is somewhat shaky and the sommelier shows us how matching wines can be done with almost no words at all. A fixed price margin of €20 on all wine bottles makes it possible to enjoy premium wines at fair prices.
You won’t find a family restaurant like this one anywhere else in Estonia. Run by Marju and Shuichi Shiraishi, the couple has managed to create a unique Japanese dining experience in an unassuming (perfectly Nippon:esque) home-turned-restaurant. The tiny house might sit off a busy street, but the dining room is as tranquil as a Kyoto teahouse, decorated with Japanese art and carvings, and tables set with origami crane chopstick holders that Marju folds every morning. The menu is ambitious, yet sincere. Shuichi’s experience cooking in various exotic locales can be sensed throughout the menu, and New Nordic influences are present here and there, like the beef marinated in Scandi-flavored miso sauce. The salty sweetness of a duck tataki, brightened with tangy citrus sauce, is beautifully paired with a glass of crisp, sparkling wine.
After a couple of years out in the cold this centrally located Mariehamn restaurant is back. And it’s a good thing, because this is the kind of place where everyone is welcomed with open arms – night-clubbing young people, families and those craving a snack, as well as gourmands. The friendly staff promptly provides us with a little mood-boosting amuse-bouche in the form of a spoon of smoked salmon with horseradish cream. Most of the old regulars wave the menu away, but the kitchen shows ambition and finesse by offering tuna tataki with fermented pointed cabbage and soy pearls, and the variation on beets is accompanied by salty roasted pine nuts and a nice, wholesome cashew nut purée instead of the usual chèvre. The portions here are huge and packed with flavour. After lobster risotto with both croquettes and fried scallops, and duck with Puy lentils and parsnip puree, we enjoy a little chocolate bite with the coffee. It’s an extra plus that they have an ambitious wine list with reasonable prices.
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.