Baltic Cuisine in Tallinn’s Best Restaurants

March 7, 2014 by

Europe, Food, Drink & Travel, Things to Do

It was during my first Christmas in Estonia that traditional Baltic cuisine was introduced to me in a serious way. As someone who grew up with more chocolaty associations with the holiday, I was admittedly repulsed to receive a plate of verivorst—sausages made of congealed pig blood, barley, bacon, onion, and spices—until I tried them. Accompanied with hapukapsas, (Estonian sauerkraut), a dollop of lingonberry jam, and a shot of vodka, it tasted much sweeter than expected.

Fourteen years later, much has changed in the Baltics. The smoked fish, pork, potato, mushrooms, black bread, cheese, and berries remain ever popular but are now joined by a host of newly available ingredients through globalization. With the first generation of visionary chefs coming of age, restaurant kitchens throughout the region have become laboratories for defining a new Baltic cuisine. For some, this means blending the old with the new, while others prefer to resurrect ancient recipes. Still others are focusing on a new dining aethstetic in design. Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, gathers the threads together in its many restaurants, most expertly at the following.

Neh

Neh

Neh

Neh’s spiritual home remains at Pädaste Manor, a five-star luxury resort and spa on Muhu Island, but its Tallinn branch offers plenty as well in its Baltic-island focused menu. Sourcing from Bornholm (Denmark), Åland and Öland (Sweden), and Saaremaa and Hiiumaa (Estonia), Danish-born Chef Yves Le Lay and his team prepare what I consider the best meal in the country. From flash marinated whitefish with charred cucumber and hazelnut crusted cod with sunchokes and sea buckthorn to the roasted Järveotsa quail, it’s astonishingly inventive and delicious.

The restaurant’s location among 19th-century warehouses just outside the old town is a conscious decision by the owner to attract only diners who come specifically for the restaurant rather than accidently stumbling upon it.  The low lighting, original art, stone walls add a romantic spirit as does the garden patio out front in summer.

Leib Resto ja Aed

Leib

Leib

Pursuing a similar philosophy to Neh, Leib Resto ja Aed adds both a quirky historical context, inside the former Scottish club, and perhaps the best outdoor garden in the city. Whether you sit outside under next to the medieval tower and world’s only statue of Sean Connery, or inside among the sheepskins, tartan upholstery, and wood burning fireplace, it’s the menu that takes the cake.

“Leib” means “bread” in Estonian and is emblematic of owners Kristjan Peäske and Janno Lepik’s earthy approach to cuisine. Dishes like Tiigikalda farm free-range duck with star anise marinated beetroot, roasted bone marrow with horseradish cream, and creamy tarragon trout soup are modern in form and preparation, but also hearken back to the simple, homemade meals of Estonia’s past.

Mull

Mull

Mull

Former runway model and owner of MASS modeling agency, Beatrice Fenice, creates one of Tallinn’s most memorable dining experiences at her champagne lounge and restaurant Mull. The single room, available to only groups of 8 or more during winter, paints a vibrant display of her design savvy through furniture, fixtures, and festoonery collected in her career.

However, it’s the fact that she sets the menu and does the cooking herself that attracts many guests, including Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. The menu, which changes often, offers a lighter Baltic touch, beginning with the delicious carrot, chili, and cabbage piroshkis and moving on to Pike Perch in Pineau des Charentes wine sauce. For dessert, Fenice’s Pavlova may be the best you’ll ever eat.  All are accompanied by champagne, which comes by the glass for more than a dozen labels. In summer, the medieval building’s central courtyard opens with a more flexible a la carte menu.

Olde Hansa

Olde Hansa

Olde Hansa

For some locals, Olde Hansa doesn’t inspire much love. Located in the center of the old town, it’s ground zero for tourism. Yes, there are some elements of cheesy Renaissance faires in the period costumes, illuminated menus, and clay pottery dishware, but the difference is that the three-floor building is actually medieval and looks gorgeous under the lit candelabra chandeliers.

The heraldic menu looks (and often sources) mostly to the forests and bogs which cover much of Estonia, with game meats like elk boar, and bear in large supply and given noble names like The Honourable Cook Frederic’s game sausages, Grand beef of the Mighty Knight, and Grandmerchant von Wehren’s roast. To try them all, simply order one of the Grand Feasts for the table and let ye gorging begin. Accompany with mugs of dark honey or herbed beer for true medieval bliss.

Hell Hunt

Pork Hocks in Cherry Beer Sauce

Pork Hocks in Cherry Beer Sauce

As fearsome the name sounds in English, it actually means the “gentle wolf” in Estonian and offers the ambiance to prove it. Somewhat off the beaten track in old town, the pub’s location keeps much of the clientele local (as the proprietors hope), but good spirits and convivial attitudes are always welcome whatever the origin in the large fireplace-warmed main room.

If you bring a rumbling stomach, even better. The kitchen at Hell Hunt serves some of the best pub food in town, with local smoked cheeses, Russian dumplings, salted herring, and pork hocks in cherry beer sauce. All pair well with pints of Hell Hunt’s own beer, especially the inspired pickled cucumbers with honey.

Mike Dunphy ate as a guest of the above restaurants.

All photos by Mike Dunphy, except Mull photos by Ed Labetski.

Mike Dunphy

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