The food stereotypes of the Soviet Union are long gone and in their place is a mouthwatering mix of organic produce, farm to table restaurants, and a twist of New Nordic cuisine from across the water in Scandinavia.
We set out on a gastronomic road trip to uncover some of the region’s most authentic restaurants.
The Estonian capital, Tallinn, centres on its UNESCO World Heritage Old Town, a perfect picture postcard scene of cobbled streets, fortified walls, and church towers. It’s as beautiful as Prague but without the hoards of tourists.
To get the most out of a gastronomic tour get there in the spring. The growing season is very short and so using local ingredients can pose a challenge for chefs during the winter months. But that makes the first flavours of spring all the more intense when they do finally arrive.
Chef Rene Uusmees has his restaurant Mekk on Suur-Karja street in the Old Town. Rene served our main courses — a delicate steamed fish with fresh herbs — with great excitement and pride: each plate bore two tiny new potatoes, the very first to be ready this season. No one else in the city seemed yet to have local potatoes on their menu, but Rene had his source, a farmer who’d nurtured his potato plants since the spring thaw and then rushed the earliest crop to MEKK.
Standing over our table, poised with a bottle of cold white wine in one hand, he explained the heart of his philosophy. “If you have been kidnapped and blindfolded,” he began, somewhat ominously, “and you are flown around the world, you should know when you taste your very first meal exactly where you are and what time of year it is.”
Game is under-utilised and under-appreciated in European cooking these days, but Estonia’s forests are rich in boar, deer, and birds. They roam wild, and their diet and lifestyle is completely organic.
At Restaurant Farm, the chefs have gone deep into Estonia’s forest and looted their grandmothers’ recipe for culinary inspiration and added their own quirky twist. As you enter you are greeted by a diorama of stuffed wild animals — fox and boar, wolf and hares, different species of birds. Their brethren are served up in all manner of delicious combinations and you can watch them prepare their dishes in their open kitchen.
The rich game broth is smoked, grilled venison is served with black garlic and reindeer lichen, and the game cutlets are accompanied by a ragout of chanterelle mushrooms. Each flavour is intense, but perfectly balanced within the dish so that no one taste overpowers the others.
At NOA Chef’s Hall you get to learn as you eat. Head Chef Orm Oja works at a bench, and in front of him are two bar stools. These two seats are the most sough-after seats in the city, and just one of the reasons that NOA has been repeatedly included amongst The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Talking constantly as he worked, Orm gave a fascinating stream of instructions and advice. “If you serve a nice spring or summer vegetable like asparagus, you should first dress it in pig fat,” we learned. “If you pick the leaves off chervil, you’ll be left with delicate little trees.” The menu came with pencils for note taking and by the time the meal ended there was hardly an inch of paper left to write on.
We lost count of the number of courses on the tasting menu, but a few stood for sheer culinary ingenuity. Diced scallop was coloured with squid ink, turning it from creamy white to inky black and so tricking the brain so the flavour seems more intense. Fire potatoes, crispy fish skin, fried so that it had the texture and taste of a particularly decadent prawn cracker, was presented on a bed of bleached white fish bones and graphite coloured pebbles.
The contrast in colours and shapes was striking. And then there was asparagus, buried beneath mouthwatering crumbs of bacon and the thinnest shavings of truffle.