I travelled to Estonia in March 2017 for a work trip and was immediately curious of the Baltic nation. Most commonly known for their digital innovation (companies such as Skype and TransferWise were born out of Tallinn), Estonia proved itself to be at the beginning of a new age.
The food in Estonia is one part Nordic, one part Baltic, one part Russian and one part German. Berries like Sea Buckthorn turned into schnapps, fish, cured meats, pickles, game, sweet black rye bread soaked in molasses: it’s very much ‘farm to fork’ with close to everything being sustainably sourced from Estonia. Restaurants and chefs are opting against the use of imported ingredients and instead celebrating their heritage through native foods. Estonia has been ruled by so many nations, most prominently the Soviet Union who attempted to control their culture and heritage. As a result, you can see influences from all over Eastern Europe. But now a revival has begun: re-discovering ingredients that appear in ethnic folklore and those that hark back to their ‘Grandma’s cooking’. Interestingly, they’ve seemed to develop their own palate profile, which is a stark contrast between sweet and sour. Challenging at times but demanding of your attention.
EAT & DRINK
Black Rye Bread, Sea Buckthorn Schnapps, home cured meats and everything sourced from Estonia. They are located in an old, dilapidated German/Soviet manor that is in the heart of the countryside hidden of the Tartu Highway behind a forest. They are exactly 100km for every point of Estonia so is able to source a vast amount of ingredients. They make their own charcuterie, black bread, and schnapps, all of which you can buy in national supermarkets now.
Umb Roht, Tartu
The name means ‘weeds’ in Estonian and you can guess from the name, they do a lot of foraging. These guys are in Tartu, a student city, so a bit more experimental. I tried a great selection of craft beers, (nearly every restaurant we went to made their own), but the standout dish was a beef tartare with paprika that looked like a piece of modern art.
Leib Resto ja Aed, Old Town, Tallinn
This restaurant is within the Old Town, in the walled gardens of what used to be the Scottish Members Club (there’s a hilarious bust of Sean Connery in the garden). I only stopped here for a quick business lunch so kept it light with a cured vegetable salad, black bread, and a dessert of goat’s curd and chocolate. There’s a really cool Sommelier, Kristjan, who is also owner of Leib (and sister restaurant, Umami) who is a walking encyclopaedia of Estonian libations. This place will be stunning in the summer when the open grill is in full swing.
This place actually reminded me of Primeur, it had that same relaxed feeling you get when walking into a friend’s warm and loved kitchen. Stepping down from street level into SALT’s basement restaurant, it’s a tiny, cramped space with mismatched furniture, run by a beautiful Estonian woman who travels the world bringing back inspiration and new styles of cooking to the city. I had a great Savoy Cabbage dish; a beautiful Thai inspired steamed mussels dish in a lemongrass, coconut and ginger broth; a great selection of natural wines, Portuguese wines seem to be a big deal in Tallinn; and a very authentic ‘Grandma’s Soup’ dessert.
If you’re looking for something special or planning a big gesture, this is the place. NOA has a stunning setting looking over the bay back toward Tallinn’s Old Town. The staff are plucked from a chic Scandi fashion shoot, flawless human beings; interiors show both courage and confidence in the restaurants concept with strong earthy design elements: think wood, copper, bronze; bespoke details such as specially designed knives, your own cutlery set laid out in a beautiful teak box and raw leather place mats only reiterates how immaculate presentation is here. Sit in the Chef’s Gallery and catch a glimpse of the chefs playing with their new toy, the open fire grill. Insanely juicy dishes like the cooked beef Carpaccio – they drip wild boar fat into a metal funnel, heat it over the open fire, wait til it starts to smoke then trap the smoke over the beef which cooks gives it an intense smokey flavour – are made here. Very theatrical and very delicious. NOA offer a choice of tasting menus, either Omnivore or Herbivore, both of which are accompanied by wine and a range of fresh juices like Lime and Dill or Blood Orange and Sea Buckthorn.
If I lived in Tallinn, this would be my spot. Sfäär is a very chilled design shop with restaurant, wine shop and clothes/design store out back and DJ’s in the evenings. I had a bit of a throwback dish here: Pike Birch in panko with roasted beets and tartare that was delicious. There’s a young, hip crowd who hang out here for brunches and all that jazz. To me, this summed up the new wave of restaurants appearing – relaxed, informed, creative and open.
Wine Not?, Tallin
A great little wine shop in Tallinn that’s bringing some really interesting wines and producers to the city. There are no vineyards in Estonia but there are orchards which means Ice Cider. These are great ciders reminiscent of Normandy flavours and craft beers. Ask for Carlo, the owner of the shop, who will happily open 10 bottles for you to taste.
Tallinn - I stayed in serviced apartments, Angleterre Apartments within walking distance of the Old Town in the Rotermanni Kvartal area. However, there are a number of well-priced Airbnb’s too.
Tartu - I stayed in the Hektor Design Hostel, which was greatly located right next door to a warehouse complex that had been taken over by different bars, design stores and galleries.