With so many destinations touted as ‘the next food capital’, Estonia's Tallinn has flown under the gourmet radar, overshadowed by its Michelin-starred New Nordic neighbours. Or possibly by misconceptions about its cuisine: isn’t it just stodgy dumplings and vodka?
Newsflash: Tallinn is not just one of the most intriguing food cities you’ll visit, it’s also extraordinarily good value. Here are some of the best food stops to include in your visit to Tallinn.
Restaurants with global influences
There’s no escaping the charm of Tallinn’s medieval Old Town. Every third building seems to revolve around food and/or drink, but if you were to judge a restaurant by its window display, expectations would veer towards very predictable, classical menus: nothing too ambitious, just solid, Old World choices.
‘The first course on your tasting menu tonight is shiso leaf tempura with salted mackerel and yuzu,’ says our ever-so-effusive server at Restaurant Ore, which is the starting point for a total food/brain recalibration. Japanese influences were definitely not part of Estonian dining predictions.
Ore, open since 2017, isn’t a Japanese restaurant either, it’s an enigma: minimalist, Nordic-like design, but with fancy lights from the Madrid Opera House. As the next course arrives with all its Peruvian influences – seabass tiradito with tiger’s milk, coriander oil and micro coriander – it becomes very clear that there is a whole lot more to the Tallinn food scene than meets the eye.
At Moon, an Estonian-Russian restaurant that’s been operating for a decade, things take another sharp twist. The decor is elegant Nordic meets slightly eccentric 1970s Russian home. Shots of organic Estonian vodka and homemade berry schnapps are encouraged at lunch, which signals stereotypically bawdy times and yet the plating and meal construction are surprisingly sophisticated Baltic interpretations of modern Russian cuisine: handmade dumplings filled with elk, Siberian beef and lamb in a porcini stock!
Tallinn Restaurant Week
Apart from having a truly innovative and evolving restaurant scene – a mash-up of far-flung global influences with the nurturing of fledgling local produce – Tallinn is excellent value for a European city break, and a downright bargain during the annual Tallinn Restaurant Week.
In a world where so many gourmet festivals and events cohabit as a lure for food tourists, it’s refreshing to learn that this one has been primarily attended by locals since its genesis in 2011. For one week in November, restaurants that are already remarkably priced for foreign tourists, offer big discounts.
There is also a strict criteria surrounding the participating venues: no more than 61, no food trucks, cafes or bars, and no restaurants open less than a year. Discounts offered must be between 25% and 50% off the usual daily à la carte menu. If this twangs your bargain radar, know that in the first hour of tickets going on sale, there are 2000 people every second on the website. Good luck.
What about fine dining?
There are no Michelin-starred restaurants in Tallinn. However, a listing in the White Guide is a lot like Michelin kudos for the Nordic countries, and Estonia has been included since 2014.
Along with Ore, which received a Masters Level ranking in 2018 on its first White Guide inclusion, was new restaurant 180⁰, which was ranked just a few points higher and opened in August 2018. German-born Matthias Diether is the chef behind 180⁰ and he has led eight other restaurants around the world to Michelin-starred status, so his Tallinn creation in Port Noblessner is one to watch.
The welcome snacks alone, taken fireside prior to a multi-course tasting menu, set the scene for the theatrically presented tasting menu to come. Start your night sampling purple smoked eel with stewed red cabbage on mustard ice cream and finish it with white chocolate, pineapple and yuzu dessert. Oh yes.
The fight for local and organic produce
The best chefs in Tallinn mention their frustration in being able to source their produce locally. ‘Most of our meat is from France,’ says Silver Saa, the owner and executive chef of Ore restaurant, ‘We have it in Estonia but the quality is not at the consistency I would like, but we hope to source locally in future.’ At 180⁰, they only use French cheese.
But it’s reassuring at Balti Jaama Turg, one of the most gentrified food markets in Tallinn, to see fresh tomatoes and lingonberries labelled ‘Eesti’ (meaning ‘from Estonia’). The abundance of locally grown rhubarb has also lent itself to some pleasing inventions, such as rhubarb sparkling wine, which is a lot more drinkable than it sounds, akin to an extremely light rosé.
At Sfäär, which is like a New Nordic/New Estonian/Italian fusion restaurant in the historical Rotermann Quarter, they serve Estonian gooseberry sparkling wine. Here you’ll also find Estonian goat cheese cream, served up with tomato-ginger chutney, cumin flat bread and fresh pesto.
But the biggest champion of local ingredients is Juur, which means ‘root’. Housed in a former factory in Ülemiste City (about a 15-minute drive from Tallinn’s Old Town), it opened in February 2017. As well as maintaining as a strong list of Estonian-made ciders and gins, they grow their own legumes, and forage for berries and mushrooms. So far, so noma, you might say. The interesting twist is that chef Kaido Metsa (who has trained at London’s Lima restaurant) is a fairly recent convert to vegetarianism. So while there are meat dishes on the menu, he’s super conscious of minimising waste and using all of the animal.
He’s also quite fond of experimental technology in the kitchen, so brace yourself for molecular gastronomy. Your starter might be salt-cured whitefish with ash, horseradish and sour cream ice cream, fennel gel and dill, pickled mushrooms and onions. Your 'Bread Dessert' will billow with liquid nitrogen smoke around the blackcurrants, flax seed crisp and ice cream made with tea from foraged Estonian chaga mushrooms.
Seriously good bread
Another culinary surprise in Tallinn is the quality of the leib (bread). The double-takes at the table when warm, home-baked loaves arrive with whipped butter lead to an addiction that requires further investigation. Muhu Pagarid is the bright-yellow mothership of the Tallinn bread world.
It has several outlets but its bakery in Telliskivi glows with its smug secret: warm, black bread. Much tastier than it sounds and an Estonian tradition dating back over 1000 years, it's a fermented rye bread that’s dense, sweet, treacly and nutty with a crispy crust. Estonians take their bread so seriously, there is even a superstition of kissing a slice if one accidentally drops it on the ground, lest bad tidings occur.
World-class cocktails & craft beer saunas
There are some sophisticated bars and speakeasies in Tallinn that could take their place alongside the world’s best. The excitingly named Whisper Sister has no obvious signage. It’s just a green door that everyone walks by. But if you look above the doorknob, the name is scrawled on a small plaque with a phone number to ring below it. Downstairs you're greeted with 1920s New York–inspired decor and some unexpected cocktails, like the ‘English Breakfast’ made with Earl Grey Marmite syrup.
If you fancy a White Truffle Negroni, get to Botaanik Bar, nominated by the Mixology Bar Awards as one of Europe’s Top 10 Best New Bars in 2019. Owner and head bartender Andres Siem has also worked at the likes of the esteemed Mr Fogg’s Tavern in London.
But for the steamiest windows head to Põhjala Tap Room. Open since December 2018, it’s a new outlet of Estonia’s first and largest craft beer producer…with its own sauna! Better yet is the Texas BBQ cooked by a chef from two-Michelin-starred Swedish restaurant Fäviken. You can take tours of the facilities, drink beautiful beer and eat the likes of cured beef brisket smoked in hickory and pecan. But no, you can’t take your food and beer in the sauna (€50 for the first hour, €30 for each hour thereafter). Which is probably wise.
Third wave coffee
Find a tech-savvy city (Estonians co-founded Skype and TransferWise, among other e-inventions) and quality coffee is usually not far behind. Swedish-inspired Fika Lieb ja Khov opened in October 2018 and is the kind of place where the flat whites come with a cute card outlining the provenance of the beans, along with enthusiastic barista chat about the raspberry and chocolate tasting notes.
One of the entrances to Sfäär restaurant is via the on-site Kokomo Coffee Roastery, which opened in March 2018, though Kokomo has been roasting in pop-ups around Tallinn since 2013. Responsible for several good coffee shops in Tallinn, Gourmet Coffee also own Juur restaurant, so you’ll get quite a production when you order a filtered coffee at the end of a meal, with the entire drip process being brought to the table, the bag of coffee beans explained and then the precious liquid poured into a large wine glass.
Pizza on the edge of town
It’s easy to dismiss pizza as an unadventurous choice when eating in a city for the first time. But somehow, Kaja Pizza Köök open since April 2017, a seemingly innocuous establishment in suburban Pelgulinn (2km northwest of the city centre) manages to symbolise everything that’s great about Tallinn’s food scene. If you know, you know.
Firstly, it’s the creation of Michelin-starred chef Andrei Lesment, a man who has worked in famous restaurants around the world, including London’s Savoy Hotel and Gordon Ramsay’s Maze. Secondly, he makes 200 pizzas each day and stops. No more. The opening hours say ‘till out of dough’, so on weekends, he might switch off his Naples custom-built wood-fired oven after just a few hours.
‘Each pizza is a piece of art,’ says Andrei, who uses a 100% sourdough base with no added yeast, slowly hand-rising it over 30 hours in handmade wooden boxes. ‘We calculated that 200 is the limit that our team can handle. I don’t want the staff to be exhausted and unhappy. Most locals know I am a Michelin-starred chef but this is not the most important thing. It’s all about high standards, honest attitude, passion and love towards what I do. I’m not afraid about having a not-so-obvious location, I was sure people would come for the perfect product.’
He’s right, and Tallinn makes absolutely no fuss over this. You won’t find it in restaurant guides, food articles, tourist brochures or Estonian promotional material. Until now. Apologies to all the locals in the queue vying to be one of the lucky 200.
Karyn travelled to Tallinn with support from Visit Estonia (www.visitestonia.com/en), staying at Hotel Telegraaf (www.telegraafhotel.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.