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.
In the blossoming neighborhood of Žirmunai, at the edge of Vilnius’ city center, among a bouquet of new boutiques and other entertaining temptations is Bučeris, a small butcher shop and restaurant that lures us back time and again. It was one of the first establishments to open in this part of town where the local eateries form a sort of amusement center, packed next to each other, yet, charmingly, not competing with each other. Bučeris has specialized in offering an impressive selection of meats from all over the world. Either buy some and bring it home, or choose a cut, let the deft cooks sear it to your liking, and enjoy it in the sparse dining room where the atmosphere is laidback and the wall of wine bottles add a bit of warmth. Will it be the T-bone, the ribeye or the côte de boeuf? Why not go for the “cowboy steak” and pretend for a moment that you’re Lucky Luke? Succulent, umami-laced and grassy, for sure, you’re still going to need good molars to chew this cut––it contains less fat than, for example, North American beef, its texture is much less tender than you might be used to. One thing you need to know about this grass-fed beef: it’s not always available and when it is, it runs out fast.
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.
Highly conceptual, Džiaugsmas, which means joy in Lithuanian, is cutting edge, playing with perceptions and expectations, a monochrome restaurant in black on black, on black again. Walls, ceilings, tables, chairs…everything is inky-toned, with just a tiny bit of vividness brought by moss-colored accents. Džiaugsmas it says in discreet, restrained lettering on the tealy-grey façade of the building that houses the restaurant, it used to contain offices and homes, hence the rather humdrum hallway behind its front door. Never mind that, you’re here to enjoy an ever-changing menu, dictated by availability and the seasons. If there are cod doughnuts on offer, don’t miss them. You’ve never seen such a black dish; the beer-battered cod nuggets are colored with squid ink, served out of a black pot, standing on black coals. Chic, nuanced and very tasty. These snacks are perfectly fried, their fish flavor enhanced by the airy batter. Of course not all food is black, oven-roasted beets and eel brighten the somber palette. The waiters might not be the most talkative but they do provide ample answers to each of your questions. Džiaugsmas warrants return visits to experience the 50 shades and nuances of black.
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.
Yet another one of those nondescript Vilnius canteens? The eatery on the ground floor of a residential building might have windows from floor to ceiling but it doesn’t scream “Come hither”. Not until you actually see the menu that is, and realize that it’s a top-notch place, offering simple and affordable lunch options, creamy octopus soup with rice that looks and tastes like it should cost more. Nighttime Lauro Lapas magically changes into an even more appealing dining destination. Those water glasses from lunch service have morphed into champagne flutes. The Mediterranean-flecked, à la carte menu now features ravioli with shrimps and sepia or rabbit. Lauro Lapas, bay leaf in Lithuanian, is a key ingredient in marinated mushrooms––one of this country’s most popular foods, the flavorful herb lends a fragrant aroma to a humble dish. At lunch these mushrooms look rather common, at dinner they turn into something undeniably festive. Looks can be deceiving.
One of the friendliest restaurants in Lithuania––the staff at Monai greets every guest as if they were family––is also one of the most fast paced dining experiences in the country, serving up a three course meal, bookended by an aperitif and an after dinner drink, in less than an hour. The three waiters work at a dizzying speed, appearing to constantly be in two places at the same time, darting from table to kitchen where the pace is equally frenzied. Guests come and go at a frantic rate, bringing to mind some lesser establishments that cater to fast food fiends. Don’t let them stress you, Monai deserves to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. The tuna tartar is a house specialty, uniquely flavored with herbs and accompanied by marinated radishes, the halibut is a frequently recommend main course; crispy on the outside, with a melting interior, served with zucchini, potatoes, and butter sauce. It’s very homey, yet all dishes exhibit intense flavors. Don’t miss Monai’s own strawberry jam tea, it’s straight up jam in hot water, the taste, however, stays with you until breakfast the next day.
What a difference a year makes. 365 little days. Last time we dined at Monte Pacis, it was memorable enough, the restaurant, housed in a functioning monastery complex, and left a solid, serious impression, just like a monastery should. The food was tasty, though the service was a little distant. Vowing to try it again we returned a year later to find it just as we remembered, the same monastery, with the same atmosphere. Yet when the waiter brought the menu and placed a basket of irresistibly fragrant, freshly baked bread on the table we noticed the first big change: ebullience and an eagerness to communicate with the guests. All distance gone, the waiter recommended cocktails and chatted up the drinks menu, which features a few rare monastery wines and some more familiar monastery brews; local berry wines, and craft beers. At night, the restaurant now offers a three- or nine-course surprise menu. “Surprise” meaning that the guests won’t know what is served until the food lands on the table. During the day, however, there is a prix fix menu with three- or four courses as well as a short à la carte selection. The restaurant has clearly taken a very long step forward in the past year. Perhaps even a leap! A dish modestly named Mushroom consists of boletus, chanterelle and marinated mushroom purée. You can order it as an appetizer, or you can add mushroom broth and the solid starter turns into a soup. This playful element is entertaining enough, the real leap though, is in the flavors. Bread and Carrots is an inventive dessert with a starter dough cream, carrot sorbet and foam, and apples; note that pastry chefs are not common in this country. The establishment’s previous sous chef, Rokas Vasiliauskas, has graduated to head toque, bringing about noticeable change. Monte Pacis’ beverage pairings have also bounced forward. The top-notch prosecco from Cartizze mountain grapes harmonizes perfectly with the dessert’s caramel notes. It’s presented in a goblet! If you’re lucky, the sommelier will regal you with an apple ice wine from Lithuanian wine master Gintaras Sinas. In 1968, the American athlete Robert Beamon shook the world by jumping 55 centimeters beyond the previous world record. As a restaurant, Monte Pacis has achieved something similar compared to our previous experiences here. Impressive!
The town of Kaunas is perhaps best known among sports enthusiasts as the home base of Kaunas Zalgiris, one of the world’s best basketball teams. But that doesn't mean it’s had much to offer food enthusiasts. Until now. The culinary scene has changed dramatically lately and if this trend continues Kaunas may soon be Lithuania’s Barcelona. The most prominent star on Kaunas’ gastronomic arena is a new man in town, Chef Matas Paulinas at Nüman. And yes, he’s another Noma alum. He spent many years honing his skills under René Redzepi’s watchful eye, now he’s preparing radical food, hitherto not experienced by Lithuanians. Nüman is a freshly painted exclamation mark. What strikes you first when entering Paulinas’ dining room is that the “mandatory” black color, so ubiquitous in Lithuanian restaurants, is nowhere to be seen. This place is refreshingly white, bright, and spacious. Though it’s minimalist to be sure, the bare tables are set with nothing but glasses and napkins. Open only for dinner, Nüman offers three-, six -or nine-course menus, kept secret until you are seated. To whet appetites, Paulinas offers an amuse of fried potatoes; ingenious spaghetti strips of raw potatoes, coiled into small balls, deep-fried, and covered with koji-vinegar powder. Before popping one in your mouth, you’re instructed to roll it in an accompanying dill emulsion––a very Noma:esque opener, prepared here and there around the world, by other Noma veterans. And while the dish’s pedigree cannot be denied, it’s a bit unfair to Pulinas, as his version has further developed its own character.
The menu’s first- and the last dish are the most memorable: cured scallops in grilled cucumber- and elderflower vinegar sauce; white chocolate and yoghurt ganache with marinated cucumber, plum seed cream, and black garlic. The mixed juice- and nectar pairing is a brilliant alternative to wines, using the same ingredients that are presented on the plate ensures the highest possible food-drink harmony. Dinner ends with a dramatic coffee or tea ceremony, the coffee made with a vacuum press, the tea mix created tableside with hot water poured over various fresh herbs.
You’re going to want to make this your new living room. SOMM is a wine bar where you actually feel at home, it’s where you’ll find Vilnius’ most knowledgeable sommeliers and wine experts. Although wine culture is a novel trend in this city, it’s developing fast. That said, SOMM is not only about the grape juice, it’s also most definitely about the food, great dishes that you won’t find anywhere else. Even though they aren’t complicated, they are worthy partners to the exemplary wines. Raw mackerel with crispy house bread and silky unctuous buffalo milk butter is scrumptious and pairs well with a Vermentino. The tapas-style bite is actually large enough to warrant two different pairings. Talk at SOMM quickly shifts from wines to local life, the savvy staff is particularly well informed about what’s happening in Vilnius, so not only do you get food and drink here, you also get a dose of hipster-intel and can plot your next move. Just like at your local back home.
Eat like a fisherman, in his kitchen. Well almost. Šturmų Švyturys is that rare gem of a restaurant that makes you feel like you found your way into someone’s home. When you enter the place you’ll find yourself in front of a small fish counter, yes, it’s a shop too. To the left is the kitchen, its door always open, allowing the most irresistible aromas to waft straight into the dining room on the right. A small kitchen and a room (albeit with another dining room in the basement) just like a fisherman’s abode. This is what Šturmų Švyturys is like. The food is made from what you can see at the shop counter. Impossibly fresh, and honest, just like at the countryside, sister restaurant Šturmų Švyrirt. Nobody can resist the famous fish soup here, and the smoked lamprey, neither should you.
Lithuania’s ports are dotted with simple canteens where fishermen eat upon returning from the sea. Šturmų Švyrirt, in the postcard-perfect village of Ventės Ragas, is one of them. It’s rustic. You should order the famous fish soup that doesn’t even have a recipe (it depends on the day’s catch) but comes with the added fragrance of the here-and-now and is made with skills that have been handed down from generation to generation. It’s fresh, honest and very authentic food served with a side of back roads charm, as Ventės Ragas is located far from anything else, in the Curonian Lagoon. There’s a small guesthouse nearby, we strongly recommend staying overnight. In the early morning hours, you can see how the fish goes straight from the boat and into the pot. The restaurant also has a Vilnius outpost, serving the same famous soup, but of course it tastes better here, when enjoyed harbor-side, next to drying fishing nets that add an extra layer of quaintness.
Lithuania’s most honest local flavors. Farm to fork extraordinaire. Sweet Root is an eatery where the staff and the growers are united by lifestyle. Owner-manager Sigitas Žemaitis serves up sincere stories about the origins of his food, adding much emotional flavor to the dishes. Of course his menu pays tribute to his suppliers, listing the farms by name. Chard, smoked ham and buttermilk are the beloved kitchen’s cornerstones, they conjure the hearty flavors of the countryside with astringent dairy notes, and homey smoky-earthy fragrances. Also on the menu: Simple fried chicken breast fillet served with bone broth, chicken liver and crisped chicken skin, a dish that proves chicken doesn’t have to be boring. Smoked pike is usually dull, when dressed with fermented cucumbers and gooseberries, however, it gets an acidic punch, ideally this dish should be paired with a sip of Riesling. Sweet Root is located in Užupio, across the river Neris in central Vilnius. It’s a cozy location, especially in the winter when darkness falls early and the lights from the neighboring shops and cafés twinkle invitingly. Strangely, Užupio is more crowded during the warmer seasons, which means you have it all to yourself come November-December.
It’s no big surprise that a restaurant around the corner from the Presidential Palace, across from the Cathedral of Vilnius would be suitably regal. Likewise, it’s no shocker that this establishment serves elegant cuisine, most of it European, some of it nouveau-Lithuanian. On the European side there is a duck liver terrine with fresh figs and Pedro Ximenez, a hearty lobster bouillabaisse and steamed halibut with kale and miso broth. On the inventive local side there is the piece de résistance and signature dish Treasures of Samogitia Forest; roe deer with potato dumplings, sautéed wild mushrooms, blueberry gel and Jerusalem artichoke crisps, a dish that conjures virgin woodlands and musty moss, it suggests the flavors of a walk in a dewy pine forest. The bread service is a dreamy pile of pillowy softness, probably the best bread we’ve had in a long time. Accompanied by good French butter, irresistible. Majestic Telegrafas is located in the Kempinski Hotel, the former Vilnius Telegraph House. It lends itself to grand soirées and celebrations. Preferably in the company of one of the skillful bartender’s cocktails, Apple fallen from a tree tastes exactly like that; a juicy, very ripe and tart, cold late autumn apple.
Reinventing classic Lithuanian dishes with modern techniques and presentation, Uoksas focuses on high quality local products while incorporating a sense of history and tradition, as well as a dose of Nordic esthetics. Take for instance their rye bread broth with quail egg, smoked eel and cucumber, it’s an interpretation of the typical fisherman’s tidbit of dark rye bread, a boiled egg and said smoked, slithery fish, modernized with an unexpected texture as a cold soup. Patés and purées are prepared particularly well. For many food connoisseurs, these dishes are already yesterday’s news, but the consistency of Uoksas’ preparations are precisely between purée and foam, a masterful achievement in its own right. Opt for the four- or six course tasting menu at dinner and toss in the wine pairing, it’s a culinary walk through Lithuania’s new gastronomic landscape. Or stop by for lunch and enjoy a few of the á la carte lunch-creations. Uoksas dining room has a certain school cafeteria-charm with its sparse décor and exposed brick wall, the atmosphere, however, is warm and the service attentive and friendly. The savory doughnuts with onion are a hit, and the beet granite and kohlrabi- and apple cider sorbet with brown cheese ganache and black currants is another innovative take on sweet endings.
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.