Vladimir Iljin, Chef de Cuisine at Mix, is one of those rare toques who is able to create something completely new by trusting himself. His menu fuses countries and continents, but does so through a personal taste-prism that exposes a soupçon of traditional Russian cuisine. The beverage selection complements the chef’s vision better every year, providing opportunities for excellent flavor- and texture combinations. Organic beet carpaccio with goat cheese cream and cashew nuts proves that point. Mix is one of Tallinn’s most rapidly developing restaurants. Years ago, as a newcomer, it had lots of ambition yet not enough ability to deliver. By now, there’s less bravado and the cooking is more mature. Take for instance the Saaremaa style baked wild boar with juniper berry sauce, a brilliant mix of deft cuisine and innovation. The current location, in the basement of a hotel is a bit too down-to-earth for the team’s creative spirit––it’s comfortable, functional, and in its modest way, even cozy, but doesn’t add anything to the experience. The service, however, has the kind of finesse you would never expect in this seemingly modest restaurant.
People who leave Estonia to work in other European countries often complain upon returning that there are practically no restaurants in Estonia that serve traditional European cuisine prepared with care, and with basic yet excellent ingredients. Mon Ami, French for My Friend, located in Pärnu’s Frost Boutique Hotel is here to prove them wrong. The menu flaunts some of the classics of European cuisine, from quiche lorraine to moules marinières. Thursdays to Sundays this dear buddy shucks fresh oysters and serves them with champagne. Naturellement! It’s one of Pärnu’s only two eateries that indulge in that ultra-un-Estonian habit. Truth be told, you’d do good to have a little one night stand with Mon Ami, he’s best enjoyed while spending a night at the hotel, it ensures a truly unique Pärnu experience.
Mon Repos, located in a delightful old villa from 1870, is not one, but two restaurants; upstairs a chef’s table tasting menu-affair, downstairs a lively bistro where Chef Vladislav Djatšuk conjures the flavors of Kadriorg’s golden age while utilizing contemporary cooking techniques and exciting discoveries from kitchens near and far. In the summer, the restaurant offers al fresco dining at the edge of Kadriorg Park, though the environs merit a visit year round.
Nok Nok is Thai for bird, the restaurant’s name comes from the building’s owl-shaped bas-reliefs, it also indicates Chef Pensiri Pattanachaeng’s nationality, she’s proudly Thai, cooking her nation’s cuisine with gusto, taking laab, pad thai and tom kha gai to a level you won’t find anywhere else in Tallinn. The service and refined decor can compete with some of the city’s better restaurants too, yet Nok Nok is down-to-earth, reflecting the true flavors of Thailand. Of particular note are Pattanachaeng’s fish creations, like spicy fried fish salad with lemongrass and mint, offering a pungent burst of fresh chili in each crispy bite, or the steamed fish served in an aromatic chili and lime broth. Pair the spicier dishes with a glass of American riesling to balance the heat and finish the meal with the very unique warmed banana in coconut milk.
Paju Villa in Nõmme, one of Tallinn’s leafiest residential districts, is a handsome, hundred year-old house. The restaurant within its walls, however, is almost brand new and utterly contemporary Nordic-chic with a rambling set of dining rooms, catering to both large and small parties. The short but exciting menu features several dishes from the Siigur Restaurant group’s other establishments, albeit with slight variations. We especially love Paju Villa’s tomato, a trompe-l’oeil creation that looks plucked straight from the garden, but is filled with mozzarella and pesto. The drinks menu includes many small batch, local craft beverages produced exclusively for Siigur. The newest of them is Paju Villa Cider, prepared by Jaanihanso Ciderhouse, using the traditional champagne method. While the young wait staff is enthusiastic and hard-working, they’re still at the beginning of their professional careers.
Pastor has the sort of rough-and-tumble feel that we associate with Brooklyn. It used to be a primary school, to which the chairs still bear witness. It morphed into a hardware store, then a nightclub with an adjoining strip bar. The walls at Pastor surely have tales to tell, as do the friendly and garrulous staff who happen to look strikingly similar to their patrons. It’s Nikkei cooking at Pastor Drink & Dine, that fashionable fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine. We’re off to a smart start with sea bass and lime, coconut sauce, jalapeño and deep-fried lotus root. It’s not bad, although the attractive plating outshines the dish’s flavours. Most people who dine at Pastor seem to favour beer but we go for a passable Toni Jost riesling from Mittel-rhein in Germany, which suits the fish well. On a weekday night it’s relatively quiet at Pastor, but on weekends DJs move in with music that matches the brute, industrial, no-nonsense look of the place. Grilled red and yellow beets are served with a quinoa salad, mustardy mayo, crème fraîche and beet juice. A glass of Italian Blauburgunder is a fine match with the slow-cooked veal neck, presented with grilled celeriac and a tamarind sauce. Next to us sits a bearded hipster in a red t-shirt and a girl in a hoodie with the name of one of the capital’s top restaurants printed on the back. Apparently this is where restaurant people spend their hard-earned cash.
Per sé, near Riga’s Stock Exchange, is a perfect casual dining place; brick walls, unusual zig-zag flooring, comfortable sofas, and a clever layout, it all looks rather glamorous. There are big wine cabinets along the walls with a fine collection that covers all bases; a wide selection of champagne, Old World classics, and intriguing Lebanese choices. Despite the Latin name, Per sé also makes room for Latvian dishes on the Mediterranean-leaning bill of fare. The lamb tartare with poached quail egg, pickled onions, mustard and lemon, and the lightly smoked shrimps with sour cream and dill sauce on brioche are both excellent. Porcini risotto with truffle oil and Danish pike perch with asparagus and black mussels will also make your evening unforgettable.
Tartu is a special Estonian city. It does not immediately open up to strangers and first-time visitors have a hard time understanding its essence. What makes Tartu special is called the spirit of Tartu by locals.
Years ago, the Tartu spirit lived in the beer restaurant that used to reside in the rooms of the current restaurant Polpo. This was a place for people to come together, drink some beer, and discuss the town affairs.
Restaurant Polpo is far more respectable than its predecessor, as well as entirely different for its interior. Nevertheless, the spirit of Tartu reveals itself on the premises from time to time. Especially when there are a lot of Tartu residents gathered here at the same time. However, town affairs are now discussed over oysters and champagne.
The pace of life in the centre of Tartu is sometimes faster, sometimes slower. Restaurant Polpo is like a reflection of the Tartu spirit. The mood here is exactly like the one present in the whole city.
This affordable lunch restaurant with its backyard entrance has held its own on Helsinki’s competitive lunch scene largely thanks to its seasonal buffet table. But the charm of the place comes from the firefighting tradition. The main dining space is a former firemen’s club with paraphernalia and photographs going back 150 years. The soup is always good, for example the tomato with a green sour cream topping. There are usually seven different inventive salads that are far from the ordinary drab cucumber and tomato set-up. A main course of chicken really tastes like it is supposed to. The atmosphere is casual with regulars often lingering at the long communal tables. There is a limited selection of beer and wine.
You go to PULL for a full-on carnivore experience. Dry-aged T-bone, ribs, veal cheeks, smoked duck with mashed sweet potatoes or why not bear paws? Three owners, Andres Tuule, Enn Tobreluts and Hanno Kuul, have done an outstanding job offering not only meat but also a variety of other dishes: well-balanced ceviche with octopus, shrimps, sea bass, mango, cucumber, chili and avocado; interesting salads, even vegetarian courses.
Named after the country’s favorite musicians, Raimond Valgre, a dapper man who died too young in 1949, and who composed some of his most famous songs here in Pärnu, this place was designed to tug at the heartstrings of every Estonian. As a proud native it’s impossible to not be just a bit nostalgic when opening Raimond’s menu and reading the first lines of one of its namesake’s most adored songs; “Soon I will come back to you…” Interestingly, the food is not sentimental, rather, it’s forward-thinking, using classic Nordic ingredients in a refreshingly modern way; a beef tartar gets its saltiness from Baltic herring and its braggadocio from an accompanying bloody mary ketchup; butter fried pike perch flexes its muscles with burnt cauliflower, daikon and a mushroom-cauliflower broth; slow roasted pork belly with mustard-beet sauce is made luxe with truffle powder. But, just as Valgre himself experienced some difficult times, the restaurant’s complicated machinery doesn’t always deliver stability. On a good day, it immediately wins you over, on a bad one it makes you hope Valgres lyrics will come true; “Soon I will come back to you…” This is partly due to the daring local ingredients that Chef Marko Lumera chooses to use, some of which are seemingly better in theory than in practice, all of which are more progressive than anything you’ll find at other Pärnu eateries. Be sure to peruse and try the great selection of local drinks.
In the doorway we are greeted by a maître d’ of the classic school – a type that is unfortunately rare these days. He has built up an inspired and thoughtful wine cellar with a predilection for France and Italy. When it comes to the food it is unclear where Chef Markus Aremo wants to steer our senses. There’s a chance we’ll see southern European classics like risotto and ratatouille, rustic elements from home and side trips to North Africa. The champion- ship winning minced pike under a tomato salad and a crispy pastry lid is a memorable signature dish. Though what hummus is doing under an almost cold poached egg and smoked shrimp we do not know. Fortunately we can wash it down with sparkling rosé from Veneto full of refreshing strawberry flavour. It is also easy to enjoy the glass art objects on the dark grey walls, the nice jazz streaming from the speakers and the comfortable chairs that encourage you to sit until late in the evening.
With a sharp modern interior and airy exterior, Fabrik is a popular bistro any time of year. Located in the trendy neighbourhood of Kalamaja, the restaurant sits in a converted warehouse space, where you can come for a full meal or cup of coffee with a slice of cake from their impressive cake display. Like with many modern interiors, sometimes the chairs looks better than it feels. Choose a seat in the middle of the room, just to be safe. Each of the dishes play with contrasting flavours and textures. The veal carpaccio, for example, is served with delicate oyster milk, crunchy sea asparagus, and cured egg yolk shavings. The main course, a locally-caught zander fillet is served with spinach puree dotted on the plate, and sits in a shallow pool of green-flecked whey. A slice of green new cabbage is nicely charred and adds a lovely crunch and freshness to the dish. The main course doesn’t disappoint, but the interesting sounding desserts are not quite as impressive. Opt for a slice of cake instead. In addition to the inventive menu, the drinks list offers many wines by the glass, original cocktails and local craft beers.
It’s big and boisterous, and perfectly Mediterranean, transporting you directly to the crowded streets of Nice. The décor is typically bistro-chic. There’s jazz and blues oozing out the loudspeakers To get into the mood as fast as possible, start with the classic combo of oysters and champagne. There are eight varieties, from sweet, French Pèrle Blanche 2, to rich Umami 3s from the coast of Ireland. Continue with the time-honored theme: flawless beef carpaccio–– sliced thin, with a decadent helping of fois gras, plenty of Parmigiano Reggiano, truffle oil and capers––this is a prime example of a well-balanced dish. Elegant, albeit less than bright citrus notes dress up an array of ceviches, from tuna, pike perch and shrimp, to salmon and squid. The bouillabaisse is good enough to be served in the harbor of Marseilles. Fast and very responsive service, easy to like-dishes––this is what makes Riviera so successful. Keep in mind: the portions are relatively large, so don’t be greedy and over-order.
When an ice-hockey-goalie-turned-fine-dining-chef and a restaurateur of note put their heads together, they naturally came up with a workable solution. Housed in a period building right on the Market Square, Roster has a bag of tricks that fills every seat on a Sunday afternoon. Kape Aihinen, who decided early on that a career in ice hockey wasn’t going to cut it, has earned his spot as Executive Chef of Savoy Restaurant, one of the finest dining restaurants in town. He and Paul Hickman know what it takes to build a team: careful coaching and encouragement. Roster’s staff are super knowledgeable and when they’re not, they call in sommelier Olli Kolu to save the day. The devil is in Roster’s details. The interior is brassy but not tacky, and the quirky touch of an illuminated skull, also embroidered on the staffs’ tops, befuddles us for a moment. Then we think we get it – perhaps it’s another mafia allusion like their hidden Omertà lounge. Three starters arrive, each more intriguing than the last. “Caramel Chix” are chicken legs and wings meant for dipping into that black pepper cream with your fingers. Nuggets of citrussy zander with slivers of tomatillo are a little sour and a little spicy, urging that Sumarroca cava to show more of its green apple flavours. Sweet parsnips with walnuts and a creamy, umami miso yoghurt is named “Pastinaca”, which you have to be Finnish to understand. A herby, green risotto circles the meaty stroganoff and by the time the “Cake” arrives, a heady mix of sorrel sorbet, pistachios and meringues, we’re all wondering how we’re going to manage. Roster has a winning formula. It’s casual dining but with no holds barred on quality and the wine comes in glasses and carafes, a long-awaited phenomenon in Helsinki.
Rub23 is a good place to know about if you should fine yourself in the heart of northern Iceland. The Asian-inspired concept involves them rubbing hot spices into the fish or any other dish of your choosing (there’s a vegan option). We like the idea, especially on a cold night. The list of beverages is really good, especially given the restaurant's remote location. The sushi options take up a large portion of the menu. The must-try starter is the signature dish from chef and owner Einar Geirsson: sushi pizza. It’s essentially the popular and elegant fish, fresh Arctic char, served on rice with various toppings. The starter of cod and salmon ceviche with fennel and orange is nice, but the reindeer tataki with fresh apple and a hint of lime and soy blows us away. The mixed seafood platter is also a good choice. The young staff provide cheerful and decent service. Rub23 is a gem in Akureyri, perfect for spending an evening in the far north.
We sit on chipboard boxes with a gap between our backs and the window that makes it a tad uncomfortable to recline. The chairs are from schoolrooms, but this restaurant and its two siblings in other Helsinki neighbourhoods are a hit among the locals. Restaurateur and former New York Chef Richard McCormick hits the jackpot every time he opens a new one. Sandro’s target group is everyone and anyone who likes slightly spicy, Moroccan/Lebanese style food. English is the language of choice since most of the staff are foreigners from far-flung reaches of the globe who bring their nice flair to our interactions at the table. The menu is exotic and while you might think there’s a dearth of starters, the main course says it all. There it is, the pièce de résistance: slow-cooked lamb shank encircled by small portions of all kinds of dips and sides, including a little bit of cinnamon pumpkin, a dash of harissa pesto, a dollop of yoghurt, a spoonful of hummus, some slices of avocado, a helping of crunchy cauliflower tabbouleh and the crispiest sweet potato fries. The pulled duck “burgers” get washed down with fruity Australian pinot noir, the tajines come sizzling hot, and yellow saffron bread is served in chunks. This ain’t no fine dining joint. Take the day off, bring the kids and the grandparents, sit back and stuff yourself with delicious mouthfuls of unusual flavours.
The word on the street is unanimous: “fried Baltic herring and meatballs”. These are the signature dishes at Sea Horse and they have been on the menu since the days when it was little more than a seaside tavern. Nowadays, with its white napkins and tablecloths, it’s hard to imagine the drinking orgies that took place within these olive-coloured walls. Riimihärkää, Finland’s version of beef carpaccio, comes rather too thickly sliced on a bed of mushroom salad, but together with the capers and pickled red onion, the delicate taste of the beef holds its own. World-famous Napue gin from Kyrö Distillery in the middle of Finland goes down surprisingly well with the meat, leaving you with a rather pleasant tingling tongue. The cabbage rolls are doused in thick, dark beef gravy, topped with sweet lingonberries, but they are a little overwhelmed by the neighbouring side of vinegary beetroot, and turn out to be somewhat bland. A pick-me-up in the form of an organic syrah from Chile is a little spicy and does a balancing act with all that acidity. The joint is frequented by Asian tourists along with artists and rock musicians from a bygone era, now greying but still sipping their Koskenkorva (Finnish hooch) shots, while the Swedish-speaking group in the back room shouts “Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah”! Sea Horse is, without doubt, iconic.
Right next to the church and half a flight down we step into an older environment with small tables and art on the walls. The blackboard is in English, but we hear only Finnish being spoken. After we push our way onto the banquette sofa, the choice is obvious. The five-course menu kick-starts immediately with a Finnish version of ceviche made of whitefish topped with a fennel granité. So fresh! The intermediate dish of spelt porridge with porcini mushrooms is more filling than innovative, but the hay-smoked perch is one of the better fish we have eaten on the south coast – firm and nice! The friendly staff guide us safely through the wine list and the Slovenian wine served with the meal.
Chef Michael Björklund’s dream project is right next door to the tourist magnet Kastelholm Castle in the middle of the Åland outback. Smakbyn is an impressive complex comprised of a restaurant, distillery, conference facilities and a shop. Once inside the door the cathedral-like dining room almost takes our breath away, but we pull ourselves together as the extremely down-to-earth and welcoming staff show us to our table. The food is liberatingly far from the kind of dishes that gave Björklund top rankings in international competitions. It features local produce, unpretentiously cooked with love, with lots of extra yumminess on the plate. The snails are stout Ålanders, served Provencal-style with a ton of garlic butter. A browned pork consommé with pork rillettes and porcini is not for the fat-phobic, but attractively displays the pig’s delicate flavours. A pale ale from local Stallhagen works well alongside, but the apple and gooseberry pressed juice is even better, contributing much-needed acidity. Otherwise, the non-alcoholic alternatives are relatively few, which is a shame considering that most people come here by car from Mariehamn, half an hour away. Do not miss the Åland lamb if it’s on the menu! And we recommend wrapping things up with peasant-style sour cream paired with various forms of sweet and sour sea buckthorn.
Smyg used to be called Sinne and was the second location of the renowned Porvoo restaurant. Now Janne Aaltonen is running things on his own with Chef Karri Davidson. The charm of the place relies much on the back room, a three-storey-high space now decorated with greenery that they call The Garden. It’s something for other restaurants to envy. The menu relies on domestic produce, fish, game, vegetables (especially spring “primeurs”), and wild berries. The result is usually inventive and tasty. Lamb pastrami is delicious with Jerusalem artichokes prepared in two ways. But the flavour of smoke in the pheasant is a bit overpowering. The panna cotta has a hint of thyme and is accompanied by wild-tasting bilberry sorbet. In the centre of Helsinki the competition can be tough, even though at lunchtime there are enough customers to go around. In the evening Smyg has tried to attract a new clientele by dining without the lights on, as is now the trend in some cities. In the dark room guests are presented with a menu they have no say over. Pay as you like. The events have been surprisingly popular and are planned to continue come the dark season.
The best thing about Smör (meaning “butter” in Swedish) is the milieu. In this house by the riverside the cellar vaults date back to the 16th century. In April the starter was exemplary and brought the promise of spring: a crisp nettle croquette, kale pudding and deep-fried sea kale. It is easy to eat one’s greens and be happy here. The main course is fried hake, like cod from the North Sea. It is accompanied by braised pak choi, a wintery carrot, and new potatoes. Dessert is a pile of meringue and raspberry sorbet. The service on this visit is less than perfect. Our wine is brought to the table without explanation and although the restaurant is empty, we can’t seem to prevail in having them turn down the Finnish pop music playing in the background. But they must be having an off night, since Smör is beloved by the locals and tourists alike.
The crispy piece of bread is cut so finely it’s more like a chip. The plain tomato spread is anything but plain and the patatas bravas are cooked to perfection. This tiny restaurant may be laid-back but their intentions are clear: outstanding quality and superlative service. Owner and Chef Matti Romppanen moved from his Nordic restaurant in Barcelona back to Helsinki and decided from the word go that only the best would do. The space on Fredrikinkatu specialises in tapas and while the menu stays the same, daily blackboard specials provide some variation. The tartare on the regular list is fresh and lightly stuffed with chives, parsley and thyme. Iberico de Bellota ham and the aged Manchego cheeses, which come with quince jelly, are all carefully chosen. The wine selection is small but well curated from the slopes of Mount Etna to the plains of Spain – wines that add plenty of backbone to the food they accompany. If you think the next course is taking too long, read the newspaper the last one came on and remember that everything here is made with heart. Before you know it the waitress will arrive, smile broadly and describe in detail what simple delights your palate is about to experience.
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.
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.