Whatever my expectations for Estonia, having a mind-blowing gourmet experience wasn’t on the list. Yet this is exactly what I got in Tallinn, over and over, in just three days. How did Estonia surprise my palate? Let me count the ways.
The best pork I ever had. Ever. Possibly the best entrée, period.
On my last night in Tallinn the Nice German and I went to a place called Põrgu, that serves upscale traditional Estonian fare and was recommended to me by my Tallinn tour guide. Man, was it worth the crowds and the wait! I ordered duck (smoky duck fillet, sweet potato mash, black plums, baked cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas and pomegranate sauce), which was tender and flavorful. The NG got the pork (grilled pork chops with caraway seed roast potatoes, baked tomatoes, celery root mash and beetroot sauce). The Poor German got to eat maybe half of it because OMFG it was the most amazing piece of meat – any meat – that I have ever tasted. Juicy and melt in your mouth tender and so amazingly delicious that I could not stop poaching the NG’s plate, even when I was no longer hungry. It sounds ridiculous, but if plates of this pork were given to me in endless supply, I probably would have been eaten it until I got sick… And then I would eat some more. Põrgu (um…“Hell” in Estonian) is a must for anyone visiting Tallinn – and for Friday and Saturday dinner do make a reservation.
The cherry samosas I picked up from a nondescript pastry stand just outside of the Old Town Tallinn were piping-hot, crispy on the outside and bursting with berries. They were so good that I came back the next day to get a whole bag of them for my excursion to the Kadriorg Palace. The German liked them too.
Another place recommended by the tour guide, Von Krahli Aed (“Von Krahli Gardens – the embassy of pure food”) goes for the creatively prepared, modern artisanal fare that would feel right at home in most yuppie parts of Brooklyn. It’s has plenty of seasonal options for vegetarians and carnivores alike. I really enjoyed the cocoa-crusted salmon with sour-cream ice-cream, lamb tartar with quail egg, and smoked cheese & tomato puree soup. And the presentation was simply gorgeous.
Treat of the Nobility
I tried old-school beer (served in ceramic jars), cured elk meat and berry schnapps at the Medieval-themed Olde Hansa, but the dish that left the most vivid impression was the Rose Pudding. I don’t even know how to describe this sweet and airy conviction that tasted like rose- flavored perfume. I even ate the petals!
Olde Hansa also serves bear. That’s right. BEAR.
The Nice German and I needed some supplies for our picnic, so we decided to get some sausages and shashlyk for grilling. Classic Russian and Caucasian versions of this BBQ dish involve the meat (my preference is pork followed by chicken and salmon) marinated in white wine vinegar with some onions and spices. In the good old days you had to make the marinade yourself and let the meat condition overnight; nowadays you can get the ready-to-grill shashlyk at the grocery store, and serve it 30 minutes later. The NG and I figured that if you could buy it in Russia and Germany, we would probably find it in Estonia. We were right – and then some. It seems like there’s a bit of a BBQ cult in Estonia, because we found a whole supermarket aisle devoted to grilling products and accoutrements. And not your standard array either – there were literally dozens of marinades, involving all kinds of interesting meat, spice, wine and herb combinations, some even with cherries or pineapples! I would have loved to experiment but unfortunately, save for the packages with clearly visible ingredients, there was no way to figure out what meat or flavor you were buying. All the labels were in Estonian, which is nothing like any other language – and nobody in the store spoke any English. After half an hour of rather clueless deliberations, the NG and I played it safe and bought the most normal-looking pork shashlyk. And it was delicious.
Mulgikapsad is the traditional Estonian dish – sauerkraut and barley stew with pork, served with boiled potatoes and tiny pickles. I was determined to try it after doing some pre-trip research and luckily I found it served at a small restaurant as soon as I got to Tallinn. Unfortunately the execution was a bit lacking: the dish was served lukewarm, with unnecessary dried herbs covering most of it. But in theory it is totally my kind of food – simple, savory and hearty. Also it was the first time ever that I tried barley. I think.
I have no idea what kind of berries topped this cake I had for breakfast, but it was interesting. Any guesses?
The NG and I did a bit of bar hopping on our first night in town. One place that we went to served this kind of grape cider that tasted like a mix between grape soda and Smirnoff Ice. I needed a wheat beer to wash it down, but it was fun to experiment.