On a continent where economic growth is close to wishful thinking for many countries, the development of the Baltics over the last decades stands out. Most of the economic activity is centered on Tallinn. Compounded with the fact that 25% of the country’s population lives here as well, it should not be a surprise that it is an exciting city to visit. The lively restaurant scene manages to combine a respectful approach of the country’s culinary heritage with a stunningly international approach towards wine and drinks.
Leib is a forerunner of modern Estonian cuisine. It is unthinkable to visit any restaurant in the country without savoring the typical and delicious black rye bread, so when a restaurant has the audacity to name itself after said bread, you know that it is going to be something special. Seasonality is extremely important when it comes to the menu, as all ingredients are sourced from within Estonia. The restaurant’s website lists a large number of their suppliers, which is a nice evocation of the farm-to-table concept.
The winelist is set up in a similar manner, with a concise but extremely well-constructed selection of family-owned estates from all over Europe. The wines are well-priced and many a restaurant owner in Belgium would break out in tears if he or she was forced to apply the same margins, but for a winelover, it is a treasure trove. Huet’s Le Haut Lieu Sec at 59, Chateau Pauqué’s Riesling 1996 at 52, Frank Cornelissen’s Contadino at 52, you would not think twice to explore some of the beauties on the list in greater detail!
As we were in the middle of exploring the city, we stuck to the selection by the glass. Markus Molitor’s entry level Haus Klosterberg 2016 Riesling was a nice starter, just a bit of sweetness to it but nicely defined by its acidity. The real treat came with Luis Pato’s Vinha Barrio 2001.
I have to admit that Portuguese wines are a bit of a blindspot, but Baga, the signature red grape of the Bairrada region, always manages to pique my interest. It is a variety that can be a bit lean and mean when underripe or treated incorrectly, but when done right, you get luscious fruit on a spine of acidity and tannins. Vinha Barrio is sourced from 60-year-old vines, and is only released after ten years. Leafy forest floor, a bit subdued yet firm, but with a lovely crunch on the plate, strawberries and freshness with the forest reappearing towards the end. A lovely wine that could easily go half a decade more on the same track.
As for the food, this is not the restaurant where you can expect a whole ‘experience’ as is sold so often these days, but where you come for great ingredients, prepared without too much huff and puff. We started with was without a doubt the best and most flavor-packed bread that we had in all of Estonia, and it becomes easy to see why they are so proud of it. The beef tartare, sourced from Hereford cattle raised in the south of Estonia was just as it should be, but what really impressed us was the braised quail, so delicate yet juicy, which is something that I often find difficult to achieve, and not a lot of restaurants get it exactly right. The added value of the sundried tomatoes accompanying it went a bit beyond me, but this is easily forgiven when considering how well the quail matched the wine.
Having no room left for dessert, we ventured into the concise selection of sweet wines, something that would become something of a running theme throughout our travels (which is coincidentally something only rarely considered in Belgium as the lack of attention to quality sweet wines is at times simply shameful). Alois Höllerer is a family estate located in Kamptal, and they produce a Grüner Veltliner Eiswein. The 2016 is a bit denser in comparison to Riesling, Eiswein, something I am more familiar with, and a bit creamier, although the acidity brings it home in the finish.
Across the table came a peculiarity: ice cider. There is a hub of cider production near Parnu, a bit further to the south, and the Roosimaa family has been producing cider since 2013. We had discovered some lovely ciders in other bars and restaurants, so having a go at the ice cider made perfect sense. The apple juice is frozen (so the apples were not picked at freezing temperatures as is the case with Eiswein), concentrating the juice and bringing out the sweetness. There is a slightly sticky note to it, but as a whole it is smooth and easy to drink, not with the complexity of Eiswein of course, but very interesting to discover, and a nice way to finish a great meal!