Dining in Estonia: Tartu

Tartu is the second city of Estonia, which make it sound a lot bigger than it actually is. It is lovely for an afternoon stroll though, and when you also pay a visit to the astonishing Estonian National Museum, wonderfully integrated in an old and abandoned Raadi Airfield, two days will just fly by. It is home to the oldest university of Estonia, which has attracted numerous startups and high-tech companies in recent years, and there is quite the bustling restaurant scene.

Our first visit was to Polpo, a restaurant that is considered to be up and coming ever since it hired Ken Trahv to consult on the menu. Thrahv has been in the spotlight of Estonian cuisine since Fii, the restaurant where he is head chef, was nominated as one of the most exciting places in Estonia according to the White Guide, which is more or less the Baltic/Scandinavian version of Gault Millau. We had the restaurant all to ourselves, one of the benefits of travelling outside of the tourist season, and more than welcome with a very active daughter, so it was a nice and relaxing evening.

I can best describe the wine list as ‘correct’, which is a word that inspires dread in many winelovers. When the staff wears an apron with the huge logo of Italy’s Zonin family, expectations take a slight hit, which was only confirmed later on. The list ticks all the boxes when it comes to regions or styles, but there is little to be really excited about.

It was however a pleasant surprise to see the wines of Verus on the menu. Verus, located in Styria in the east of Slovenia, is a project started a little over ten years ago by three friends who initially met at a large coop. It is still quite rare to come across Slovenian wine in Belgium, but a couple of years ago, I attended a tasting held by a merchant who offered only Slovenian wine. It was a small selection, but the Verus Riesling somehow stuck, so I was pleased to come across it in Tartu of all places.

The 2015 Verus Riesling is pleasantly made with the idea of German Riesling in mind, playful and light, but cannot escape its origin or its vintage, with ripe and fruit-driven aromas, followed by a soft and almost mellow impression on the palate.

I am a huge fan of salsify, and when the starter is composed of different structures of this lovely root, how can I resist? I always like it best when it’s creamy, velvety in structure but still with a delicate earthy touch to it, but I have to say that the smoked and dried version was fantastic. I would have preferred a slightly less exuberant Riesling to pair with this, perhaps something with a bit more age as well, but the wine’s softness went nicely with the creamy component of the salsify.

I had hoped that the deliciousness of the starter had set the tone, but the main dish was a disappointment. The lamb shanks were untrimmed and a bit overdone, whereas the red forest fruit reduction had turned into jelly. The wine of the apron sponsor was of course unescapable, so the suggested pairing was Zonin’s Amarone Della Valpolicella 2012. Honestly, I am not a fan of Amarone, a wine that can give pleasure on the first sip, only to become too dense and tiresome on the second one. This wine was a very good example of what Amarone can be, and thus carried little interest, aside from pairing amiably with the red forest fruit, while completely blowing over the lamb.

When talking to our server afterwards, she mentioned that the consulting chef was working with half a dozen restaurants in the city, and that he can only rarely be present during the service, which goes a long way to explaining the flawed execution. Add an uninspired wine list, and you kinda get why the restaurant was almost completely empty, unbecoming of what is supposed to be one of the upcoming restaurants in Tartu.

Fortunately, our experience the next day was a lot better. I normally try to avoid restaurants in hotels, given that they tend to cater more to a crowd that looks for an easy place to eat than to people who actually like to eat, so it was with a bit of skepticism that we visited Holm.

A look at the wine list was however reassuring. An enormous selection of Champagne, which would be a bit of a running theme throughout our travels, mainly from the big houses but at reasonable prices, and an eclectic but interesting selection of still wines. Vanity projects like Whispering Angel could be found side by side with the likes of Zind-Humbrecht, Huet or Travaglini, but my attention was immediately drawn to the by-the-glass-Coravin selection. I have the impression that the Coravin is still not that loved or known by sommeliers in Belgium, which is a shame, as this is often a perfect way to acquaint yourself with some iconic wines that would otherwise be way out of a reasonable budget range, or with older vintages of wines that you love but do not necessarily want to order by the bottle.

As the girlfriend and I both ordered meagre, the Coravin was the ideal solution to pair the dish with two different wines, Carbonnieux 2010 blanc, and Sadie’s Palladius 2010. Fantastic vintages and fantastic winemakers, so expectations where there, and I can say that both wines lived up to them. The Carbonnieux was in a magnificent spot, zesty agrum with tamed oak, not quite opulent but round and with just the right smoky touch to it for a kick. Close to at its best I believe, and one of the finest white wines you can find in Bordeaux.

Palladius is Sadie’s famous ten variety blend, which has seen its share of the spotlight in recent years and has become quite difficult to source these days. Quite reductive at first, still with some restraint but revealing a smoky, mineral edge after a while. Creamy but with lots going on, honeysuckle, lime and a bit of apple, quite complex and not ready at all as balled up as it is, so definitely to retry in five years, even though it is hardly a glass you can resist right now!

Both wines went very nicely with the meagre, which in itself was just a ‘fine’ dish (although I did like the combination of the tomato sauce and the seaweed), but the Palladius gave just an extra saline touch to it that made it something a bit more special.

To finish we ordered a wonderful mousse of cloudberries with raspberry sorbet, forcing us to choose a sweet wine as well. One of goals on my neverending wine bucket list is to learn more about the wines of Austria, so why not start in Tartu of all places with Fred Loimer’s 2013 Riesling and Grüner Veltliner Beerenauslese? Right I was in my choice as the wine easily surpassed the lovely dessert, rich, verging on unctuous but with such refined fruit, mainly apricot and a bit of mandarin all coming together in an intense yet vibrant finish. I normally have a penchant for German sweet wines, but this will give a lot of those a run for their money!


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