Riga is a fantastic city. Sure, it does not have the fairy tale views that you get in Tallinn, nor the grandeur of Helsinki. There is however an edginess to it, a carefreeness that also defines Brussels or Berlin, cities that do not concern themselves with just being pretty or postcard-perfect, but instead focus on an almost unrestricted liveliness.
So for a city that focuses on enjoyment and a Burgundian approach to life, it should not be a surprise that some of the best restaurant experiences had during our trip were enjoyed here. The winner for quality food, excellent wine and best value definitely goes to St Petrus, a restaurant located in the heart of the old city. In general I found Latvian cuisine to be quite sturdy, big portions, lots of potatoes and the type of food that would heartening in the winter but that is not always in tune with those who want to eat something a bit lighter as they still have a city to explore after lunch.
St Petrus takes a more modern approach to the traditional aspects of Latvian cuisine, banking on a trend of lightness, locally sourced ingredients and a fluent, seasonally adaptable menu. We went for the business lunch formula, which comes at only 8 euros, leaving us not only wondering how they can make a living out of this, but also with room in the budget for some nices wines.
The winelist itself was quite concise and a bit unbalanced, with some nifty references like La Croix Montjoie, Terlant or Raphael Bereche next to more conventional names like Hugel, Louis Jadot or Planeta. There is however also a Coravin selection (which is something that I would from now on encourage every restaurant to add to their offer). I myself went for the duck with lentils, which accompanied by Simonsig’s 2014 Redhill Pinotage. I am not a big fan of the variety as the default option is almost always to put it in new oak with a good toasting to top it off, rendering it too dense and powerful, but with a rustic meat like duck it goes reasonably well. Not something that I could down an entire bottle of, but great for lunch.
I was slightly jealous of the seared mackerel appearing at the other side of the table, especially as it was accompanied by Louis Michel’s 2014 Chablis Premier Cru Montmains. 2014 is a fantastic vintage for anything white in Burgundy which can easily go for decades, but can at least on a premier cru level give away something now.
I have always liked the Louis Michel range of wines, as they really show what terroir is. A Chablis producer will often use different types of barrel when vinifying premier cru or grand cru vineyards, which can be an excellent choice, but which always leaves me wondering whether it is the terroir or the élevage that defines the wine. At Louis Michel, all wines, whether it’s the petit Chablis or one of their Grand Crus, are only vinified in stainless steel as they believe that this is most suitable for terroir reflection. Unsurprisingly, the wine is quite reductive and sleek on the nose, but there is a nifty mineral touch to it that dominates the wine. Lean yes, but with a lovely and refreshing acidity, very characteristic of what I would expect quality Chablis to be, and great with the mackerel and dill.
As we are always on the clock with a one year old, desert was foregone in favour of something much better, JJ Prum’s Wehlener Sonnenuhr 2012 Auslese! This is the type of wine that you can buy with confidence year on year, as it is one of the few estates that always seems to get it right: producer identity, vineyard identity and vintage identity, which sounds easy, but is incredibly difficult to achieve in a consistent manner. There is the signature smoky, verging on the austere touch on the nose, but the palate is just a divine fruit sherbet, peach and melon, with a ginger touch in the end. I dare you to find this quality for only 9 euros a glass!
Ferma is just outside of the old town, and started out as the first culinary school in Riga under the guidance of the young chef Maris Astics. He decided to branch out with his own restaurant at the age of 29, and has adopted the farm-to-table concept, working closely with Latvian farmers, hunters and fishermen to show what excellent produce the region is capable of. His ascent to Latvian fame has been quite fast, and the White Guide has shown him some well-deserved recognition.
First up, the wine list is concise but constructed in an approachable manner, both towards styles and prices. There is quite a large selection of champagne, something which is quite common on the Riga restaurant scene, which I am told is due to the large Russian presence in the city, but I really liked that the bulk of the white wines at least came from Germany and Austria, a focus that few restaurants in Belgium would dare.
The older vintages of Molitor were just a bit too pricey, but the Schloss Gobelsburg 2015 Heiligenstein Riesling caught my eye. A couple of years ago I attended a big Austrian wine tasting in Belgium, and the wines of Gobelsburg stuck. It is an ancient estate that has seen its share of hardship throughout history, but thanks the efforts of among others Willi Brundlmayer in the nineties, it has safeguarded a stellar reputation in recent years. The Heiligenstein is one of the most significant vineyards in Kamptal and has a complex soil of sandstone, silt and volcanic rocks with the vines planted on terraces.
It is a dense, mouthwatering wine, full-bodied with almost exotic fruit, yet with a saline, lingering touch to it that gives it a bit of freshness. Perhaps a wee bit tiresome, but confident in style. It paired perfectly with one of the most perfect dishes I enjoyed during our travels, sturgeon with a shellfish foam. I never tasted sturgeon before, and I was a bit surprised by the firm structure, but the lightness of the shellfish foam gave it a wonderful touch, especially with the excellent wine pairing.
As if this wasn’t enough to keep up satisfied, the dessert was simply memorable. Again thanks to Coravin, we enjoyed Guiraud’s 2002 Sauternes in the glass, which may have played a bit too much on botrytis notes in the nose, but showed a lovely fatty marzipan note on the palate. I enjoyed the most perfect meringue finished with pistache crumble and filled with passion fruit and mango cream, which was simply divine on its own, and the girlfriend went for the different structures of honey, which was the better match for the wine, thanks to its spongy honeycomb texture.
It is a city snapshot of course, but Riga should truly be on your list of culinary destinations. Ridiculously affordable when it comes to prices for food and drinks, a vibrant restaurant scene, an enormous food market which would warrant an article of its own, and some of the best meals I enjoyed in a long time, earning itself the honor of being put again on our bucket list just for sheer awesomeness!