Despite having only one evening in Talinn and arriving in a driving rainstorm, while being both sick with a flu and seasick from a turbulent ferry crossing the Bay of Finland that caused 95% of the passengers to turn blue (never, ever take the Linda Line from Helsinki to Talinn), the charm of Talinn immediately reversed my mood. Most visitors, including yours truly, only know Talinn as a quaint medieval old town that seems like a slightly less touristy, slightly larger version of a San Gimignano or Carcasonne. Yet there is much, much more to this capital city of nearly one and a half million people that was Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2011 (not to be mistaken with Helsinki being the 2012 World Capital of Design…).
Arguably the most overlooked fact about Talinn is that it is home to Skype, the online global communication giant that is the savior now for worldwide businesses, journalism, and of course, study abroad students. Silicon Valley may be the heart of online giants like Facebook and Google, but it is important to give some credit to not so little Talinn. Talinn is much, much more than old medieval bell towers, orthodox churches, candle lit taverns, and winding, narrow streets that guarantee to get you lost at least once during a visit. The Estonian National Opera happens to be one of the most impressive opera houses arguably in Europe, with a world class company to perform inside. Even the modern rock musical Spring Awakening performed in Talinn this summer. The modern city center provides a dramatic contrast to the Old Town’s historic sights (Toompea Castle, St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, St. Olaf’s Cathedral, Town Pharmacy, Town Hall…). A visit to both areas of the city allows for a full understanding of the scope of Talinn’s recent rise.
Shockingly despite the attempts of Portugal, Spain, and Greece to drive down the value of the Euro and Europe’s economy with it, Estonia recently switched to using the Euro. From the first quarter of 2012 to the second quarter, the country’s unemployment rank declined over a whole percent from 11.5% to 10.2%.
Yet, during my visit Talinn still seemed somewhat free of tourists in the heart of the summer travel season. It was a shame to dine at restaurants that could thrive in Paris or New York, with only three to four tables occupied in each. These were not off the beaten path discovery restaurants either.
Estonia joined the EU in 2004 and left Russia’s grasp in 1992. Talinn has been a city to watch since these two monumental occasions. It’s an exciting time for an exciting place. For our purposes, what really is riveting is the dining scene that certainly has absorbed much of the “New Nordic” cuisine’s energy and creativity in nearby Scandinavia, along with a few dashes of Paris’ bistro-gastronomy, and a pinch of the old Spanish molecular gastronomy.
So much about Estonia was intriguing– even its websites are “.ee,” for some reason, but that must be the best country website code around. A meal at one of the capital city’s exciting restaurants, such as Sfäär and Ö, will show that this tiny country certainly cooks with grand ambitions. Estonia even has an authoritative list of the country’s fifty best restaurants, roughly half of which are in Talinn. Restaurants across the city, from new takes on classical Estonian at Moon and Neh to more rustic concepts at Ribe and Dominic, have transformed Talinn into a destination for far more than just its Old Town. Yes, the Old Town is a joy. Really though, don’t think of Talinn at all as a town stuck in the Middle Ages. This is a fiercely innovative, proud city Talinn is the new Copenhagen, a city where you just might end up eating all day, and currents can be felt in kitchens very soon across the globe. Yes, eating in Talinn is quite the pleasure.
Top Five Dishes of Talinn
Ö: Langoustines with Green Apple Blinis, Tomato Marmalade, Basil Mayonnaise, and Pink Grapefruit
A truly magnificent dish demonstrating how a top notch chef can turn a central ingredient into something not just special, but actually mystical. Quite possibly the dish of the year front-runner already, the langoustines are gently cooked to a royally soft texture. Your choice whether to wrap them in the blinis or not, perhaps with one of the accompaniments if you so desire. Does this sound like a preparation for caviar, except with langoustines? Well, it is. These langoustines are as luxurious as Beluga caviar.
Ö: Smoked Eel with Estonian Apple Wine, Spicy Carrot, Parsnip Puree, Cream of Herbs
On the other hand, eel, one of the world’s underrated seafoods, is enhanced brilliantly by a sweet local apple wine. With the flaky texture of the eel, the pairing with parsnip puree is perfect, very quickly becoming one excellent porridge like dish.
Ö: Marzipan Poppy Seed Cake, Rhubarb Jam, Rhubarb Sorbet, and Pine Seeds
Talinn loves its marzipan, sharing the title of Marzipan Capital of the World with Lubeck, Germany (a title I created). This is superb marzipan that plays a supporting part in a terrific rhubarb based dessert. Think of the marzipan as Morgan Freeman and the rhubarb perhaps…Brad Pitt? That’s a stretch. But trust me, everything comes together beautifully here and the rhubarb sorbet reminded me of the smooth, vibrantly flavored versions at Berthillon in Paris.
Sfäär: Organic Saaremaa Beef Tartare with Spicy Tomato Sauce and Crispy Bread
You can buy Sfäär’s tomato sauce by the jar. You should. Far more robust than any other tomato sauce I’ve found, there is no shortage of sage and rosemary here. Best of all, the tomatoes are actually similar sundried tomatoes. This is a curveball steak tartare dish. Even the bread crisps are more brioche than the typical baguette. You will sop up every inch of meat and sauce with the crispy bread.
Sfäär: Smoked Duck Breast with Parsnip-Green Apple Puree, and Pumpkin Compote
An autumnal dish in the heart of July? Hey, it was freezing and pouring rain. Tender duck breast thrives with the cinnamon heavy compote and the green apple notes come fast and furious. This is a hearty dish, yet a young teenager at heart.
Concept of Talinn: Hearty but California Light
It’s no secret that the weather isn’t exactly California in this part of Europe. Menus at these “New Estonian” restaurants may lean heavily towards meat, yet those meat dishes are far from the stews to send you to food comas. Whether it’s that smoked duck breast or a most delicate fish soup consisting of a broth as pure as miso soup at Sfäär, you won’t be hungry. However, with the focus on ingredients and technique, you’ll have plenty of room for a beer or two afterwards.
Shall We Grab Coffee?
Absolutely. Sfäär made a terrific capuccino and the Three Sisters’ hotel’s lounge serves a terrific espresso, complete with an epic petit fours plate (oh my those truffles and chocolate covered oranges…). The latter is the best bang for the buck expensive espresso you’ll ever buy.’
But can we count sweets with the coffee? Best of all is the thick hot chocolate at chocolatier Anneli Viik’s boutique/cafe. The hot chocolate may not have the density or earth-shattering richness of Angelina in Paris, but that makes it slightly easier to drink. And you don’t need a spoon to drink it either, though you come close to wanting one. The truffles will no doubt steal the show however (go for coconut, marzipan, or cherry fillings).
Another terrific cafe is Maiasmokk, which happens to be the city’s oldest. The coffee isn’t too bad, the cakes tend to be dry, but marzipan frosting on the cakes makes the cafe more than worthy of a visit. The marzipan of course comes from the famed Kalev Marzipan Company, with a museum next door.
Beer, Wine, or Cocktails?
Unfortunately being under the weather my activity was limited to dining. But there are terrific cocktails I’m told to be found in Talinn, especially at the Butterfly Lounge. This is definitely beer territory, keep an eye on the country’s famed Saku beers (go for the Baltic porter, not a lager). The lounge at the Three Sisters may be the most handsome bar to enjoy any drink.
Restaurant of Talinn: Ö
This is a virtual tie between Sfäär and Ö. The former could fit right into Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Portland, Oregon, the Mission District of San Francisco…it is funky where the restaurant is really part restaurant/part food store/ part clothing store/ part wine store. The crowd is beautiful, the room just as beautiful. O.k., it can’t be hipster since the room is chic and intricately designed, not spare with exposed brick walls. On the other hand, there are bicycles hanging on the walls.
But it’s hard to garner enough superlatives for a restaurant of Ö’s caliber. I could say Ö should easily have a Michelin star. I could say the room is absolutely gorgeous, complete with soft curtains everywhere, angels hanging with the lights, and low backed banquettes that would seem at home in the lobby of a Beverly Hills hotel. Then there are the details. Ö’s warm service could teach a lesson on pacing tasting menus. The brown bread with yogurt butter may be the world’s premier bread service. You won’t stop reaching for more. The amuse bouche of a rye crisp, a shot of cucumber mint soup, and a shot of cauliflower soup, along with the the intermezzo green apple sorbet with pine (hello New Nordic cuisine!) put the evening onto one a whole higher tier. Here, rhubarb soup is paired with goat cheese and peeled almonds, smoked salmon is cured in vodka then placed atop a horseradish sauce, and lamb tartare comes with a rye granola and beetroot hummus. The only misstep was a slightly dry powan (whitefish) with adzika mayonnaise and dull baby potatoes.
This is a restaurant that deserves worldwide acclaim and a lot more than just three tables at dinner. I think what I’ll close with is that my meal at Ö was the best in Europe I enjoyed, outside of Noma. You don’t get restaurants like this to come around very often. Ten years from now when we consider how Talinn is a global gastronomic leader, Ö will get the credit for starting it all.
Symbol of Talinn: St. Olaf’s Cathedral with its magnificent panoramic view of the city
And finally from Talinn…