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Connoisseur’s Guide to Top Restaurants in Riga

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Written by Aksel Ritenis

 

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With continuing interegration in the the European Union, Riga (capital of Latvia) has come a long way in terms of restaurant dining since I made my first trip here in 1994! Those were the days when, shortly after regaining their independence from the Soviet Union, the main hotels still had a “Soviet style menu”, listing perhaps 200 dishes of which only 5 were genuinely available. It was a game to eliminate them “with all sorts of excuses”, and discover what was really available! The check was written in hyrogliphics too difficult to decipher with an extra 30% added in for the “soviet school waiter” hoping to rip you off and the “soviet blat system” where you needed to bribe the waiter to ensure a table reservation, had only just ended. Needless to say the food was very basic and wine culture was non-existent!

Today all has changed, and there are some great restaurants to explore. Any review of top restaurants in Latvia used to start with Martins Ritins of Vincents but there are now some talented “new boy on the block” who are now of interest,… doing some original and creative things.

The prestige end of the contemporary restaurant scene, was dominated by Martins Ritins,but whilst Vincents enjoyed the “Celebrity cache”, and has catered for a long list of European Union Political Leaders(on fat expense accounts) and celebrities such as Elton John, Prince Charles, the Queen etc.,…anyone with a more moderate budget would have to think twice about going to Vincents,.. including some banker friends and real estate business aquaintances,who are even more careful with their “hard earned readies” in the GFC!

Martins legacy is undoubted,..he has taught a generation of chefs and played a dominant role in introducing modern ecclectic gastronomy, and educating the Latvian public. His restaurant continues to attract “serious foodies”, European diplomats and “nouveau riche” wishing to sample some genuinely exquisite delicacies such as truffles, Foie Gras and locally grown Caviar.

His current offering of of “Aged Beef ” Wagyu, Simmentahl and Charolet “follows in the trend” set by the likes of Wolfgang Puck at C.U.T. in London,and others.In fact Martins clearly likes to “follow the trends” in other more cosmopolitan cities, and his replications are solid,.. but lacking in originality and “rather expensive to boot”,..considering the lower overhead cost in Latvia as opposed to say London.

It seems the “Latvian way” is to copy and mimick trends and food styles from abroad!,…but wait,…perhaps there is some hope of creativity and originality yet?

In any tour of Top Riga restaurants Biblioteka No 1. is a good place to start. In terms of architectural style and atmosphere, it is impressive. Located on a park, it boasts a superb terrace. The interior is ultra modern with coloured lighting that keeps changing, modern background music and comfy furniture. The restaurant is centrally located in the Vērmanes dārzs (Vērmanes Park) and surrounded by the bustling streets of the city.

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It is clear that no expense has been spared in terms of creating an inviting interior atmosphere, and a state of the art kitchen presumably in the hope that gastronomic excellence will follow. As the chef here is one of Martin’s Ritin’s top protégés, Maris Jansons, you can expect the best! In term of approach, Maris seeks to present diners with modern works of culinary art and the dishes are impressive for their avante-garde presentation and the range of flavours. Hemaintains a close relationship with many of Latvia’s small-scale organic farmers, and purchases ingredients for dishes on the menu, direct in line with current “provenance dictates.” This means using only the best and freshest seasonal products, which means that the menu changes frequently in accordance with the fruits, vegetables, berries and mushrooms that are in season at any particular moment. Naturally he is forced to use imported seafood, Olive oil ,truffles, Foie Gras etc. As well as experimenting with current influences involving the modern ecclectic kitchen, he is constantly in search of new gastronomic experiences, new tastes and new sensations. Perhaps similar to the trends in Scandinavia or the famous “Noma Restaurant” in Denmark.

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The main contemporary Latvian Cuisine style dishes that I sampled were pickled Baltic herring with horseradish cream, pickled beets, potatoes, and carrot and a dish of local goat cheese with asparagus, wine basil sorbet, baked yellow beet, minispinach, shortcrust pastry crumb. The herring had a subtlety of flavour and seemed as almost raw fish with some extras on the side like “slivers of new carrots and potatoes acting as a foil” for the herring. Apparently the secret in preparation is that the herring is lightly treated in an apple vinegar, and was quite unique in its flavour and texture. The local goat cheese with the basil sorbet was to die for, delicate yet flavoursome and I made a mental note to recommend this dish to friends visiting from London.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Maris has a “deft touch” also with the crème brulee a house special for which he gets frequent mentions. From the maincourse dishes, I was impressed with the Saddle of stuffed Rabbit Mushroom duxelle, carrot pure, veal stock sauce and from the modern or ecclectic school of cooking the Duck breast truffle mashed potatoes,,nectarine and veal stock is impressive. Importantly both these dishes were priced at around the 10 Ls. mark which by European standards is quite cheap.

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However you should expect to pay extra for additions, such as the mixed green salad with olive oil or mashed potatoes with truffle oil.

The menu is interesting and offers lots of options without being too long and complicated. There are lots of local ingredients and seasonal dishes. The wines are mainly from Italy and of good quality ,…..and the Sommelier Janis Gailis is professional and knowledgeable about the Italian wines and regions that they offer though in common with many other sommeliers these days they have a tendency to talk you up.

Incidentally if you want to indulge in the luxury foods such as duck Foie Gras or game such as Venison, then you can sample them here for amore reasonable price then Vincents!

For any Australian ,(who is accustomed to consuming some of the best and freshest seafood in the world or over-indulging at Barcelona market La Boqueria) it is difficult to find the real thing elsewhere,.. but whilst in Riga for the summer I was quite elated to find a Riga restaurant that offers great seafood and a Mediterranean style kitchen to boot. The restaurant is called Riviera, and I am a big fan!

Restorans Riviera really does not aspire to be a “haute cuisine” restaurant in the sense that Vincents does, but nonetheless they do a fabulous job of providing the diner with a fantastic and comfortable, non stuffy and relaxed atmosphere. Here they have style,.. but no pretences,.. just fresh Seafood, simply prepared, excellent grilled meats and some classic French style dishes

In short an excellent Mediterranean kitchen and wine list.

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As they say in Latvian “Kas var but labaks par to!”English translation “What can be better then that!”

Given its name, it comes as no surprise that this delightful restaurant has a modern take on French Provençal interior design with hung ceramic plates here and there, white porcelain chandeliers, simple smooth stone mosaics on the walls and lots of wine bottles encased in glass. The atmosphere is relaxed and you feel like you are relaxing in a Riviera Beachhouse near the sea shore except that in fact it is located adjacent to the beautiful and rather posh Alberta St. full of Jugendstil architecture and close to the diplomatic arrondisement of Riga.

It is both chic and Parisienne in style. The big windows facing onto the pavement are also perfect for people watching, a fact that isn’t lost on the cosmopolitan Russian businessmen and fashionable ladies who lunch at this “rather chic: yet relaxed place.

The stylish motor vehicles parked in the street attest to the gentrification and Europeanization of this quarter and the Baltic Capital in general,in terms of travel, fashion, and naturally wine and food!

Many of the dishes are cooked over a wood-fired grill, like the grilled fish dorado, or the steaks and imported lamb. Other classics like Chateaubriand served for two make the choices interesting and they do a daily menu and business lunch special. Fresh baked bread and table water are available free of charge.

Many locals in the know find it exciting to experience Fresh oysters (imported from Normany or Bordeaux) and other Mediteranean style seafoods at very reasonable prices. I applaud the head chef, Janis Sokolovkis and his Partner Eduards Jakusevskis, (the sommelier), for their determination to provide Rigans and visitors alike with a memorable dining experience!

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They are the “Young Turks” a new generation of Restaurateurs seeking culinary excellence and keenly aware of European dining trends and style. They have a “difficult to surpass” venue and relaxed Riviera type atmosphere and fresh seafood at competitive prices, so it is little wonder that the restaurant is invariably full.So please book ahead ,..is my advice.

The rather perfect and extensive menu is explained by the commercial advantage of “trading in volume”. If you enjoy solid reservations and run a busy restaurant with a large customer base of happy and contended regulars “who recognize value for money (in comparison to the high priced ,prestigious and pretentious model) then you can reduce your margins and work on volume and the diners kee on coming back! “The proof is in the eating of the pudding.”

“Every thursday” they ship in the fresh oysters from France,.. and according to anecdotal evidence ,it is not unheard of for the sophisticated Russian “femme fatales” to consume up to 50 oysters per head,.. all accompanied with excellent wines and champagnes, (and not Vodka as it once might have been.) Perhaps they know that oysters are an aphrodisiac!

Here, of an evening, you will need to book in advance in order not to be disappointed.

On one of my recent visits I was surprised by the great salads. I had a fantastic prawn salad with mango and avocadoand consider the prawns were of pristine quality,.. and also sampled some excellent Belgian sourced mussels in various sauces. If you get a chance, try their fantastic Boullaibaise! The wood fired grill is great for meat or seafood and imparts the necessary flavor into both local and imported fish or cuts of meat e.g. French lamb or duck!

They pay attention to detail,..and are masters of provenance,..sourcing the best foodstuffs and, like the other restaurants in this review, they source local produce such as berries, mushrooms, fruit and vegetables and game meats on a seasonal basis, so the menu reflects this accordingly.

On a recent visit (whilst playing the role of food Inspector!?) I established that the Black Angus beef comes from USA, the oysters from Bordeaux and Normandy, the duck breast from France, the prawns from a German managed prawn farm in Thailand, and the mussels from Belgium, the wild turbot comes from the Atlantic…and so on and so forth!

 

The wine list is very impressive and a good list of excellent wines from top traditional producers from Europe and the New World for the true connoisseur! You can drink a Gosset Exellence Brut demi Bouteille for Ls. 24.00, or the full bottle of the Gossett Grande Reserve for Ls50 – good value in my book. On the white wine front You can order a P.Bouchard “Montmains” Chablis 1 er Cru for the equivalent of less then 40 pounds sterling. As for the reds they have some excellent Bordeaux wines such as 1995 Chateau Leoville Barton for a reasonable price. They also offering some good wines by the glass, and have a good range of demi-bouteilles. On my last visit just before this article went to press, I sat by the wine cabinet and spotted some of my old favourites. The Margaret River Cape Mentelle, the SemSav Blanc and the Cabernet, the Torres Milmanda, which I once tasted in the presence of the great Miguel Torres himself at Penedes and the Cloudy Bay NZ Sauvignon Blanc and the Hugel and Fils – “dry as a bone” – Alsace Riesling and the Ramon Bilbao Rioja Reserve which I shared with Jose, the best Spanish wine importer in Sydney, during the summer on his Spanish wine and Tapas Tour.

Being in Restorans Riviera with this fine Mediterranean cuisine and great wines brought back a flood of happy memories and associations, so many great wines, so many great people, and so little time, so its harly surprising that I should recommend this as a top dining experience in Riga!

Heading for the Old Town where the Restaurant Neiburgs is popular with both visitors and locals who enjoy a good dinner out. The Restaurant in the Neiburgs Hotel is located in the very heart of the Old Town of Riga, housed in a listed “lovingly restorered” Art Nouveau building in a quiet and picturesque little street, just off the Dome Cathedral is worth serious consideration.

It is a five-minute walk from the Opera, (which has some performances of Tosca scheduled for December, (see www.opera.lv) and a number of Riga concert halls and museums, not to mention the bars and nightlife which may or may not be your cup of tea and the boutique shopping centre Galerija.

The Hotel incorporates a combination of heritage and contemporary design. It offers spacious and light rooms with high ceilings and beautiful parquet floors and stylish apartments with comfortable bathrooms, fabulous views of the Old Town’s rooftops and spires or views across the River Daugava. It’s ideal for a weekend stay and gives you the opportunity to visit the restaurants included in this Review, as well as dining at the Restaurant Neiburgs.

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The restaurant’s success is based on the combination of historical and stylish elements in the restaurant’s decor and menu. The interior is airy, filled with lots of light; the fare is a fusion of contemporary trends and tradition for a reasonable price and the mood is set by soft background music. The restaurant offers both traditional Latvian flavours using seasonal local ingredients and a modern eclectic cuisine is also on offer. For authentic local cuisine You can sample Baltic herring, pearl barley, chicken liver, rhubarb, wild mushrooms, pumpkin, beetroot, cottage cheese – products well familiar in the Baltic region for centuries, and readily available in the Latvian countryside

From the modern eclectic kitchen one can choose from a variety of dishes that may be described as comfort food for hotel guests or local expats and during the summer whilst dining al Frescoe on the terrace, I sampled such things as the excellent caesar salad which comes with such additions as grilled chicken breast or tiger prawns or bacon with an average cost of Ls6.50 to Ls8.00. They also have a good choice of pastas, which are very reasonably priced starting with pasta casarechia with chicken breast, champignons, tomatoes and cream sauce costing less then Ls5.00!

On a more serious gastronomic footing, they have just introduced their new winter menu and I recently tried several of the new dishes. The sea bass fillet fried in clarified butter, served with pearl barley tabouleh, carrot mash and coconut and ginger sauce Ls 8.60 accompanied by a German Riesling was excellent, but of particular interest to me was the prospect of trying some of the local game dishes for which the restaurant has a well-deserved reputation, amongst German and Scandinavian tourists in particular! I might add that the Latvian game dishes, can be sampled for a fraction of the price charged in western Europe or the Scandinavian countries. So you can indulge yourself with the oven-roasted venison chop served with carrot mash, Parmesan croquettes, sea-buckthorn and apple jam and blackcurrant and Black Balsam sauce for less then 18 Lats!

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On a recent visit I was also impressed by the rack of lamb but you can also have poultry such as oven-roasted corn-fed chicken breast with basil orzotto (pearl barley risotto), oven-roasted spaghetti squash and blue cheese sauce for around 8 lats! Desserts can also pleasantly surprise. Try the warm pear pie with fig grilled in grape leaf, Parmesan and tarragon ice-cream and pear and mustard seed salsa, absolutely delicious!

The service is very attentive and professional,.. and I might add they have an excellent wine list compiled by the “Jancis Robinson of Latvia” Valentine Grandane (who co-incidentally co-authored the latest edition of my own Latvian language wine book ”Vins”) So You can sample a top 2011 Marco Felluga Collio Pinot Grigio or a delicious red Rhone valley wine 2007 Crozes-Hermitage E.Guigal, for around Ls25.00. On the other hand if you wish to sample something truly exquisite with the game, which is my recommendation, You can opt for the 2000 Chateau Alter Ego de Palmer, Margaux for less then 80 Lats which compared to London or other European capitals really is a bit of a steal!

Then we have a classic style Italian restaurant in Rossini, again without any lofty gastronomic pretensions, but good, authentic “Cucina Italiana”. I have tried many of the dishes on the menu including seafood such as Salmon Tartare and grilled salmon. Any seafood pasta is good and the antipasto and breads baked in Casa are excellent. The salads are always good too.

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On dining at Rossini Restaurant Riga restaurant in Riga recently I was pleased to discover that the composer was inspired this restaurants name and style! Funny how one overlooks the minor details! As I have dined here previously on numerous occasions but have always been too busy wolfing down the delicious Pizza Marina, guzzling a chilled Falanghina or Greco di Tufo, or the red Taurasi (they have excellent Campania, Sicilian, and Tuscany wines which won’t break the bank) and exchanging the latest news or political gossip with business colleagues. In fact the restaurant management import their own wines and will showcase them in the soon to open Amarone Restaurant and wine bar, which is housed in one of the best buildings in the diplomatic district of Riga opposite the Congress Hall.

Restaurant Rossini is named after the great Composer of the same name, Gioaccino Rossini.(1792 – 1868) who was a man with a passion for life, music and wait for it, food! The secret of the Rossini style lies in its vivacity, melodies as well as the art of orchestration. Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), based on the play by Beaumarchais, is the best known and the most loved of his comic works, admired by Beethoven and Verdi. With its elegant melodies, wit and refinement it is considered to be the greatest of all Italian comic operas. But music was evidently not his only passion. As he is said once to have commented, “I know of no more admirable occupation than eating. Appetite is for the stomach what love is for the heart. The stomach is the conductor, who rules the grand orchestra of our passion. The bassoon or the piccolo, grumbling its discontent or shrilling its longing, personify the empty stomach for me! Eating, loving, singing and digesting are, in truth, the four acts of the comic opera known as life.”

Now as regards the restaurant,, it too has stood the test of time. The cosy, rustic and convivial Italianesque style and atmosphere, the copybook classic Cucina Italiana menu, containing Italian classics without being “too la de da” and the fully booked tables “make the game pretty clear from the outset,” a well run and successful restaurant! A winning formula of good authentic Italian food at good prices.

On my last visit I sampled the Ruccola Salad with Grilled Zucchini rolls stuffed with local goats cheese served with a basilico sauce, and then had Spaghetti Petto di Pollo comprising of homemade spaghetti with chicken meat in cukini-creamy sauce and I found it tasty but thought the Pasta was not quite al dente. However the pastas are normally served Al dente as my all time favourite here pasta linguine with fresh tomatoes, tiger shrimps and basil has always been perfecto!!

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Incidentally it costs only 6 Lats – try finding a similar price in London!

 

The highpoint of my last dinner was the Steak Rossini – beef tenderloin steak with rosti potatoes, grilled vegetables and demi- glace sauce, which was excellent and made from locally grown Latvian Beef! The wine was accompanied by an excellent 2010 Firriato Santogastino Baglio Soria from Nero D’avola and Syrah grapes, that I would be happy to offer in my wine portfolio, if I was to return to a former life as a wine merchant!

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The price for dinner can generally be about 60 LVL (about 80 EUR) for two including drinks, entrée and main course, one bottle of wine and coffee, and compares favourably with UK prices, and is better quality.

I have been to Restaurant Rossini many times over the years , mostly for dinner. Unfortunately I must confess to never having a Dolce in Rossini, so cannot comment on same as I normally finish with an excellent espresso but I aim to rectify this soon! I have always enjoyed the atmosphere and “the excited buzz” of happy diners here and am pleased to come here to soak up the positive vibes in the warm rustic atmosphere, over a glass of vino tipice Italiano!

 

Restaurant Contact Details:

 

Restorans Vincents

Elizabetes iela 19,

Riga LV-1010

Tel:+37167332830

E-mail:restorans@restorans.vincents.lv

 

 

Restorans Biblioteka No.1

Tērbatas iela 2, Rīga, LV–1050

Tel: +37120225000

E-mail: rezervacija@restoransbiblioteka.lv

 

 

Restorans Riviera

French Restaurant, Mediterranean Restaurant, Seafood Restaurant

Antonijas iela 13, Riga, LV-1010, Latvia

Tel: 26605930

E-mail: soulkitchen@inbox.lv

 

 

 

Hotel / Restaurant Neiburgs.

Jauniela 25/27 , RigaLV-1050

Tel: 371 67115544

E-mail: restaurant@neiburgs.com

 

Restorans ROSSINI

Pumpura iela 6, Riga

Tel: 67334497

E-mail: rossini@rossini.lv

 

Article written by Axel Ritenis, Editor, Connoisseur Magazine

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