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World cuisine with a touch of dill

  • 2005-10-26
Ten years ago, it was difficult to find a good pizzeria in the Baltics. Today, you can find everything from sushi to Armenian, but that hasn't stopped the culinary entrepreneurs from coming. With stomachs grumbling, The Baltic Times set out to find the newest and most exotic restaurants out there, and we were not let down.

Although it carries the title of "best Japanese restaurant" (in one of Tallinn's most beautifully restored houses), very few people visit Sushihouse. But they really should.

The atmosphere is elegant 's a mixture of arresting medieval interior with chic and modern furnishings. Beneath the bathroom's glass floor, an ancient stone staircase spirals into the depths of a dark pit. Those afraid of heights can use the lavatory down the hall.

The service was superb. I ordered the traditional wok-style dish with vegetables, fruit, chicken breast and teriyaki sauce for 125 kroons (8 euros). My companion, an American journalist who has been working in Rome, ordered sushi, as there aren't many sushi bars in Italy.

The nigiri sushi he ordered 's pieces of raw fish draped over rice 's was top notch; not only was it fresh, but the portions were large. The tuna was particularly good. His one criticism, though, would be how Sushihouse does its maki. The restaurant sells these seafood rolls by the piece, which is not how it's done in Japan, the United States, or anywhere else he has eaten for that matter.

Sushihouse has a surprisingly diverse offering of fish. According to the waitress, sakudori or the blue-finned tuna sushi, the grilled foie gras a' la yakitori (grill-skewer) with apple and plum and the grilled butterfish with curry sauce and asparagus are the most popular dishes. If you want to try something alternative in a peaceful atmosphere, Sushiouse is the place to go. (K.K.)

Sushihouse

Rataskaevu St. 16

Tallinn

Despite the fact that it's located on one of Riga's seediest streets, in between a line of casinos and dive bars, Erebuni is, believe it or not, your typical family restaurant.

We descended the dingy staircase, opened the restaurant door and were welcomed by a handsome maitre d' into an underground catacomb of Armenian music, candle-lit tables and the warm aroma of Balkan food.

The stonewall interior, one of Riga's many wine-cellars turned restaurants, provided the perfect setting for a late-night autumn meal. My guest and I were immediately struck by the liveliness of the place. Children were running from one room to another, a lively bunch of Russians were laughing and clinking wine glasses in the banquet hall, and there was even a table of rosy-cheeked English stags (an unobtrusive and friendly bunch - to their credit.) Waiters hurried in and out of this vibrant scene, balancing trays of red wine, gourmet desserts and flaming kebabs.

All in all, the atmosphere was everything you would expect of Armenia. Eager to get the night started, we ordered two appetizers right away. The traditional dolmas, grape leaves stuffed with ground beef, were both succulent and tart - exactly how they should be. Unfortunately, the second appetizer, fried potatoes and mushrooms, was no more than your typical Latvian kafejnica grub.

Our entree, the lamb kebab, was both tasty and filling, but anyone who knows authentic Armenian food would scoff at the sight. It didn't take long for us to discover Erebuni's secret 's astonishingly low prices. Although the food was a few ingrediants away from authentic, for an average 3 lats a plate (4 euros) you couldn't find better. And the chocolate-covered plumb dessert, I might mention, was sublime. (E.C.)

Erebuni

Merkela St. 9

Riga

Initially reluctant to tear myself away from my favorite cafe to check out a place reportedly featuring Fashion TV, I was wonderfully surprised by the new Zaza's versatile interior and great food. Instead of the feared Fashion TV, I found a real fireplace and a centrally placed open kitchen.

With sofas alongside chairs, the seating allows a choice of proximity to the fireplace, windows and kitchen. There's also a cozy area partly shielded by a stack of firewood. Warm colors combined with a clean geometric feel give the restaurant a pleasing effect. Zaza's is a reminiscent cross between a fashionable 1950's living room and classic diner from the same era.

A bit outside the center, but accessible by car or bus, Zaza's should appeal to a wide variety of people. The atmosphere is suitable for both negotiations and romance. Business suits or jeans would fit in equally well. Good ventilation keeps smoke to a minimum, vegetarians will not go hungry, and the food will not disappoint.

Zaza's specialty is fresh pasta from scratch. I had mine with wild mushrooms (3 euros); the most delicious combination of pasta, cheese, and mushrooms that I've ever tasted. We also tried the butterfish steak in wild mushroom sauce with a hint of flavorful charring on the outside and an inside so tender that it dissolves in your mouth.

Zaza also offers a selection of fine homemade cakes. The poppy seed and chocolate cakes were both light and of pleasing taste, beautifully presented, and went well with the coffee.(T.H.)

Zaza's

Ulonu St. 5

Vilnius

For an excellent cup of coffee or classic American milkshake - served in a fluted glass and topped with whipped cream - Cafe Vienna is the place to go. Recently opened in a former watch shop (look for the old Zeneva clock or the Oxford University Press sign), Cafe Vienna is rapidly becoming a second home to a mix of locals, expats from various countries, and a sprinkling of diplomats.

The owner, Franklin, pours perfectionism into his coffees, not to mention a selection of cakes made exclusively from recipes gleaned in his world-travels. The Austrian ambassador is always happy to share his love of espresso, and delights over discussing the preparation and history of his cakes, sometimes receiving a word of advice from his wife.

Cafe Vienna's environment is perfect for conversation. Humanity intact, the wait-staff aren't walled off behind nametags. The cafe is smoke-free and the music is interesting but unobtrusive. Many of the guests speak some English and Franklin is fond of introducing the regulars to each other. First-timers are often surprised that everyone seems to know one another.

For those regulars who've grown roots here, Franklin has developed a delicious local take on chili and classic American sandwiches, complete with jalapeno peppers and hot mustard (even though it scandalizes his employees a bit). And there's even been talk of corn bread. Further improvements are planned, including a Web site, ride-board, and wireless Internet, as Franklin's Cafe Vienna heads in the direction of becoming a local institution. (T.H)

Cafe Vienna

Traku St. 5

Vilnius

When downtown restaurants empty out in the fall, those outside the city remain quite busy, especially on weekends. Thus when I showed up at the American restaurant Baby Back, I wasn't too surprised to find it overbooked. It used to be my favorite place, due to the friendly service.

So, I wandered off to another new restaurant in Tabasalu, a suburb of Tallinn. The Italian style Lucca Ristorante just happens to be along my path home. The restaurant looks so warm and cozy from outside, it's tempted me on many a cold night. Finally, here was my chance.

The furniture is antique, and the tables are decorated in traditional Italian fashion - with a flower and candle on each. Young families come with their kids, but the restaurant is still quiet and peaceful. The tunes of Eros Ramazotti made for a perfect Italian background. Even if you're only out for a quick snack and hot drink, the restaurant's cozy fireplace offers the perfect setting.

Although the place looks luxurious, you don't need a lot of cash for a good time. The menu offers a large variety of small meals such as soups, appetizers, salads, pizzas, pastas and desserts. You may as well order the Italian fish or meat dishes, starting from 140 kroons (9 euros), and have a decent meal.

I ordered Carbonara, pasta with mushrooms and smoked chicken in cream sauce (90 EEK), the customers' favorite meal. I also took six bruschetta sandwiches on the side. One thing's for sure, this won't be the last time I pop into Lucca Ristorante on my way home. (K.K)

Lucca Ristorante

Klooga St. at Keskpaeva Tee 1.

Tabasalu

Kulmans and Sliede has only been open since the summer, but it's already established itself as one of the best restaurants in Riga. At first glance, the wonderfully stylish interior suggests a wonderfully pricey menu to match, but it's actually a shockingly cheap place to eat. It's little wonder the place has rapidly become a favorite chomping ground for Rigans.

The restaurant is set on the elegant Skolas Street, and its large glass facade gives the place a distinctly continental feel to it, as well a refreshingly airy ambiance. The stylish wall tiling and subtle lighting also contribute to what must be one of the best restaurant interiors in town.

As for the menu, it's all about choice and value. Kulmans and Sliede boasts everything from porridge to spinach crepes to pasta dishes in vodka sauce. The prices are low because the restaurant is actually part of a surrounding office complex, and must cater to its employees. The food is not exactly haute cuisine, but is a match for most restaurants around, and at half the price. Even the extensive drink menu is considerably cheaper than elsewhere.

Kulmans and Sliede 's whoever they are - should be thanked for bucking the inflationary trend, and creating a stylish and innovative restaurant that is a real pleasure to dine in. And the whole feat has been pulled off without being in the least pretentious. If only there were more places like this around. (T.O)

Kulmans and Sliede

21-501d Skolas St.

Riga