VILNIUS - Any guidebook on Lithuania always says that you haven't tasted Lithuanian life unless you've tasted its traditional food. And it doesn't get much more traditional than "cepeliniai" (a kind of oblong potato dumpling with meat, cottage cheese, or mushrooms filling.
The first time I ordered one a few years ago, I was a bit apprehensive, but when I got it, I was esthetically paralyzed. It was a big white lardy blob, and as I cut into it, it didn't get any better. I left it after one bite, and the dirty look I got from the waitress told me that I should pay and leave as soon as possible.
Well, after that, I thought "Never again!" But I forced myself to try it again a couple of years later, and to my surprise, this time round it was good. It was smothered in cream sauce, and as I chowed down, I realized what I'd been missing out on.
I realized that on that fateful day I had been served a plain cepeliniai without any sauce. When I told my friends, they shook their head and told me that the place should have been fined for serving it bare, and giving such a bad name to one of Lithuania's most traditional dishes.
But I have a bit of a beef with cepeliniai anyways, since it gets ALL the attention. Granted, there isn't anything like it anywhere (if there were, there wouldn't be any potatoes left in Europe), but there's a whole range of other good Lithuanian dishes to try, and the newest folk-style restaurant, Fortas' Dvaras is a great example of the country style right in Vilnius's Old Town.
It's a place with something for everyone - from the love-struck couple spoon-feeding each other dessert in the corner booth, all the way to a boisterous group of travelers. It's excellently located right on one of the busiest pedestrian streets in Vilnius and its food is pretty much spot on, too.
Walking downstairs, you come into a colorful underground maze with sections representing the four regions of Lithuania- Dzukija, Aukstatyja, Zeimatija, and Suvalkija. Pick your favorite and grab a seat at one of the wooden tables and admire the interior laced with hanging flowers, and before long the friendly staff will be on hand to guide you through the impressively stuffed menu.
For appetizers, just to warn you, the garlic bread with cheese is a meal in itself (unlike most places where helpings are generally pretty meager). The soups are as hardy as anything your foreign-born granny can cook up, with a personal nod going to the white boletus soup that can start off your meal for just under 2 euros.
For the leafier side of the menu, there's the countryside salad topped with ham, cucumbers, beans and a host of other vegetables for 1.75 euros.
Then we get down to business and get really traditional, with koldunai (dumplings) with meat filling, fried or boiled, for 2.60 euros.
The dessert list has already seen a face-lift with some new and as-yet-unseen-in-Vilnius treats. The lemon pie is fantastic, and at 1.50 euros, it's a sweet way to end your meal.
For quenching your thirst, a must-try is the "berzu sula," a kind of sweetened birch sap juice, and at 0.60 euros a glass, it's something you really should try at least once. A half-liter of beer is a pretty 3.95 litas, making the evening seem even cozier in the darkened corners of the restaurant.
There's a lot more to Lithuanian cuisine than cepeliniai, and this excellent restaurant amply proves the fact. A treat for the initiated and uninitiated alike. Just a word of warning - the bunker-like depth of the restaurant puts most cell phones out of range.
16 Pilies street
tel: (+370) 526 11070
Open: seven days -
Noon - Midnight