Monday, 19 December 2016

LATVIA: 4 places to eat during Riga Restaurant Week

a frosty Riga Town Centre, Latvia

Riga Restaurant Week and the European Region of Gastronomy

Next year, Riga is going to have something big to shout about. The capital of Latvia - along with the surrounding Gauja River Valley (which includes the central Latvian cities of Sigulda, Cēsis and Valmiera) - will become a European Region of Gastronomy. Only three gastro-centric spots on this continent are awarded the accolade each year, and in 2017, Riga-Gauja will wear this badge alongside central Denmark and the Danish city of Aarhus, and the Lombardy region of Italy.

The popularity of Nordic cuisine has seen a surge in recent years, with Scandinavian-influenced restaurants and pop-ups springing up in most of the world's major food cities. But food from the neighbouring Baltics? Not so much.

That's a great shame, because we're talking about similar climates with four distinct seasons, equally bountiful natural larders, and innovative and ambitious chefs, all eager to showcase the quality produce that can be found not far beyond their front door.

autumnal sunshine in Riga's central park

 To coincide with Riga's big culinary gig next year, I was invited to visit the city during the autumn biannual Riga Restaurant Week (they do another in spring), that took place in October. The premise of this event - and one I know Budapest does too, as I happened to be there during theirs - is for restaurants across the capital to put on set three-course menus at a very reasonable 15 or 20 Euros, that run for the whole week.

It's a great idea for an emerging foodie city. It encourages people to try somewhere new, means almost everyone can treat themselves to some of the finest seasonal dishes on offer in the city, and all for not very much at all.

Latvian cuisine, as it stands, might not be the most refined. Its pillars are often noted as rye bread, fish from their internal waters, curd-based dishes, meat cooked in pork fat, smoked meats and fish, and nuts and berries. Their ancestors engaged in a lot of hard physical labour, and needed heavy sustenance to fuel it. So traditionally, meals are dense. But these days, restaurant kitchens have modified traditional recipes, coming up with contemporary versions that add a sophisticated and light touch, which both taste great and are a joy to look at.

My guide below suggests a few restaurants to try that take part in Riga Restaurant Week. A second post to follow suggests ways in which to fill the rest of a two day trip, both in and around the city (LATVIA: how to spend 2 days in and around Riga). My advice: if a visit to Riga wasn't on the cards, 2017 is the year to change this. Coincide it with their spring or autumn restaurant week, and you'll leave very well fed indeed.

Where to eat in Riga

1) Valmiermuizas Embassy

Dzintars Kristovskis, a European Region of Gastronomy 2017 ambassador, and Head Chef at 
Valmiermuizas Embassy, began his career at a kebab house over 10 years ago. Things have changed a lot since, and in his restaurant today, there are two main focuses: showcasing local Latvian ingredients, and serving great beer.

The beer comes from the Valmiera-based Valmiermuiza microbrewery, where it's brewed slowly and deliberately. Their intention is to maintain and develop traditions of beer making and drinking in Latvia, complimented by elegant food from Dzintars kitchen.

Expect menus crafted from locally grown products, including seasonal wild herbs and plants from Latvian meadows and forests. I enjoyed ox heart tartare with pickled celeriac, confit onion, elderflower, blackcurrant, and cider and charred onion consomme. There was a gloriously sharp square of seabuckthorn candy with spruce salt. Venison came with rowanberry, pear, parsnip and ale sauce. And dessert was moss (actual foraged moss), chocolate, charred quince, cranberry sorbet, and chicory sponge. All that, for 20 Euros.

Valmiermuiza's Embassy, A.Briāna Street 9a, Riga

Riga Restaurant Week dishes at Valmiermuizas Embassy, and chef Dzintars Kristovskis

 2) Rocket Bean Roastery

We all know Scandinavians and those from the Nordic countries are big fans of coffee. It's the Finns that come out on top as the highest consumers of coffee per capita in the world, with Sweden also featuring in the top echelon. And in neighbouring Latvia, the coffee-quaffing theme continues.

Rocket Bean Roastery is a coffee production site, coffee shop, restaurant, and coffee equipment store. Here, you can get a fabulous pour over, as well as really great food from their Michelin-experienced chef, Artūrs Taškāns. I really like the idea that in the evening, the coffee shop-by-day atmosphere is transformed into an intimate and atmospheric dining venue, with candlelight and clinking wine glasses.

I popped in at lunch and ordered a la carte, as the three courses offered as part of the restaurant week would have been too much, considering I had that planned for the evening. But it included the likes of mushroom soup with rice noodles, slow-cooked egg, crispy piglet belly, and finger lime. And venison chop with kale, black-pepper beetroot purée, and venison broth sauce.

I ordered an absolutely gorgeous onion soup with chives and sour cream, then some truffle mashed potatoes with kale, chives and chervil, a chocolate mousse cake with flower petals, homemade bread, and a great Colombian Chemex brew (I am aware this was also three courses - it seems I just can't help myself). I went out the back to check out the roastery and got coerced into a game of table tennis with chief roaster Aigars, before eating. I lost, but it was close. What a nice bunch of people.

Rocket Bean Roastery, Miera Eela 29, Centra Rajons, Rīga, LV-1001

beautiful food and great pour over coffee at Rocket Bean Roastery, Riga


A Provence chateaux and shabby chic is the interior theme at ENTRESOL, a restaurant with multiple award-winning chef Raimonds Zommers at the helm. Classic dishes are cooked with contemporary methods, so don't be surprised to find parts of your meal dehydrated, fermented, or cooked in a sous-vide.

From the a la carte, Latvian dishes are easily identified with an icon, for diners that want to specifically experience the local cuisine. Prices for mains usually range between 12 to 20 Euros, so the three courses for 15 Euros, or 20 Euros with the drinks pairing, is a real steal. 

Starters came in the form of a trio of delightful knapas (Latvian small plates): venison tartare with potato foam, white mushroom broth with beer meringue, and dried brown trout with quince jelly and sour cream. For mains, slow-cooked sea trout with pumpkin purée, quince, and vadouvan curry sauce, and dessert was an autumnal plate of apple, five ways.

ENTRESOL, Elizabetes Iela 22, Centra Rajons, Rīga, LV-1050

Riga Restaurant Week dishes at ENTRESOL


FERMA is most definitely my kind of restaurant. Art Deco accented interiors that are an ode to the functional modernism of the mid-twentieth century, great service, and high-end food without the stuffiness. 

Nestled in the quiet part of the city overlooking Viesturdārzs Park, it's a space that reflects the very middle-class neighbourhood its in, promoting langurous lunches and long evening meals. I hear in the summer, you can enjoy a country-style picnic on the terrace, prepared in a real smoking house, and cooked over an open fire.

A chef at the age of 23, the owner of the first private culinary school in Latvia at 25, and chef-patron of his own restaurant at 29, Māris Astičs is the accomplished man behind FERMA. It's only here that you can order a steak of aged Latvian beef, the house bread keeps with the traditions of Latvian breadmaking and is how the kitchen starts each morning, and local products feature prominently on the menu: wild venison, Baltic salmon, Latvian shrimp, and so on. 

As part of the 20 Euro deal (only available between 12pm - 5pm here), I had a glorious and silky pumpkin and quince soup with goat cheese and wild mushroom toasts, root vegetable stew with porcini cream and wild deer roast beef with juniper glaze, and a sea buckthorn cream cake with basil and honey biscuits.

FERMA, Valkas Iela 7, Centra Rajons, Rīga, LV-1010

Riga Restaurant Week dishes at FERMA

Note: This is a sponsored post in collaboration with the Riga and Latvian Tourism Boards. All views remain my own, as always.

Related posts
LATVIA: How to spend 2 days in and around Riga

Monday, 5 December 2016

LATVIA: How to spend 2 days in and around Riga

a pictureque Sigulda, Latvia

What to do in Riga

Exploring more of the Baltics has been high on my list for a while. Surely, there was no better place to begin such a quest than with a city I knew little, if anything about. A city that also turned out to be full of surprises.

Sure, Latvia's capital of Riga has been designated as a European Region of Gastronomy for 2017 (check out LATVIA: 4 places to eat during Riga Restaurant Week for more insight into that) - no biggie. Not. But did you also know, it's home to some unrivalled architecture, mega markets, and is the birthplace of an international Christmas tradition?

Didn't think so. And neither did I. Riga is an ideal European destination for a short weekend break. Here's my guide on how to spend a couple of days there, where to stay, how to get there, and of course, where to eat.

Wander around the Old Town and enjoy the architecture

Riga is the perfect city for architect enthusiasts. The buildings are stunning, notably because the capital has the highest density of art nouveau buildings in the world, many say. In fact, the Art Nouveau style makes up roughly a third of all the buildings in Riga.
Which basically means every corner is damn gorgeous, and keeps stopping people in their tracks.

A great way to see the highlights of the Old Town is through the tour provided by E.A.T. Riga (their name actually isn't to do with food - it stands for something else, which I've usefully forgotton). These guys offer all sorts of tours, from those on two wheels to those on two feet, those that involve activities from shooting and folk dancing to curling and husky dog sledging, as well as boat tours, food and drink tours (see below), and day trips out of town.

I got a sort of mash up between the Art Nouveau tour and the Old Town tour, with guide James taking us through the ages of this part of the world, up to the present day, without rattling off too much information; an affliction of many a tour guide I've experienced.

The city is also famous for its Christmas markets, and here's an interesting fact: the tradition of decorating Christmas trees is believed to have originated in Riga, just over 500 years ago. Who knew!

scenes from Riga, Latvia

Explore Riga's Central Market and get acquainted with local flavours

Right people, listen up. I have news. Riga has one of the largest, if not the largest, food market in Europe. Did you know that? Of course you didn't. Does anyone? I definitely did not.

I remember a German journalist I was on a trip with to Valencia, shortly before my visit to Latvia, mentioning in passing, that Riga was home to the largest food market in Europe. I dismissed it with little further thought. Then I got to Latvia, and learnt it was true.

If sampling local cuisine is a big part of why you travel (you probably wouldn't be here if this wasn't the case), then exploring Riga's Central Market is a given. And if you do this with the nice folk from E.A.T. Riga as part of their Food Tasting Tour, you'll also get to graze on a load of local delicacies on the way.

The intention of this tour is to show that there's more to Latvian food than the typical stereotype of a pork, cabbage, and potato, post-Soviet diet. Plus, you'll learn about the history of the market, what the locals eat, and where they eat it.

What I really appreciate about the Nordic and Baltic countries, is their strong relationship with what grows wild. Foraging is second nature. Going out to pick mushrooms and berries is a standard pastime, and this was evident from the produce on sale. And what's quaint about this mega market is that despite its enormous size, there are many locals with tiny stalls, selling small amounts of a delightful mish-mash of goods, harvested from their garden or local forest. A couple of jars of berries here, seven apples there, a bunch of rosemary...

Riga Central Market

Take a day trip to Sigulda

Sigulda is a place of hill-top castles, sandy caves dotted along the Gauja River, and wild nature. This area, also part of the Gauja National Park and just 53km from Riga, is the place to experience Latvia's natural beauty in all its glory.

When you're there, stop for lunch at the cosy Doma Cafe and enjoy coffee, smoothies, homemade burgers and baguettes, green salads, or very lovely waffles. Enjoy the sweeping views of the Gauja Valley from 42m in the air, as you ride the 1020m long cablecar that connects both banks of the river.

And definitely do not miss popping in to see Janis, and his seriously impressive home wine-making set-up you'll find at Krimulda Manor. Great big stainless steel vats conceal gallons of multi-coloured home brews; wines, made from almost every type of flower and berry. From seabuckthorn and rhubarb wines, to lilac flower and dandelion wines. He bid me farewell with a bottle of cranberry wine, which tasted like boozy Ocean Spray, and that can only be a wonderful thing.

Sigulda's biggest draw though, is the changing colours of autumn. The valley is the most favoured spot across the whole country, to watch the leaves turn. If a dry and sunny weekend is forecasted during October or November, expect thousands to descend onto the area. 

Regular trains run from Riga to Sigulda on the Riga – Valga line, but these can get busy in the summer months. The journey lasts about 1 hour 15 minutes, and it's a great way to reach the castles, river valley, and forests, especially if you have a bicycle with you.

out and about in Sigulda, Latvia

Where to eat in Riga

Don't worry, I've got you covered. You'll find some of my favourite picks in this post: 4 places to eat during Riga restaurant week.

Where to stay in Riga

Pullman Riga Old Town

At the heart of Riga's historic centre you'll find Pullman Riga Old Town Hotel - it's in a great location. Occupying a magnificent building from 1789, it has been merged with a completely modern structure and is only a few months old at the time of writing.

It lies exactly in the Old Town, and neighbours Dome Square, Parliament, the National Theatre, Freedom Monument, and the National Opera.

Jēkaba iela 24, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050

Pullman Riga Old Town, Riga

How to get to Riga

Riga is just a two hour and 45 minute flight from London - no excuse not to pop over!

I flew with Air Baltic business class. Whilst the seats weren't the usual design you might recognise from business class tickets on longer haul trips, on Air Baltic it means the one next to you remains free. 

It was a comfortable flight, and the food was good. For fare estimations, check out their website

Air Baltic dining in business class

Note: This is a sponsored post in collaboration with the Riga and Latvian Tourism Boards. All views remain my own, as always.

Related posts
LATVIA: 4 places to eat during Riga Restaurant Week

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