Riga: Europe’s newest culinary hotspot
he Baltic is not the first place to come to mind when planning a culinary trip. But on a recent trip to Riga, I discovered that Latvian chefs are serving up gastronomic feast, making their city become popular among food lovers in the coming years.
Riga is bustling. The capital of Latvia throbs with the energy of a little town whose about to become big. It feels like it’s at the edge of a business and tourism boom and the locals are very much aware of the pulsating development across the Baltic. As one of our clients quips “We are enjoying the food while they’re still affordable.”
Interestingly, one gets an impression that Nordic money is pouring in on Riga. The city is popular among Norwegian and Finnish tourists, and the presence of Swedish banks and Norwegian convenient stores speaks of the financial relationship between these regions.
Or maybe it’s the food that draws them here.
Because it was a business trip, I barely had time to explore. It was my first time in Riga so as a way of getting to know it, I turned to my stomach as a guide, leading me to some of the city’s food jewels in between meetings.
Zila Govs (Blue Cow)
My introduction to Baltic food was lunch at Zila Govs, an all-day restaurant smacked right in the middle of the touristy old centre. We got a discount voucher from the apartment where we were staying so my expectation wasn’t that high. Free or discounted food are not of the best quality. But the restaurant proved us wrong.
Zila Govs offers traditional Latvian cuisine, which in the summer seems to be a lot of herring, pike, beets, lingon berry and black currant. It’s primarily a steak restaurant but since it was a late lunch, I opted for grilled chicken with lingon berry sauce and a dessert of rye bread pudding with summer fruits. The meal didn’t disappointed but what’s more satisfying was that it cost less than €20.
For dinner, lured by the promise of a sweeping view across the city, I chose the Terase restaurant of Hotel Gutenbergs. Instead I got an almost close up view of the Dome Cathedral’s clock, which was not exactly a bad trade off.
My colleague has an allergy unheard of in the kitchen so when they realized that his order had yeast, the chef creatively altered his lamb dish, which turned out delicious even if it was rushed. My appetizer of the creamiest burrata and sweet cherry tomatoes paired well with a glass of Muscadet from the Loire Valley.
For a restaurant quite far from France, Hotel Gutenbergs carries a fine selection of French wines. The menu is not cheap so if you would order only one dish here make it the gnocchi, and you won’t leave the place wanting. At the end of the meal, we were pampered with Riga’s cult drink, Black Balsam, an aromatic blend of black currant juice with about 30% alcohol, a fine way to cap off a balmy summer night.
Tēvocis Vaņa (Uncle Vaya)
Entering Tevocis Vana is like like stepping into your grandmother’s living room with its low ceiling, yellowing wallpapers adorned with black and white photographs, antique furniture and old, dusty books proudly on display. Photo – grilled catfish with pomegranate sauce.
We were back at the old centre for lunch the next day, after visiting clients at Mezaparks, Riga’s wooden district where the city’s elite maintains their art nouveau villas, turning some of them to offices. With my brain toasted, rushing to the next meeting, we picked a restaurant next to where our taxi dropped us off. Tēvocis Vaņa (Uncle Vaya) is a tavern-looking restaurant offering mostly Russian cuisine.
Entering Tevocis Vana is like like stepping into your grandmother’s living room, with its low ceiling, yellowing wallpapers adorned with black and white photographs, antique furniture and old, dusty books proudly on display. The menu listed dishes that made my heart skip a beat, reminding me of my time in St Petersburg – Beluga caviar, Russian dumplings, borscht (beet soup). I ordered what I thought was a light meal – grilled catfish with a curious marinate of tomatoes and pomegranate, served with pomegranate sauce and fresh, grilled zucchini and tomatoes. It turned out to be the kind grandmothers serve during Sunday dinners, using a secret recipe that only the most deserving grandchild would inherit. Don’t be turned off by the touristy-looking facade, it would be a shame to skip a meal at Tēvocis Vaņa if one visits Riga.
Le Dome fish restaurant
Do you know that Riga doesn’t have a Michelin-starred restaurant? I was always on the look out for one because I enjoy comparing prices and quality of Michelin-starred restaurants in different countries.
I thought Barents would come close. Ogling outside its glass wall, I saw young chefs going in their matching uniforms going about in the kitchen while their well-dressed clients patiently sips their champagne at the dining area. However a quick Google search revealed a menu full of products flown in from across the world so I decided against dining here, the best decision I made that night.
We ended up at Le Dome, a fish restaurant at the back of the Dome Cathedral, which serves fresh catch from the Baltic Sea.
From the free rye bread to the choices of wine, from the appetizer of pickled Baltic herring and my main course of assorted seafood, Le Dome represents what Riga is becoming in terms of culinary excellence – exceptional, Michelin-quality but affordable meals crafted from fresh local ingredients and humble products that the Baltic has to offer.
My dinner at Le Dome was the highlight of my trip so I wrote a separate article about it (link here). I’m quite certain that Riga will have its Michelin-starred restaurants soon and I hope Le Dome will be the first to earn it.
Combining Russian and Nordic influences with quality ingredients, Riga has a lot to offer at the culinary front. Before I even left, I was already planning on coming back and explore more of this region’s cuisine.