The colorful buildings in Dome Square of Riga's Old Town in Latvia. Credit: Sue Frause
It's always a treat to spot a Pacific Northwest food connection while on the road. Last summer in Missoula, Mont. I dined at Scotty’s Table, an American bistro located on the lower level of the historic Wilma Theater. Leaping off the dinner menu was mussels and fries, featuring Penn Cove mussels.
When chef and proprietor Scott Gill stopped by our table to chat, I proudly announced that I lived on Whidbey Island about 30 minutes from Penn Cove. While I usually order items that are local to the region I’m visiting, I indulged in the mollusks served in a classic white wine and butter sauce, accompanied by frites. Mussels in Montana were a welcome taste of home.
During a recent two-week trip with my husband to Helsinki and the Baltics, it was pretty slim pickings finding anything that smacked of the Northwest. In fact I didn’t even spot a Starbucks during our five days in Helsinki, and for good reason — there were none. But two days after we returned home, the Seattle-based chain opened its first Finnish store in one of the arrival halls at the Helsinki Airport; a second one is set to open later this year in a departures hall. That’s in sharp contrast to Amsterdam, where I spent time at the company’s first European concept store, which was pleasantly packed on an April afternoon — just a month after making its debut.
It will be interesting to see how the Finns, who have been quaffing coffee for more than 250 years, warm up to Starbucks. With the world’s highest per capita consumption of coffee (five cups a day), it’s no surprise the beverage is considered their national drink. And all this time I thought it was vodka.
In addition to tippling a fair amount of Finlandia vodka while in Helsinki, I enjoyed the bevy of seafood, including a tasty seafood chowder at Karl Fazer Cafe (since 1891), a Caesar salad with scampi at Teatteri, followed by a damn fine cup of Finnish coffee and chocolate macarons, and a meat pie called a lihapiirakka, served with a cup of Presidentii Kahvia in an orange tent “cafe” overlooking the Baltic Sea for 4 euros (around $5). Helsinki, a World Design Capital 2012, is expensive — so the meat pie was a bargain and was my breakfast of choice on several cool but sunny mornings.
Our remaining week was spent in the Baltics, starting with a two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia. Looking back on my photos, I must have been missing a taste of the U.S., as my food choices included a dinner of pizza and salad at Controvento on St. Catherine’s Passage, and a burger and fries for lunch the next day at a forgettable outdoor cafe in Town Hall Square. Our splurge was dinner at Troika, a Russian restaurant complete with costumed waiters, live music and tables full of loud and happy diners. The following day, before taking the bus to Riga in Latvia, we had lunch at Kuldse Notsu Korts (Wrinkled Golden Piglet). It’s an Estonian country restaurant with a cute pig as its logo and, no surprise — a menu that’s big on pig! All washed down with a couple tall glasses of A. Le Coq, an Estonian beer.
Our Baltic trip continued on to Riga, the capital of Latvia. The four-hour bus ride aboard Lux Express was pleasant, in an air conditioned motorcoach with large windows and free WiFi, but accompanied by annoying non-stop music videos playing overhead. Riga is a beautiful city situated at the mouth of the Daugava, on the shores of the Gulf of Riga on the Baltic Sea. I booked a room at Old City Boutique Hotel, conveniently located in the city’s Old Town.
That evening, following a concert by a Finnish male choir at the Riga Cathedral, we made the 15-minute walk to Vincents. Chef Martin Ritins, who has his own cooking show on Latvian State Television, is the president of Latvia’s Slow Food Association, and his menu at Vincents reflects that passion. Fresh, local ingredients purchased from small, organic farmers are used and the menu changes weekly. I enjoyed the Baltic Sea turbot amandine with asparagus, while my husband indulged in the confit of suckling pig. A whimsical sorbet popsicle was served between courses, and the wine flowed easily.
The next day it was on to Vilnius, Lithuania — the oldest of the Baltics. This was yet another four-hour bus ride, but we booked first class, which put us in a separate section of the bus and included bottled water and snacks. Our no-frills three-star Irish owned Hotel Tilto Vilnius (complete with a Guinness bar in the basement) was a few blocks from Old Town, which is anchored by Cathedral Basilica at Cathedral Square. We enjoyed dinners at the French restaurant Saint Germain and trendy Bistro 18, and made the mistake of ordering nachos late one afternoon at the Mexican restaurant Tres Mexicanos near our hotel. I don’t think Lithuania is known for its Mexican food, but I was craving something south of the border. I think I got the wrong border.
One of the oldest districts in Vilnius, dating from the 16th century, is Uzupis (“place beyond the river”). Often compared to Montmartre in Paris, it has similarities to Seattle’s Fremont district, which is often called the Center of the Universe or the People’s Republic of Fremont. Uzupis is officially known as the Republic of Uzupis, and has its own anthem, constitution, president, bishop and even a bronze guardian angel overlooking the central square. In Soviet times, this neighborhood was falling down, but over the decades it has become a hub for artists, musicians, writers and alternative fashion.
We headed up the hill to the restaurant Tores, which reportedly has the best view in town. From the outdoor patio, we could see Gediminas Tower where we had hiked earlier that morning, along with the Three Crosses.
While perusing the wine list, I was surprised to see a Washington wine label. The menu included both a Columbia Crest Grand Estates Pinot Gris 2009 and Cabernet Sauvignon 2008. Since Lithuania isn’t exactly wine country, I thought it would be fun to have a taste of home, but they were out of the Pinot Gris and we weren’t in the mood for a red. We went with a French wine instead.
According to Erin Shane of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which owns Columbia Crest, the Columbia Crest wine is exported to about 100 countries worldwide. “Most wine buyers in restaurants and retail in the Eastern European countries aren’t familiar with Washington wines,” said Shane. “But their reaction when they taste them is, ‘Wow!' "
Shane said Eastern Europeans particularly like the fruit forward flavor profile of Washington wines. She noted that although Lithuania isn’t a big wine drinking country, younger adult consumers are embracing it, and it’s a popular pairing with tapas. Shane said that last year at this time, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite was in Seattle and paid a visit to Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery in Woodinville. Sveikata!