Tallinn is a Secret Foodie Paradise

Quaint, cobblestone streets, 16th Century Old City walls, slanted, candy-colored houses. I expected these things from Tallinn, Estonia. But what I didn't foresee is that it's a foodie paradise on par with the best eating cities of the world. 

I hadn't done much restaurant research ahead of time, so when I arrived, I began Googling, Yelping, and inquiring with our friendly hotel staff to find the best restaurants and cafes. Within a few minutes of my search I was overrun with options; each menu looked better than the next! While Estonia is actually part of The Baltic States, when it comes to cuisine, it has chosen to label itself as Nordic. As an American who would much rather be European and so strives to act as such, I empathize.

Young, Estonian chefs have ignored their Russian roots and followed the New Nordic food movement: "traditional foods with a strong focus on health and ethical production." The movement believes food should create and inspire joy, taste, and variety. You can read their full Manifesto here, but essentially it's all about cooking fresh, seasonal, ingredients in inventive and healthy ways to make eating a magical experience. Count me in!

Each plate arrives as a work of art. Sauces are strategically swirled, the placement of each snow-pea intentional, and all sorts of strange dusts, flakes, chips, and slabs of ingredients you didn't even know you could cook with (moss!) are thoughtfully arranged. The dishes are light, fresh, and worth several minutes of admiration before consuming.  

The catch is - eating New Nordic is not cheap. Scandinavia is outrageously expensive, so dining out in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland may break the bank. But in Estonia, a meal at one of the city's top-rated restaurants will only set you you back 20-30 euros. That makes it a foodie city accessible to all travel budgets. With this realization, I suddenly had an Estonia agenda that centered around breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Let's begin with the most important food group: bread

I have a motto, "Bad bread, bad restaurant." The bread you're served is a restaurant's first impression, and if they can't nail it, I become very skeptical about the kitchen's abilities. 

I'm first and foremost a Parisienne, so I believe there is no better bread than the crusty baguettes you get at a good boulangerie in France. But a close second goes to Nordic bread. I've been recently trying to keep to a mostly paleo diet - but that all went out the window when I realized the quality of grain I was dealing with here.

Each place I went, I was served bread as fresh as warm laundry. Nordic bread is always baked the day that it's served. White bread is nonexistent, there are only varieties of brown to black, multi-seeded, and dense loaves, sliced and served with a whipped and infused-with-some-herb-butter on a wooden slab. Each time we sat down I was eagerly tapping my fingers together waiting for the breadboard to arrive. 

The bread board at Fabrik + minted butter

The bread board at Fabrik + minted butter

The bread board (plus amuse bouches from the chef) at Rataskaevu 16

The bread board (plus amuse bouches from the chef) at Rataskaevu 16

Nordic loaves in the bakery window

Nordic loaves in the bakery window

Traditional, black, Estonian bread from Lieb Resto ja Aed

Traditional, black, Estonian bread from Lieb Resto ja Aed

At one place we dined, Art Priori, the dough was actually on our table, rising for our entertainment during the first few courses and then they came and took it back and popped it into the oven, served it to us warm 15 minutes later with silky pate. I nearly wet myself.  You can read a full review of my experience at Art Prior here.

Nordic bread dough rising before our eyes

Nordic bread dough rising before our eyes

15 minutes later the same loaf bread arrived warm with butter and pate

15 minutes later the same loaf bread arrived warm with butter and pate

I could end here. Go to Tallinn for the bread alone. It's a fairytale for anyone who dreams at night of carbs and butter.

But if you have room for a main dish afterward, you will be wowed by the inventive things you'll find, and surprised by how healthy you can eat here. Every place we went had vegan and gluten-free options, poached fish, colorful salads, superfoods galore. I found turmeric, almond-milk lattes and gluten-free cinnamon blondies. The New-Nordic commitment to fresh, seasonal, health-conscious food makes indulging and still fitting into your pants possible.

With just two days in Tallinn, I did not get to try half the restaurants that I wanted to. But where I did go I honestly clapped when the plates were put down and moaned between mouthfuls. Josh and I actually fought over the last bite of cabbage. 

I made it to Rataskaevu 16, Kaks Kooka, Fabrik, Nop Cafe, & Art Priori. 

Since photos speak louder than words, I'll let them do the convincing. But take it from someone who has eaten her way across the world, any traveling foodie should add Tallinn to the top of their list!

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