This summer I undertook a gargantuan gastronomic tour, starting in Stockholm, then working down through the Baltic countries; on through Poland and Slovenia; and finishing with flourish, in Berlin.
First stop in the Baltics was Tallin, the capital of Estonia. This city is an extraordinary amalgamation of the old and the new. On the one hand you have the old town, a UNESCO site, and once a flourishing Hanseatic outpost, well-preserved and utterly charming. On the other you have a modern city referred to regularly as the Silicon Valley of the Baltic – it’s the birthplace of Skype – with the happy benefit of a super-fast internet connection.
So I researched carefully to find a place for dinner which would do the same for Estonian gastronomy – which would take the best of the old, and feather it in to the new with a deft, a light, and a creative touch.
Leib Restoran seemed to answer the brief. ‘Leib’ means ‘black bread’ in Estonian. And the restaurant is so named because the owners aim to retain what is simple and honest about Estonian food. I started with the promised bread – which was, indeed, at the same time both simple and sublime. I always think that liver (which I love) is a great test for a restaurant. I had the best liver I have ever eaten at Leib Restoran – my compliments to Head Chef, Kristo Malm, who was running the kitchen that evening. Instead of the usual slice, this was a piece, and so soft you could almost cut it with a fork.
In the featured image above Kristo Malm (head chef) is on the left, Kristjan Peäske (sommelier-patron) in the centre, and Janno Lepik (chef-patron) is on the right.
I asked Kristjan Peäske, the sommelier-patron, and his partner in the business, chef-patron, Janno Lepik, how they first met, and how they came to set up Leib.
SD: Where did you meet Janno and how did you come to set up Leib with him?
KP: We met each other just after Janno returned from London in 2007. He was opening a new place and I was consulting on the service. We developed a strong respect for each other but it took some time until we headed towards setting up our own restaurant.
SD: How did the concept of Leibresto evolve – the balance between producing good food well – the ‘Leib’ (basic black bread) if you like – and transforming it into something modern, fresh, and high quality?
KP: Leib has been definitely evolving during these last six years but our core values, and our decision to work with small scale farms, has always been the same. Our food today is for sure a bit more refined but we are still all about soulful comfort dining.
JL: The original idea for Leib came out of our stubborn desire to create a place where we ourselves wanted to hang out. A lot. A place with a soul and simple food where we and our guests would feel like…. ourselves. Like coming back to our family house.
SD: How did you find this wonderful, and extraordinary property? What is the connection with Scotland? What are the Scottish traditions maintained at the restaurant (you enter the restaurant between an unlikely combination of busts of Robbie Burns and Sean Connery)?
JL: We are truly lucky with our wonderful property. Sometimes you just need luck, and this is exactly what happened for us when Kristjan just happened to hear about the competition for the lease contract. Fortunately our future landlord liked our vision and the rest is history.
Speaking about landlords- this is also our connection with Scottish Club. Our premises are owned by the Estonian Scottish Club, before we came they even ran their own restaurant here. At one point they decided to focus more on club activities and this is when we entered. We are very good friends with the Scottish club, we celebrate Robert Burns’ birthday with them and run different events together. This is the reason one can find fun Scotsmen (the bronze statues) hanging out in our park; we have even dedicated our private dining room to the club.
SD: How do you approach the wine and the beer, and the pairing with food, Kristian? (I had a Scottish ale with my liver and it went perfectly!).
KP: A good selection of beverages is one of the essences of our restaurant. Cooperation between the chef and sommelier is essential if we are to offer great experience to guests, therefore we change our wines by the glass many times a year- every time the menu changes.
In addition, we pair local craft beers, and due to our relationship with Scotland we might also use a great Scottish ale from time to time. So for me, it always starts with the food, but well selected wine or beer is really as important as a well made sauce for the meal.
To add even more interest to our drinks selection we also brew our own beer and make some schnapps.
SD: What are the main characteristics of traditional Estonian food? Can you give some examples of how you develop these?
JL: Traditional Estonian food is seasonal, simple and easily understood, all concepts which are really important to us as well. Today we are in a very lucky situation in Estonia as we have beautiful small farms producing a very varied selection of mostly organic ingredients. Our most important goal is to maintain the very special flavours of all this produce by using carefully chosen cooking methods. In particular, in Estonia, marinating, salting and curing have been very important methods of preserving food. All of us continue to use these methods over the winter season.
SD: Which are the most interesting local producers that you use and how did you find them?
JL: Well, I’ll give you just a couple of examples (there are many, of course).
Kalamatsi dairy farm
This farm was started up at pretty much the same time as we did. It is founded by a young family who moved to the countryside, bought some goats, and started to make cheese. Before that though they went to Austria to work on small farms and study and research into this project, this new challenge. Today we have developed together with them three different cheeses initially available only at our restaurant but which are now available in small batches all over Estonia.
Estonian grass-fed beef
This movement was started initially by some enthusiasts but it has now become very popular in Estonia. It unites organic beef growers who only feed animals with grass throughout the year. As a result, we receive meat that is full of flavour. It is worth mentioning that, whereas in south America the beef growing industry represents quite a challenge to natural resources, in Estonia we have large amount of natural grassland for cattle and therefore the process is very natural.
Leib Resto’s recipe for pain perdu with cottage cheese, cranberries and yogurt ice cream
5 pcs Egg
0,200 kg Sugar
0,500 kg Heavy Cream
2 pcs Vanilla Bean
1 loaf Brioche
0,125 kg Cottage cheese
0,075 kg Marinated Cranberries
0,015 kg Powdered Sugar [icing sugar – Ed]
0,170 kg Dried Cranberries
0,150 L Sweet apple wine or cider
0,050 kg Sugar
1 pcs Lemon Juice
Yogurt Ice Cream
0,250 kg Milk
1,200 kg Greek Yogurt
0,80 kg Glycose
0,250 kg Sugar
0,280 kg Egg Yolk
4 leaves Gelatin
1 pcs Lemon Juice
Peppermint – to garnish
Marinated Cranberries – Measure the cranberries, wine and sugar into a pot. Let it simmer at low heat until about half of the wine has evaporated. Add lemon juice and bring to boil. This can be done ahead and left in the fridge.
Filling – Mix all the ingredients together.
Pain Perdu – Mix the eggs, sugar, heavy cream and the seeds of the vanilla beans into an even mixture. Slice the brioche into slices 3cm thick and cut a pocket into each of the slices. Stuff the pockets with the cottage cheese filling. Pour the egg mixture on top of the stuffed slices and let it sit overnight in the fridge.
Ice cream – Bring the milk and glycose to boil. Mix the eggs and sugar together. Then mix both the milk and egg mixture together and heat it until it reaches 82C. Take the mixture off the heat and add the already moistened gleatin leaves, yogurt and lemon juice. Mix until eaven and pour into an ice cream machine.
Serving – Put a frying pan on the heat and add a bit of brown butter on it. Fry the brioche on one side slightly brown, flip it on the other side and put into the oven at 180C for about 10-12 minutes or until it has risen enough. Serve immediately with marinated cranberries, ice cream and mint leaves.