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The long wooden table at Būsi Trečias, a rustic, family-owned brewpub in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, was cluttered with bar snacks: crisp fingers of fried rye bread called kepta duona served with a garlicky cheese sauce; žirniai su spirgučiais, bowls of yellow split peas topped with crumbled bacon. I prodded owner Romualdas Dacius for details about the lager we sipped, but he just shrugged. "I only brew beer that I like." Then he regaled me with ghost stories about the 18th-century building the pub is housed in.
A few days later, at a tasting-menu restaurant called Sweet Root, I bit into the amuse-bouche, a pastry shell the size of a quarter bulging with green peas and crunchy specks of duck, and was reminded of the peas at Būsi Trečias. Both dishes are the work of a new generation of chefs, restaurateurs, and artisans striving to crystallize and elevate Lithuania's culinary identity. "We're a little country and don't have a clear, unified food heritage," explained Sigitas Žemaitis, who co-owns Sweet Root with his fiancée, Agnė Marcinauskaitė.
Situated on the Baltic Sea and surrounded, historically, by formidable powers — most notably the Russian Empire — this country of fewer than 3 million has long struggled to preserve its national character. That includes its cuisine, which is ill-defined except for a few niche products. Lithuanians drink beer and kvass, a fermented rye drink, like water and toast every milestone and special occasion with a glass of mead. Fresh dairy products, like cottage cheese and sour cream, are staples, and mushroom foraging rivals basketball as the national sport. Vilnius's cuisine wasn't known for much beyond lackluster versions of stick-to-your-ribs dishes like cepelinai, the meat-stuffed, sour-cream-smothered potato dumplings served at touristy restaurants in Old Town. But now, at last, that's changing.
I was sitting at Telegrafas, the restaurant inside the Grand Hotel Kempinski Vilnius, and gazing at the Vilnius Cathedral when a white-gloved waiter jolted me back to the present with a cheese platter. There was a crumbly English-style cheddar and a bold cow-milk cheese that reminded me of something nutty and Alpine — Gruyère, or maybe Comté? Neither, it turned out. Telegrafas sources all its cheese from the nearby village of Dargužiai, which has become something of a dairy capital thanks to the efforts of local farmers. Later, at the neo-Gothic Halės Market, I wove past vendors hawking spiky šakotis cakes and buckets heaving with fermented garlic scapes, on my way to Roots, a bright and modern cheese shop run by Redita Vadeike and her mother, Lolita Strumylienė. Strumylienė told me how, after Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004, local cheese makers brought back new techniques from sojourns in France and Italy. She handed me a sliver of a raclette-style cheese, fruity and pungent.
Chefs who left to work abroad 15 years ago have also returned to Lithuania with fresh inspiration. The seed for Sweet Root was planted when the owners spent a year on biodynamic farms in Italy. Chef Deivydas Praspaliauskas, often credited with bringing modern fine dining to the country, cooked for several years in Copenhagen. His restaurant, Amandus, combines Lithuanian go-tos — green-pea purée, mustard seeds — with ingredients from abroad, like sea scallops and ponzu. At the new Hotel Pacai, Noma alum Matas Paulinas helms the ambitious, 27-seat Nineteen18. Paulinas's tasting menu, true to his training, is composed mainly of ingredients produced within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of Vilnius, resulting in dishes like grilled oyster mushrooms in a syrupy sauce of mint and elderberry capers.
Upon entering the dining room at Šturmų Švyturys, named for the coastal fishing village that supplies the restaurant, the first things I noticed were the plump fillets on display and the briny scent of fish stock simmering on the stove. Česlovas Žemaitis, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Asta, explained how running their own small port has allowed them to have more exacting standards. The fish is always wild, never flash-frozen, and the selection depends on whatever the sea offers that day — still unusual claims for a seafood restaurant in Lithuania. I ordered the fearsome-looking lamprey, which tasted mild when served with thinly sliced beets in a tangy, vinegar-spiked marinade. Buttery salmon found its ideal companions in lightly pickled pumpkin and tart sea buckthorn berries.
This palpable pride in all things Lithuanian is leaving a mark on the city's lively nightlife scene. Girta Bitė, a compact bar with dramatic crystal chandeliers, treats mead with reverence. A bartender poured me a glassful from the tap; it was sweet and crisp, like a honeyed pilsner. The dim, vaguely steampunk Cocktail Bar Alchemikas takes a different approach: Žalgiris, a high-proof distilled mead, is mixed with yellow chartreuse and honey syrup for a cocktail called, fittingly, Baltic Courage. The bartender warned me to drink slowly.
The dessert at Sweet Root is the dish that has stayed with me the most. For his final act, Žemaitis presented me with a wafer-thin layer of leaf-shaped meringue resting on ice cream infused with porcini mushrooms. I savored the earthy sweetness, the contrast of crunchy and creamy. It tasted like Lithuania on a plate.