Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Dining and w(h)ining in Riga: Vincents

As might have become evident from the previous posts, our trip to Latvia was quite a culinary triumph. We certainly ate well - there was only one morning when, for about three minutes, we though we just might be getting a bit peckish.

When travelling, the time at your disposal is always limited. So, you always end taking a risk when studying websites and menus written in foreign languages and trying to secure dinner reservations. What if it all backfires? What if it all fails to live up to all the expectations and the hype?

Even still, Vincents, ranked #1 in the whole of Latvia, just sounded too good to miss. And as you can imagine, the expectations were really high. But I can tell you that thinking about that evening still makes me feel giddy. The evening was magical. Spectacular. The highlight of the entire trip.

Located on Elizabetes iela street, lined with glorius Art nouveau buildings, Vincents immediately won us over with their wonderfully attentive and discreet staff. Before the trip I had been warned about the rudeness of Latvian customer service, but I have to say we never experienced that. Not in the restaurants, not at the markets -  even if we occasionally failed to find a common language. 

The decor was equally charming. At this point of the evening I felt a bit nervous (and ashamed of lugging my camera around...)

The restaurant was founded already in 1994 and it's headed by Martins Ritins, who counts English Royal Family among his many happy customers. Oh, and that Heston Blumenthal guy has dined here as well.

Our evening started with Prosecco. And as you can imagine, a great one, too. Oh, what's in that glass, you wonder? Edible twigs. Over-the-top-frou-frou? Ridiculous theatre that overshadows the actual food? You just wait. You just wait.

Then things started happening. Chef Ritins himself turned up to greet us. With the amouse bouche. 

Apparently there'd been a hale storm the night before and they'd caught the biggest ones. "But you know, that global warming", Ritins explained, shrugging... and out came the blowtorch.

Inside the icy bubble was salmon sashimi, organic avocado, kombu seaweed and wasabi flowers. A breathtakingly beautifully presented, delicate dish.

Already at this point we just stared at each other in disbelief. We really were in for a night to remember!

But the everything started going downhill. Remember how I praised the floor staff? And excellent they were: everything happened as if by itself. But apparently things didn't go quite so smoothly in the kitchen...

Next thing we knew one of the cooks was being ushered out of the kitchen and into our table. Shaking his head chef Ritins carried over a crumpled paper bag and apologized profusely. The cook had been given the task of preparing us a tuna tartare, but he had failed to get anything done. "I don't know where he learnt to cook!" Ritins rolled his eyes. "In prison, perhaps?"

"I tried to save what was left to save", Ritins explained and produced a tin of preserved Latvian fish.

But what do you know...!

The quality of the ingredients is non-negotiable. They're the best there is. Menu changes weekly based on availability and when ever possible, the ingredients are sourced from local small producers. 

Martins Ritins himself had just returned from a 2-week-trip in Japan ("the best foodie destination there is!") and the influence was evident on the evening's menu, too. Tuna tartare for instance was accompanied by ponzu sauce and fresh wasabi grated in front of our very eyes.

Another thing (one of the many) the restaurant is famous for is their particularly successful wine recommendations. The man behind them is sommelier Raimonds Tomsons, who's also the chair of the National Sommeliers' Association. For a Finn, anyway, the price range is reasonable: most of the wines served by the glass are around €10 and even the most expensive one only sets you back €14. 

That brings the total for a three-course dinner with wines to about €250. Worth it? Totally.

Next course was a dreamy cream of asparagus with wild garlic leaves. And snail tempura ("well, when in France!" exclaimed Ritins cheerfully). Mais bien sûr!

Our itinerary for the trip had been a rather hectic one and we'd been looking forward to the evening as an opportunity to relax and spend some much needed quality time. Maybe even talk to each other. But we couldn't - we just grinned at each other like a pair of retards.

With breads (that fougasse...!) we were served three different kinds of butter, out of which my own favourite was one spiked with seaweed (Oh. My.) We also learnt that Planeta, that Sicilian winery whose Etna Rosso we so love also makes olive oil.

After the bread it was time for a palate cleanser. So, steaming trolley was brought over, some lime sorbet dropped into the liquid nitrogen, fished out frozen into a ball and sprinkled with matcha. 

You know, the way we all do it at home, too...!

Our mains were fish (pavé of Faroe Island cod) and confit of suckling pig. Can't say anything terribly rational about these either. Superb dishes. Superb.

Stunning, too. That nugget in the front? Pig's head croquette. Sheer foodie bliss.

The dessert wine had us both cooing. "Works particularly well with chocolate" the sommelier hinted...

... and hey presto, a little while later pastry chef's greetings arrived at the table. A chocolate covered piece of heaven.

The dessert was the perfect way to finish the evening off (not that we particularly wanted to, mind) Chocolate hot and cold, with different textures and shades.

Luckily the evening wasn't quite finished yet. A huge box was carried to the table. "It's the check", the waiter explained with a serious look. "This doesn't come cheap, you know."

But the box turned out to be a big music box (!) containing hand-made chocholates (!!!) To be enjoyed with our coffee.

So. That was that. And now to the semi-mandatory musings.

Was the evening pretentious circus, where food was reduced to a mere accessory? No.
Was this the sort of frou frou haute dining we're all suppose to find so tragically untrendy right now? Yes. But I love frou frou!
Did we have to stop at McDonalds as "that kind of dinners always leave one hungry"? No.
Does a dinner out have to be an Experience  with capital E for it to be a success? Yes. For me the answer is a resounding yes. And that is something this place did more than well.

As we were leaving Martins Ritins came over to say his goodbyes and at this point I was lost for words. So I just hugged him. Fighting back tears (what do you say to a man who's just served you the best meal of your life?) 

Dinner at Vincents is something you should experience when in Riga. Trust me. 

Food was outstanding as were the wines. I don't think anyone doubts that. But the thing that really made the evening special was how natural and personal it all was. Nothing stuck up about it, no awkward uppitiness. "That's exactly what I want - for everyone to be able to be themselves" Ritins said with a big smile. 

We felt so welcome. The evening was magical, something I doubt we'll ever forget.

I especially - Madame was handed a small box containing their meringues, "for the morning, you see." Ooh.




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