Saturday, 16 April 2016

Restaurant Vincents, Riga, take 2 - can the second time ever live up to the first one?

For a while now I've been thinking about not publishing this post as I honestly still don't know what to make of the evening. But here it is - our experience in what was supposed to be the highlight of our girly getaway in Riga. Entries in cursive are written by the date. 

Dinner at Vincents was the absolute highlight of my trip to Riga last spring. I left the restaurant practically moved to tears, in such bubble of happiness my feet barely touched the ground. The story made it to the the blog dubbed "the best dinner of my life"

Exactly a year later I made my way back for round 2. Did it live up to the (admittedly) high expectations? Or were they exceeded? Was this time, too, en  euphoria-inducing culinary masterpiece that catered to all the senses, making the evening utter Bliss with capital B? No.

Tasting menu itself costs €90, while the matching wines set you back €55. So far so (reasonably) good. The extras, however (Champagne to start with, bread basket, 2 bottles of water and coffees) added another €60 euros to the tally so that the total came to over €170 per head. 

You've gotta love fine dining.

Recipes mastered over time, unparallelled talent and love of good food can be tasted in each bite. Add to that professional waiting staff and carefully matched wines by the sommelier and you're standing at the gates of Heaven with a choir of hundred cherubs singing in the background.

That's what we came here for. 

Just like last time, we were greeted by the edible twigs.

Vincents is, without a doubt, a restaurant with cosy atmosphere. The staff is clad in head-to-toe black, reminiscent of 1960's beatnik joint. Sans the sun glasses and air, thick with cigarette smoke. Luckily. Minimalist and stylish. Points for that. 

Unfortunately the interaction with us somewhat automated, bordering on robot-like, which inevitably affected our vibe, too. One doesn't often stop to think what a huge part waiting staff plays in in the mix. The service did get better towards the end, so there were moments to smile about, too. 

And the food and drink? Well, there were both. 

The kitchen was clearly aware of the menu we had the last time, as our amouse bouche differed from that served to most of the other tables. They were served that giant hale that charmed the socks off us the last time around. But the wow factor of the first time was replaced by the lackluster way the schpiel was so clearly memorized and recited word by word. Also, this time the dish was not presented by the venerable Martins Ritins himself, but by a member of the waiting staff. 

Ours had some serious wow effect too, mind. And vendace roe, crème fraîche and maple syrup.

The evening started with Champagne served with kitchen's greeting called ”Vincents cornucopia ” which consisted of vendace roes and something salmony (salmon?) served in a cone with crème fraïche and maple syrup.

What a treat that was. I got a bit giddy indeed.

At this point we witnessed the table next to ours being served the spiel of tartar in a tin produced out of a crumpled brown paper bag... exactly like last year.

Our next amouse bouche, however was Oyster Rockefeller, lit up and cooked before our enchanted eyes. For video, please see blog's  Twitter-feed

Kitchen was feeling generous today, as the next thing we got was an oyster. IT was served in a scallop shell with parsley, bread crumbs and velouté. This also marked the beginning of Vincents Show: the shell was resting on a pile of salt and the whole concoction was lit in flames right in front of of us at the table. Impressive - you couldn't help but be in awe.

First oyster I've ever had, you know. Glad I got to eat it cooked. It tasted of ocean, alright, but not necessarily my thing.

It probably wasn't the last oyster of my life, but one of the few, anyway. The bread crumbs and the sauce were delish.

Then it was off to the actual menu. First wine poured was Italian white so we assumed we'd be served the delicate looking salmon dish we saw being ferried off to the tables around us. 

But instead a cart with jar of winter truffles was wheeled to our table...

... and freshly shaved truffle was sprinkled on top of our roll of Galician Blond Cattle carpaccio. The carpaccio was carried to the table practically frozen and though it was heated on the inside with a torch, the serving temperature of the dish was so cold, you couldn't really taste any of the flavours. Not the truffle or the foie gras shavings. 

The wine pairing seemed so off we couldn't help but wonder if it was in fact meant for the salmon. Something we just couldn't shake off. 

Then it was time to tackle the dinner itself. The wine suggested something fattier, but either the wine pairing was off or the food was: carpaccio with foie gras shavings and truffle was everything but a good match. 

The dish wasn't saved even by the torch that was used to shoot flames through the carpaccio roll. I mean, it was frozen. Even this  culinary amateur was puzzled. Not going to Hollywood, this dish!

Bread and butter selection were good (just like last time, these, too...) The note we found in the bread basket turned out to the be one of the biggest surprises of the evening. The note detailed the story of the butter and most importantly, the yeast used for the bread they call holy. It's 27-year-old natural yeast brought over from Tishbi Winery I visited only a couple of months ago! 

Next up was langoustine and snow crab tortellini served with langoustine bisque. The dish, containing some seaweed, too, was declared by the date as the best dish she'd had all trip. It was excellent and the bisque had lovely depth of flavour and gorgeous heat from the spices.

It would have been nice if we'd also been served a little bowl for discarding the langoustine claws' remains without having to specifically ask for one. 

But at this point those hundred cherubs settled on my shoulder and started their symphony. Crab tortellinis in a this crayfish sauce (or soup? Well, bisque, anyway) was pure foodie heaven. To a point that I was ready to propose to the dish. Which I actually did, too. I'm still not quite sure of our marital status, but I'm still dreaming of this dish. And that wine will most definitely be invited to the wedding, too. 

One of the best dishes I've ever eaten in my life. 

Wine pairing was spot on.

We continued with seafood (yes, please!) next stop was hand dived Norwegian scallops with cauliflower puree and velouté with crispy pancetta shavings. At this point a spoon would have come in handy to make the most of that velouté. 

The dinner continued with fines the seas have to offer: Norwegian hand dived scallops were served with cauliflower mash and sauce. Dish was good, though no cherubs were singing during this course. Scallop has such a delicate flavour, that the cauliflower sadly overpowered it. 

Loimer's Grüner Veltliner is one of my old favourites and worked its magic this time, too. 

At this point a cart surrounded by mysterious cloud was wheeled to the table and sure enough, (just like last time) it was time for the palate cleanser: a bergamot sorbet lollipop dusted with matcha powder. For a video of this, too, see Twitter

Next we were brought a cart with a smoking pot on top of it. In that pan were made a palate cleanser using liquid nitrogen out of bergamot and pineapple sorbet, 

The operation wasn't quite the success it could have been and one of the lollipops refused to stay together. He got there in the end and we both got to sample the lolly, which was refreshing and got us ready for the next treat.

The main course was roasted goose. In addition to the goose itself, there was a sauce made using red wine and pressed remains of the duck (giblets and such). The absolute star of the evening and beautifully complimented by the accompanying Pinot Noir.

Here's my ode to the goose. Goose, both in confit and roasted was to die for. Yes, cherubs turned up, too. The red wine sauce was a feast for mouth as much as it was to the sould. Definitely the second best dish of the dinner. 

Meat was tender and the accoutrements were full of surprises yet worked in perfect harmony.

Oh and the wine? Ah, the wine. 

Before the dessert all the other tables were served a pre-dessert. Every other table but ours. Why that is, we still don't know. Was our dessert wine somehow exceptionally exceptional that maybe others were not served? That was deemed to make up for it? We still don't know. Should we even have to ponder this kind of things? Again, we don't know. 

The wine was crazy good, though. Crayzeeeeee. 

Another thing we found puzzling was the way staff insisted we take their car. Having other plans, we turned it down for the first 3 times but as the fourth staff member insisted we let the driver drive us where ever we needed to get to, we gave in.

The whispering sommelier approached our table and with him, a bottle of French dessert wine you can only by a container load (?) at a time. Apparently it's only served for the very best customers. And good it was. So very, unbelievably good.

The only damper on the things was the pre-dessert we for some reason were not served. Maybe we were the only ones who got served this wine rarity? But still, everybody else got that funky looking white marshmallowy lollipop that was then torched to its final serving glory. It looked like so much fun. I was disappointed. As were the cherubs. 

The dessert was a feast of innovation, aesthetics, flavours and textures: a combination of refreshing kaffir lime, cookie crumbs and gel-like jelly and berry sorbet.

The dessert was the Paradise apple. The dish looked like a study of a lonely apple in the woods. The soil was made using Vincents' chocolate, featuring (among other things )honeycomb biscuits. The apple itself was something wonderful in gel form containing something wonderful that was white. Some cherubs turned up for this one, too, though just a few. 

As we were asked about coffee, we both ordered espressos. For some reason they were served before the dessert (which came with its own wine anyway) and far too early as far as the chocolates were concerned. By the time chocolates turned up, the coffee was long gone. 

With the meal we also had some bread that came from Israel. There were three different types of butter, all made at the premises (of course). Coffee was brought before the dessert and chocolates which was weird. Then we were practically forced to accept their driver to take us back to the hotel. That was a bit weird, too. 

The total came to about 173 euros. 

That is (especially in a country like Latvia) a lot of money, so when you're shelling that kind of money on dining out, you expect everything to work smoothly. I for one want the staff to create a contact with me from the start.

To err is human, but you shouldn't have to pay 173 euros for them. I personally think two especially stood out: carpaccio and wine and the sorbet gate. And three, if you're counting the missing pre-dessert. 

Water for 2 people alone added 11 euros on to the bill. €11! For water! I sure expect it was squeezed out of a rock by a bunch of virgins as that's the only way it can be excused. 

Service was good. Water glasses were continuously topped up. A napkin fallen on the floor was replaced in seconds. Dishes turned up and empty plates removed without a glitch. Just about everything was timed well, too.

Upon departure were given small boxes to go. We thought they might be chocolates, but they weren't. They were organic biscuits. With Parmesan. So cheesy and so bloody good. 

Was the dinner worth every penny? No. Would I go again? Yes. But with my own money? I'd rather not.

The contrast to the euphoria that enveloped me after the last time was tangible. We were both quiet and a bit confused. What just happened? Why aren't we feeling more.... well, elated? 

Vincent's is, without a doubt, still the best restaurant in the country and as far as technical excellence goes, firmly in a league of its own. This time, however, didn't have a patch on the last time. Was it us? Or was it the restaurant? Have I eaten so well over the past year it would take something truly extra ordinary to impress me? I seriously doubt that.

Though the food was (for the large part) without a flaw, in order to be a success a dinner in a place like this requires all the other parts to come together in a similarly seamless fashion (converted into Finnish prices we are talking almost €1000 a head, after all) and the innovation, wow factors and elements of surprise (as opposed to, all that thing, again) are integral parts of that. As is the floor staff. 

One can't also forget the fact that people like me travel to these restaurants for the chefs, the true rock stars of our lives. So, it's only natural that actually meeting them takes the whole experience to a whole new level.

Would I go for third time? I'm sure I would. But with my own money? I doubt it.

For the full story of the first time, just see here.





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