Kristjan Peäske

Estonia is a land of surprising contrasts. Half of the country is covered in forest, yet Estonians live in one of the world’s most digitally advanced societies. And despite being considered a Baltic nation, Estonia has more in common with Finland across the gulf than any of its northern European neighbours. A similar dichotomy underpins Estonia’s dining scene where farm-to-table cooking and casual Scandinavian-influenced hotspots rule. In short: Estonia has much to offer hungry visitors, and Kristjan Peäske – a sommelier and restaurateur behind some of Estonia’s most exciting restaurants – wants to help travellers make the most of their visit to Tallinn, Estonia’s emerging capital.
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Welcome To Estonia

Geographically, Estonia is located between Finland and Russia. Over the years, the country was captured by the Danes, Swedes, Russians and Germans who all helped shape our culture. The conflicts of the past 30 years have also been challenging for Estonians and instilled in us the need to continuously adapt to situations. We embrace change very easily which explains the big electronic success the country has witnessed in recent years. We like to think of ourselves as newcomers to the Scandi countries. I mean, we’ve always been part of this region in a way. Once upon a time we were Vikings and have strong feelings towards Nordic countries, especially Finland. Our languages are very similar and unlike any other language in the world, and we both have a strong position on nurturing nature. Tallinn is a very compact city. The cab-ride from the airport to the city centre is just five minutes and the distance between places is quite short. 

The Importance of Seasonality, Foraging and Preservation 

I moved to the capital 15 years ago, but I’m actually a countryside boy. I grew up on a farm where you had to work hard to earn your veggies. A lot of Estonians still follow that lifestyle. We forage a lot of what we eat. It’s not just part of the restaurant culture: everybody goes foraging and pretty much everybody ferments stuff for the winter season. From spring to the start of autumn, what we eat is pretty much what we grow. The fun usually starts from the beginning of June when young potatoes are out. Everybody goes crazy for them. Compared to warmer climates, crops grown in Nordic regions take longer to grow, but when they’re finally there, they carry so much flavour. You can make an amazing meal just by boiling new potatoes, throwing in some butter, dill and salt. It’s simple but really delicious. Baby carrots follow, then strawberries are suddenly here. They’re usually only around for two, maybe three weeks, but when they’re there, they’re crazy delicious. Next, it’s time for chanterelles and blackberries. When raspberries and blackcurrants become available, it’s officially berry season, and then there’s more mushrooming to be done. Throughout that season, there is a lot happening, but it’s a big challenge to cook something delicious in the springtime. You often have to serve something pickled or marinated from autumn. This challenge can lead to something quite delicious, though.

Balancing Local and Global

First-time visitors to Estonia should try Lee, our farm-to-table restaurant. It’s where you can experience what the game in our forests tastes like and try last season’s preserved mushrooms. The menu constantly changes from June to October as the seasons fly by. Lee is the new name of Leib, the first place [Peäske’s business partner and chef] Janno Lepik and I opened together and ran for nine and a half years. Last autumn, we decided to end that chapter and rethink how we would run a farm-to-table concept 10 years on. Together with Canadian-Japanese head chef Hiro Takeda and former sous chef Annika Uibo who had both come to us from Copenhagen, we discussed what sort of attitude and direction the new restaurant would have. Hiro employs his diverse background and experiences to think without borders and make things such as fish sauce from local fish and soy sauce out of leftover rye bread. Previously when the restaurant was Leib, we wouldn’t use lemons with our local fish because there are no lemons in Estonia. Then we heard Christian Puglisi from Relae say a few years ago that if he wanted to use olive oil, he’s happy to do so, even if it came from Sicily. That freed us in a way. So now we’re not as conservative as we once were, although our main ingredients and produce are still sourced locally. Today’s world is much more open. As people in restaurants, we can embrace that while still considering sustainability as much as possible in our daily routine. 

Lee’s More Casual Off-shoot

Janno and I are still very much active in the daily operations of the business and are always in one of our two restaurants. Although we provide mentorship and guidance to our team, we want our chefs to have freedom of expression. Tauno Tamm started as a trainee with us 10 years ago and is now chef of our bistro, Lore. It is much more easy-going than Lee in style and reflects our team’s food trips around the world. Although Lore still features local produce, we are also happy to outsource something delicious and sustainable such as hand-dived scallops from Norway. I understand that we can’t save the world with these decisions, but at least we don’t contribute to the problem. We try to base our decisions on what feels right for us. I think if every chef made these kinds of decisions, the global result would be impressive. 

“Open Your Mind and Fasten Your Seatbelt”

38 Restaurant is as fresh of an opening as it gets. Bread arrives on the table with a candle, which you soon discover is actually the butter for this delicious sourdough. Talented chef Joonas Koppel pushes boundaries for both his guests and himself. It’s the most fun and engaging experience in Tallinn right now. Open your mind and fasten your seatbelt. The tasting menu is definitely what you should go for and includes signature bites like a set of plump lips hiding a concoction of chicken pâté and raspberries.

Puff Pastries By Day, Natural Wine By Night

Karjase Sai has the best puff pastries in Tallinn. It is so popular that everything is often sold out, so when I go there, I just choose from whatever is still remaining. The name has a double meaning: Karjane is the name of one of the owners, but also means “shepherd”, so the name of the place translates to “shepherd’s bread”. After starting as a cafeteria with loads of baked stuff, the owners expanded and opened Barabea, a really cool Copenhagen-style bistro on the second floor of the same building that trades in the evenings. A lot of people miss it because you don’t stumble on it if you Google “Estonian restaurants”. It’s my favourite evening hangout and has one of the best natural wine lists in Estonia and mostly features hip, up-and-coming winemakers. If an industry friend is visiting me in Tallinn, I would want to meet them in a relaxed atmosphere where people around you are happy and things just happen: where we get to taste really nice food and a lot of it. Barabea serves “grab-and-share” dishes including an excellent hummus, baba ganoush with freshly baked flatbread, and a perfect beef tartare. 

A Museum Restaurant with a Focus on Sustainability

For me, good wine lists and good restaurants go hand in hand. I only really like restaurants if they have good wines. The restaurant at photography museum Fotografiska is one of my favourite spots. Its wine list focuses on exciting, new wines and winemakers. The guys in the kitchen use simple ingredients in quite a complex way. Sustainability is in their DNA and they follow a nose-to-tail, zero-waste philosophy in a very creative way. I like them a lot.

My Favourite Wine Bar Serving Old and New World Bottles

Most Estonians tend to drift towards Italian wines. I generally like wine lists to represent both worlds: the cool newcomers and the good old classics. Time to Wine is a wine shop and bar with two locations. It’s extremely good value for money and the staff are very professional. As a wine geek myself, this is the place I want to go for an aperitivo or digestivo. It’s a cool place to hang out with friends. They don’t mind you ordering in some food from elsewhere if you feel like having more than just a few bites to accompany their wines.

A Classic French Restaurant (Minus the Formality)

If I’m after something more traditional, there is a classic French restaurant called Dominic that has one of the best Old World wine lists. It’s a place where you really get to travel back in time. It’s relatively good value considering it’s a white tablecloth kind of restaurant and the service staff are in their 40s which is quite rare for Estonia. They really know what to do, but still have a sense of humour. There’s no deeply serious French vibe at all. 

The Best Fine-Dining in Estonia

When speaking of fine-dining, 180° by Matthias Diether and Noa Chef’s Hall should always be mentioned. Although they’re kind of opposite to one another, they represent the city’s fine-dining scene. Matthias Diether is a German chef, behind a Michelin-starred kitchen, who is all about the classics. If you want to taste the best classical sauce in a perfectly executed fish dish, 180° is the place to go. Matthias does everything by the book and does it to perfection. The service is impeccable like one would expect from a fine-dining restaurant. Noa Chef’s Hall is possibly my favourite fine-dining restaurant in all of Estonia. It has a creative and concise wine list that combines the new and the classics. The kitchen has a visible Nordic influence, but it’s more than just the best ingredients and the most complex techniques. What’s cool is that the food can be really unexpected: beef cooked with lardo on an open fire is one of its classics.

When Fine-Dining Chefs Go Casual

The owners of Moon are Russian chefs who ran a fine-dining restaurant a decade ago. Back then, they were the best chefs in the country but decided they were done with fine-dining and wanted to open a more relaxed place. They make food from their Russian heritage but blend it with Scandinavian thinking. It’s the best place in town to discover borscht (a sour beetroot soup from Eastern Europe) or chicken Kiev (breaded chicken breast stuffed with butter and herbs). It’s utterly delicious and not pretentious at all.

An All-Time Favourite

I really like Salt, a busy, underground, 30-seat bistro. The owner travels a lot and brings her discoveries back with her. It’s no-borders thinking, so you basically get to see influences from South America all the way to Africa, then something jumps in from Asia. It sounds kind of crazy, but it’s delicious. I remember having a Korean yukhae (beef tartare) with wild mushroom chips.

The Rise of Vegan Dining

Having vegan and vegetarian dishes on restaurant menus has become very important and Tallinn has very good vegan restaurants. It’s a lifestyle we want to promote and we’ve added many vegan dishes to the menu at Lore as well as introduced a full vegetarian menu at Lee. We shouldn’t be eating meat daily. It can obviously be something to enjoy occasionally when going to a restaurant, but we also want it to be very easy for people to enjoy a vegetarian lifestyle when going out. There’s a real demand for it. I eat meat quite rarely now: let’s say 10 times less than what I used to a decade years ago. Vegan Restoran V in the Old Town has become quite popular and is the first place I’d recommend for a vegan meal.

Great Sourdough Bread, Food, Wine and Danish Furniture 

My favourite sourdough bread is at Kotzebue Bakery. The bakery is in the same building as Tsunft, a restaurant, wine bar and wine importer. The owner knows his wines and imports historic and biodynamic wines, mostly from Italy and some of France’s high-end wineries. It’s really good value considering what you’re drinking. Everything is all done so elegantly and Tsunft also shows off the latest trends in Danish furniture.

Tallinn’s World-Class Coffee Scene

The coffee quality in Tallinn has become really world-class. The scene has grown enormously over the past few years and I’m happy to see so many great local roasters. Paper Mill is my favourite and has a nice back story. These Estonian guys left for London around 2010 and ended up with a very successful coffee business called Mission Coffee Works. One of the partners returned to Estonia and applies the same mentality to his coffee shop and roaster here. They make really elegant coffee which is why we buy our coffee from them. I also like that we’re really like-minded. For example, they deliver to us on bicycles and collect their packaging so there’s no waste lying around. We also have the same emphasis on quality, so having a chat with them is always nice. They also make really great breakfasts and simple foods for lunch. You’ll probably need to catch a taxi to get to them. The Brick Coffee Roastery is another one of my favourite roasters. I also like Røst, which is an extremely good bakery that serves very good coffee from the best micro-roasters in Estonia and beyond. It also makes delicious pastries and sandwiches with its sourdough breads.

A Craft Beer Taproom Serving American-Style Dishes and One of My Favourite IPAs

Tallinn also has really good beer taprooms. Next door to Lore is Põhjala which is a well-known craft brewery that exports a lot. Like Hiro at Lore, the chef at Põhjala is also Canadian-Japanese. Before coming to Estonia, he worked at places such as Faviken and now serves really tasty American-style food: think gumbo and Texas-style barbecue such as 12-hour smoked brisket. There’s nothing vegan here. The beers are delicious and include everything from pilsners to barrel-aged sours. Out of the brewery’s classics, I like the Virmalised IPA: its bitterness is well-balanced with the maltiness of the hops and the aromas are just fantastic. The taproom focuses mostly on the brewery’s own beers but also feature beers from other brewers. 

My Favourite Bars in Tallinn

Whisper Sister is Tallinn’s only speakeasy and is one of those places you need to know about to find. The owner has travelled a lot and the attitude of the place reflects his time in Copenhagen. The best thing to do is to sit at the bar and chat with the staff and the industry people that frequent the place. Kaif is another neighbour of Lore’s and has become one of the city’s busiest bars. It has an easy-going vibe and the bartenders are very fun and creative. On the first floor of an an industrial building facing the Noblessner Marina, is Kaif’s cocktail bar which serves craft cocktails. On the second floor, the team is launching Kaif Agaveria, which will solely be focused on agave spirits. Botanic is my new favourite bar. It’s a dark, cosy place with less than 20 seats. The owner is always there and it’s just him and one other staff member working. If he’s not there, the bar is closed. He has a strong background from working in New York and pays extreme attention to detail. He makes some of the most delicious cocktails in Tallinn. All the glassware was collected from overseas antique shops and every glass is a piece of art.

Local Organic Ice Cream That’s Sold in Supermarkets

La Muu makes delicious organic ice creams and is available from pretty much every supermarket. The whole idea was born because the owner wanted to serve good ice cream to his children. He comes from the banking industry but has revolutionised ice-cream-making in Estonia. He created creamy styles of ice cream and sorbets, and it all tastes really natural. I always have La Muu at home and I’m very thankful to have it as an option. 

A Historic Estonian Sweet (And Where To Find It)

There’s a very local sweet called “kama” that you can’t find easily anymore. You really have to look for it. It’s a mixture of different ground grains and dried peas, mixed with kefir and sugar. Some call it Estonian muesli. Historically, it was eaten to provide people with lots of energy and nutrition. The windmill restaurant Saaremaa Veski in Saaremaa might have it. It’s a great place to discover historic Estonian flavours.

Where To Buy Mature Cheese, Sauna-Smoked Meat and Other Edible Estonian Souvenirs

There is a very good gift shop in the Old Town called Eesti Esindus Tallinnas (“Estonian Embassy in Tallinn”). The owner hated how touristy the Old Town had become, so he opened a huge shop selling Estonian souvenirs that look cool and taste good. He takes a quality approach to everything, so you can really trust his choices. Kaubamaja – which basically means “shopping centre” in Estonian – is also in the centre of the city. It’s a premium shop for exclusive stuff from makers all over Estonia. Here you can stock up on things such as sauna-smoked meat and really good mature cheeses.

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