an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Leib: My Favorite Estonian Restaurant

 

Whenever I have guests visiting from far off places who love good food, I’ll take them to Leib as it showcases the best that Estonia has to offer. Leib is all about farm-to-table dining as the restaurant has long-standing arrangements with farmers, fishermen, and even hunters all across the country who help them gather up Estonia’s culinary bounty. And when my overseas friends aren’t visiting often enough, then I’ll talk my Estonian friends into going back to Leib with me – or just go on my own if need be. After all, Leib is my favorite Estonian restaurant – and probably my favorite restaurant in Estonia as well.

By naming itself in honor of Estonia’s Staff of Life, Leib raised expectations from the moment it opened its doors in 2011 – and then set about to deliver on them. As you would expect from the name, Leib serves up some wonderful leib (black bread) to start off every meal. This leib – with its crunchy crust and moist interior – is baked especially for them by one of Tallinn’s finest home bakers. It is then served with some lovely farm fresh butter topped with a sprinkle of sea salt and some finely chopped chives which you can then smoother on the leib with a juniper-wood spreader. Although I still dream of Orissaare leib, Leib’s version is one of the few in Tallinn which helps me fill the void created when my favorite island bread vanished.

And Leib’s attention to leib doesn’t stop there. As it just so happens, the best way to end your meal at Leib is with their impressive crème brûlée which is filled with tiny bits of dried leib. While this might sound somewhat strange, the leib manages to turn what should be a quintessentially French dessert into a very Estonian one. Oh, and if you happen to visit Leib in summer, you should ask them if they’re making their delicious homemade leib ice cream. While their other desserts are almost equally impressive, you should always go to Leib with a friend so that at least one of you can order a leib-based dessert.

While I understand that I shouldn’t start a proper restaurant review by talking about bread and dessert first, it makes perfect sense for Leib. Plus, this will serve as your double reminder not to turn away their bread (something which has becoming increasingly trendy in other restaurants) and to save some room for dessert (even if everything else looks great).  After all, between these two black bread bookends, there is plenty more to excite the palate. Fortunately, local and Finnish foodies have already figured this out and so flock to Leib in numbers which helps keep my favorite restaurant going through what would otherwise be a very long and lean winter season. Yes, it’s best to visit Leib during Estonia’s brief summer when you can sit outside in the garden or on the covered terrace running along Tallinn’s City Wall. And yet, the summer season in this part of the world tends to be too short and the weather too unreliable to turn this into a stable business model. Instead, Leib puts its trusts in the quality of its food to keep its fans coming back all year round. During lunch time, you can even watch the food deliveries arrive straight from their partners and other suppliers before they are brought into the kitchen or stored in Leib’s cellar built right into the Wall.

Now there is probably little point for me to get into the specifics of Leib’s menu. After all, their menu changes constantly as it adapts from season to season – and even within seasons – depending on what is available from the Estonian sea- and countryside. And while their menu was once just a little bit longer, their current list of tasty appetizers has now been streamlined down to just four dishes. For fish lovers like me, there is always some carefully sourced Baltic fish. For cheese lovers and vegetarians, there tends to be a cheese dish – often featuring goat cheese from Estonia’s artisanal Kalamatsi Dairy Farm. For meat lovers, there is usually an offering of beef – or perhaps some game depending on the hunting season. Just don’t be surprised if an egg shows up somewhere in the mix as Leib’s chefs love experimenting with them. And to keep current with Estonia’s growing vegan movement, there is now a savory seasonal vegetable offering as well. Of course, I really haven’t done justice to any of these four options as I’ve failed to describe the ever-changing sauces and accompanying ingredients that they’re served with in order to maximize the main feature’s taste. In other words, you’re better off looking at their current menu and then deciding for yourself what starter will work best for you on any given day.

As for me, I almost always go with their fifth opening option: the soup. As a former soup cook, it didn’t take me long to realize that Leib makes the best cream soups in Tallinn. The reason for this is that Leib’s chefs understand the importance of maximizing both flavors and textures. Cooking in an Italian restaurant, I learned the importance of multiples – one cheese is good but two or three cheeses working in tandem are even better. Take Leib’s autumn mushroom cream soup as an example. While their use of fresh and dried mushrooms is to be expected, it is the addition of their pickled mushrooms which turns this soup into something truly amazing. Add a few toasted hazelnuts (or something else for the crunch) – along with some homemade herb oil – and then you end up with a wonderful soup that I could eat each and every day. And yet the soup that I look forward to most of all is Leib’s winter onion cream soup. The soup is built around those delicious onions from Lake Peipsi – Estonia’s best. But it is the addition of various other onions – including crispy onion chips, homemade chive oil, and pickled red onions – which showcases the power of multiples and creates the most amazing onion soup that I’ve ever eaten. Indeed, you’ll find that the kitchen’s signature sour accent mark is repeated throughout most of Leib’s soups as the chefs have discovered how sourness opens up your palate while the added swirl of oil helps transfer all these flavors straight to your taste buds.

These days, Leib’s main courses have also been pared down to just four (sometimes five) choices following the same pattern as the appetizers. As Leib serves up some of the best fresh fish available in Tallinn (sourced from their fishermen partners in Pärnu Bay), I’ll almost always order it, no matter how it happens to be prepared. Instead of a cheese-based main, however, Leib will usually offer something prepared from local poultry – usually quail or guineafowl rather than chicken – cooked up in an ever-changing number of different ways.  Vegetarians – and now vegans – will be able to choose a tasty seasonal vegetable-based dish which will serve as proof of the kitchen’s ongoing creativity. For those who want to maximize their protein intake, there’s usually some grass-fed Estonian beef on the menu – although it’s sometimes replaced with a cut from a different beast. And if wild game is available and in season, then it might become the fifth option on the menu. Leib also serves other occasional specials – especially around the holiday season – so be sure to ask. And as I know people who will decide on their main course based on the vegetables, starches, and sauces that come with them, then you should also check out their latest menu to decide what it is you should order. Whatever you choose, you’re unlikely to go wrong. This is Leib, after all.

This is not to say, however, that Leib hasn’t changed over the years. In fact, just like its menu, Leib is always changing. When Leib first opened, sommelier Kristjan Peäske was fully focused on his craft beer pairings to match each of the dishes available on head chef Janno Lepik’s menu. These days, to keep up with changing tastes and the growing number of Finnish food tourists, Leib’s top-of-the-line waitstaff are just as likely to offer you wine pairings – although they can still recommend the best Estonian craft beer to go with your food (including some options brewed by Kristjan himself). Fortunately, both owners are still very much “hands on” even if they’ve passed the day-to-day running of the restaurant onto others. And while Leib’s front-of-house crew keeps on changing – especially after the opening of their sister restaurant Umami (more on that soon), good training and good management keeps the staff at Leib fully focused and on task. While far too many of Tallinn’s small restaurant empires suffer from over-extension when all the attention expended on their new restaurant results in quality slipping at the original, this has not been the case with Leib. Fortunately for food lovers, Leib is still going as strong as it ever was.

If you haven’t ever been to Leib – or haven’t been back in a while, then I would recommend that you make plans to go visit them at Uus 31. While you might be able to get into the restaurant as a walk-in (especially at lunch time), you may want to make a reservation just to be sure (especially on weekends or evenings). When you do go, don’t be surprised by your walk through their garden past the busts of Scottish national poet Robert Burns, Scottish Actor Sean Connery, and Admiral Edwyn Sinclair Alexander-Sinclair (whose squadron helped protect Estonia during its War of Independence) – or, for that matter, the half-hidden mural dedicated to “Famous Grouse.” Leib, you see, was once home to Tallinn’s quirky Scottish Club which gathered in the 1990s to enjoy single malts. As the Scottish Club still owns the building, the inside of the restaurant resembles the club it once was with its dark wood paneled walls and a subdued interior coupled with stained glass windows and an unusually bright white columned bar. Leib’s owners have then added some Estonian touches including leather place mats as well as sheep skin seat covers over some of the chairs. Moreover, the background music tends to be all Estonian – even if some of the Estonian musicians might be singing in English. In the end, the absence of pretentious white table cloths works just fine with the restaurant’s casual and eclectic interior. After all, the true focus at Leib is on serving the finest food that Estonia has to offer.

 

Image: A double-fish wooden trivet by an unknown craftsman on Scotland’s Shetland Islands.

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