If you’re thinking of European gastronomic destinations, France and Italy are probably at the top of your list, possibly accompanied by Catalunya in the post-Ferran Adrià era. My strong guess is that Latvia doesn’t feature on your gastronomic bucket list, but on the evidence of the three night trip we just made to Riga, maybe it should.

With the fall of Communism and Latvia’s accession to the European Union, a generation of young chefs had the opportunity to travel to Europe’s foodie hot spots. More recently, with the 2008-9 banking crisis out of the way and the return of economic confidence, these chefs have been returning home and setting up restaurants. And they’re ambitious: the number of fine dining restaurants in Riga is way out of proportion to a city which has a quarter of the population of Paris or Rome and a tenth that of London.

Riga Central Market © Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin
Riga Central Market
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

In each of our three evenings, we ate in a different restaurant, all three of which served complex, interesting dishes with multiple textures and flavours. But before describing them in detail, I’m going to talk about the place which sets the scene: Riga Central Market. Back in the 1920s, the city planners had the idea of taking the metalwork from five giant Zeppelin hangars from a nearby airbase and turning these into the frame of a market complex that would replace the existing overcrowded and unsanitary market area (adding an attractive dose of Art Deco finishing for good measure). The resulting Central Market opened in 1930, after various hiccups including the Depression; today, it’s a UNESCO listed site and boasts a dazzling array of produce. It’s the freshness that makes you sit up and take notice: there’s a volume of high quality fruit and vegetables that is the equal of any market I’ve seen anywhere in the world. The variety may not be that of France or Italy – this was, after all, a Northern country in March – but the quality is superb. The city’s Northern DNA shows up in an array of stalls of pickled goods; the city’s heritage as a Hanseatic League port shows in the profusion of smoked fish and its byproducts (a whole hangar is devoted to fish). Apples come in extraordinary variety and size.

Our first dinner was at Biblioteka no.1, located in an impressive pavilion-like building in Vērmane Garden close to Latvia University. Our starters epitomised the Latvian fine-dining style: take superb ingredients and feel free to steal flavour ideas from anywhere in the world. A carpaccio of Cobia (a warm-water fish) on a finely grated salad (conventionally European) with a ponzu dressing (Japanese, sweet and citrus-flavoured) buzzed around the palate. Kamchatka crab with crisp tuiles, avocado, grated apple and a creamy sauce gave a neatly balanced variety of textures, underpinned by the flavour of top class seafood. Our main courses were hardly less eclectic: the smokiness of beef short ribs matched to the smoothest and richest mushroom puree, a grilled octopus dish straight out of Mediterranean cuisine.

Kolonāde restaurant © Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin
Kolonāde restaurant
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

Muusu, a stone’s throw away from St Peter’s and St John’s churches in the Old City, is a step down from Biblioteka in price and was a step up in the warmth with which we were welcomed. The food didn’t match Biblioteka for eclectic surprise value, but came close in flavour and was no less ambitious (a starter reading “Trout fillet confit, cooked at 42°C, lemon gel, ricotta cheese, purple potato crisps, pickled shallot onions” gives you the general idea). They also served one of the outstanding desserts of our trip: a confection of pineapple, coconut and yuzu.

My favourite, however, remains a restaurant we visited on our first trip to Riga: Kolonāde. Partly, it’s the building: a lovely pavilion across the park from Latvian National Opera. Partly, it’s a wine list stuffed with items from my favourite regions in Italy (including the obscure ones I don’t normally see in London). But mainly, it was down to the flavours of their complex dishes being perfectly balanced and the pure quality of the cooking: seaweed-coated halibut which you could cut through like butter; duck paté with cloudberry-apple jam which epitomised Baltic tastes.

Riga Central Market: Smoked fish © Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin
Riga Central Market: Smoked fish
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

The Rigan restaurant scene is characteristic of a phenomenon that one can observe in other fields of business: the vanishing mid-market. Riga has plenty of cheap eateries, from international chains like McDonalds, Scandinavian ones like Double Coffee, through to local kebab places, burger joints, pelmenyi (Siberian dumpling) restaurants and many others, as well as plenty of cafés and bars. And as I’ve observed, the city is brimming with high end fine dining places. What’s harder to find is anything in the middle: a mid-priced evening restaurant serving good quality but uncomplicated food. I’m sure there are some, but we didn’t get to try any, and one of our waitresses confirmed that they’re thin on the ground. It feels as if any Latvian chef worth his onions has no real interest in starting something that doesn’t aspire to the extraordinary. To be fair, the food prices at high end restaurants like Biblioteka, Muusu and Kolonāde are a fraction of their London equivalents (the wine prices are comparable).

Outside the realm of main meals, the city’s centuries-old trade links with the Netherlands have left Rigans with a serious coffee and chocolate habit. The big chocolate brand is Laima, which has been around since the 19th century. Their chocolate is mass produced but of good quality, at a sort of better-end-of-the-Lindt-range kind of level, and you’ll find it at the airport and in lots of places through the city. But there are also various specialist chocolatiers: we were very much taken by the mouthwatering display of truffles at Vilhelms Ķuze, as well as by its gorgeous Art Deco interior and the best coffee and cake of the trip.

On the left bank of the Daugava, a 15-minute cab ride from the city centre, the Kalnciema Quarter provides another view of Rigan food life in the shape of its Saturday market, which is as right-on as you please: the producers are small and local, much of the produce is organic. If you like your bread Nordic and dark or packed with seeds, the Latvians do it fabulously. There was a stall selling all manner of goodies made from quails’ eggs – from happy quails, we were told, who lay particularly well when you play them Baroque music. Less local, at least by origin, was the guy who imported Sicilian oranges and turned them into various products, and, improbably, the Portuguese baker who had been living in Riga for three years and was proudly churning out pastéis de nata for the locals.

Restoran 3 © Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin
Restoran 3
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

Our last food stop of the trip was lunch at Restoran 3, also in the heart of the Old City. In addition to their à la carte menu, they do multi-course tasting menus in the evening, but they also do what they describe as brunch but which is probably more accurately termed an “all-you-can-eat Sunday buffet”, since it starts at noon and has far more lunch than breakfast dishes. For €20, you get your fill (in our case, to be honest, rather more than our fill after three days of serious eating) of a mouthwatering selection of salads and hot and cold meat dishes. Some were plain (roast chicken, pork belly, green salads), others traditional (cured meats, shrimp/dill/egg salad), some of the salads were complex. All were super-fresh and delicious. Desserts were as good as any we had in Latvia: I confess that the blueberry-cream-filled chocolate eclair was a notch too extreme Nordic for me, but the cheesecake and rhubarb tart were amazing.

The goodies we brought home were gone all too soon: amazing olive bread and seed bread from Kancielma, as well as obscure herb tea, salmon caviar, Georgian chili-and-walnut paste, truffles from Ķuze. Clearly, our decision to fly home with hand luggage only was a mistake.

David and Alison’s trip to Riga was sponsored by Live Riga.