Tallinn's restaurant scene boasts a few Medieval themed restaurants: not surprising, given the city's historical heritage and the marketing used to promote it. The absolutely first eating out suggestion I got about Tallinn Came from Juliane, a friend of ours. As soon as she heard we were headed there, she made us promise that we would be eating out in the Medieval themed Olde Hansa. Juliane, who has a passion for Medieval stuff, had eaten there, loved it and raved about it in such a way that we had no doubt we just HAD to try it out... if only to stop our ears from falling off. Still, I have to admit I was slightly dubious, and not because of Juliane's enthusiasm.
The problem is, whenever I had visited a Medieval themed place before, be it a restaurant or open-air feast (of which Germany has its fair share), I always felt like I was landing straight into a classic tourist trap. The "medieval theme" too often turns out to be food served under make-believe medieval names by people dressed up in costumes. Sometimes there's a show, but I'll leave that for anyone into blogging about torture. Arguing if the recipes are accurate or not does not, in most cases, even come close to the real problem: the use of tomatoes, potatoes and other "New World" ingredients says it all. Although I did not try any of Tallinn's Medieval restaurants apart Olde Hansa, I quickly started to suspect that the majority are the kind of places I just described. Call it sixth sense... or maybe it is just dishes like chicken teriyaki or gumbo that are a give-away.
I shouldn't have worried too much. Once we got to Olde Hansa and started browsing the menu I had to admit to myself that things would be quite different here. The naming of the dishes can be a bit preposterous at times, sounding like a mix between parodic Medieval prose and something put together by a chef in need of an ego massage (Grand beef of the Mighty Knight anyone?), but once I got over the pompous names I couldn't help notice that the menu seemed to be put together far more seriously than usual. The majority of the dishes focus on meat – there is even bear for the curious and brave – but chicken, fish and vegetarian courses get their share in the part dedicated to Lent dishes. Not being familiar with the details and evolution of Medieval cuisine, especially that of northern Europe, I have no idea of how authentic the recipes used really are. They do give the impression of being well researched with a predominance of Hanseatic-inspired cooking, and at least there's no trace of the usual obvious historical mistakes.
The interiors of Olde Hansa contribute to recreating the Medieval atmosphere as much as the food. Everything keeps the historic spirit of the place, from the nature-tones tinted frescos inspired to the art of the time to the lighting, provided almost entirely by candle (although with a minimal use of artificial bulbs). A professional historian might probably find reasons for criticising the decor, but for the rest of us the effect is quite stunning. The "wax cascade" (above, left) made by the candles illuminating the staircase to the first floor gives you a good idea of how many candles these people must go through. What was unexpected was the the toilets, where all the modern comforts are disguised to look "medieval", just like the sink tap transformed into a copper kettle.
While waiting for our food, we took or time to enjoy the ambience over one of Olde Hansa's surprisingly good beers. The drinks menu has a modern touch in the section dedicated to wines, yet its real strength is the Schnappses and Beers (though Ales might have been a better name) prepared according to old recipes with the same, if not more, care taken into putting the food menu together. We started off with a Dark Honey Beer, in which the honey gives a subtle undertone to the toasted malt notes. Very nice, especially if I compare to other honey beers I tried where the honey overpowers everything. Daniela stuck to that during our meal, while I tried the Dark Strong Beer with Herbs, which I found to be even better than the honey one. This beer goes back to the brewing recipes used when hops were not widespread as stabilisers and flavouring agents: brewers would use whatever bitter herbs and berries they would have growing in their area. Olde Hansa's Herb beer has a great taste, with bright juniper and mint notes leading the general herbal aroma. I was happy to see that both these beers get quite high notes from aficionados on the Beer Advocate website: if you like beer and travel to Tallinn, they really deserve a go.
We started our meal with a mixed meat appetiser plate, called "Rewal’s plate for tasting", containing juniper-ripened beef, orange tongue jelly, French royal poultry liver pate, onion jam, quail eggs, herb-bread with nuts plus a few pickles and cream sauces. The juniper ripened beef was definitely my favourite, well aged and not overpowered by the juniper, and both the liver pate and the onion marmalade are nice. I couldn't really warm up to the orange tongue jelly. The tongue and orange complements it nicely, but, given that I don't like jelly or aspic that much to start with, the only half set jelly didn't really win any points with me.
My "Honourable Cook Frederic's game sausages made from Bear, Wild Boar and Elk." (there goes one of those names again) came with smoked sauerkraut, turnips, onion jam and cowberries. The sausages where gamy but not overpoweringly so, juicy and simply quite nice. What made the dish peculiar were the side dishes: unusual and all, even those which had a predominant sour component, rather on the sweet side. I found that after a few bites the sweetness became a bit tiring, especially in the smoked sauerkraut. Game often wants a bit of sugar to balance its intense taste, but either people liked sweetness a lot more than I thought in the Middle Ages, or someone in the kitchen swapped the salt with the sugar. Daniela had the "Nobleman’s smoked fillet mignon in forest mushroom sauce" (above), served with side orders of spelt, lentils, home made pickles and bread. The meat was slightly smoked and then cooked perfectly medium-rare before resting on a bed of the rich mushroom sauce. In a way familiar tastes with a twist there. Some of the desserts sounded very intriguing, especially the cake with saffron cream, but given the portion size of the dishes, I wonder how many people order them: we didn't.
I quite liked Olde Hansa: it is a well designed and interesting restaurant, which is as much as food as it is about the atmosphere. The food is nice, though it would not come into my top ten of 2006 even if I had one. Still, there's plenty on the menu I would have liked to try, and if I were to travel to Tallinn once more, I'd visit again. It is difficult to judge if the couple of things I did not appreciate were badly done or simply not to my taste. After all travelling backwards in time, food-wise, has to be a bit like trying a new foreign cuisine: unfamiliar tastes don't always strike a chord at first go. On the other hand, no doubt whatsoever on the beers: original, intriguing and extremely drinkable.
Since not everyone is so obsessed about food as I am (someone very close to me comes to mind), it might be interesting for some to know that the same people who run the restaurant have opened in 2005 a little shop for those who would like to take home some Medieval-inspired souvenir.
Krambude, which more or less translates into jumble hut, is in the same building as the restaurant and just around the corner from Olde Hansa's main door. It sells the tableware used in the restaurant and more: vases, glasses, spices and even clothes, all inspired to Medieval objects. A fun place to browse around, even if you are not planning to buy anything, though temptation might have the best of you. I must admit I gave in and bought one of those cool beer mugs in one of the pictures above.