It’s true the weather in Tallinn trends somewhat chilly in February. That, of course, is due to the fact the Estonian capital is located at roughly the same latitude as Stockholm, making it one of the northernmost cities in the world.

Weather aside, my culinary experience in Tallinn begins memorably, if nothing else. I blame the Vikings. After all, it was they who most likely concocted the pork dish which begins with the boiling of pig’s feet, called sült, I accidentally sample at Kuldse Notsu Kõrts. If simple pig’s feet weren’t enough, more pork is added to the recipe before it is poured into a mold that makes it look like meat Jell-O. It may be a dish found by different names throughout the Baltics, but in Estonia it’s often made in large batches stored in jars, possibly waiting only to be opened when unsuspecting tourists, such as myself, visit restaurants that often have only a small sign on the front signifying they’re a eatery.

But sült and other not-for-the-weak-of-heart recipes were born as a way to deal with the culinary limits imposed by the long, dark winters of a city just across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki. Nonetheless, I try not to let these realities dim my opinion of this petite Baltic capital framed by picturesque lakes and sublime forests that possesses a surprisingly sophisticated culinary scene.

For proof of Tallinn’s sophistication, look no further than the aforementioned Kuldse Notsu Kõrts (“Golden Piglet Inn”). Billed as a traditional country restaurant specializing in Estonian fare from days of yore, the cozy eatery on Dunkri 8, in the UNESCO World Heritage Site Old Town district, challenges conventions by breaking away from meat-heavy tendencies by infusing fresh vegetables for dishes like Old Witch’s Mushroom Soup and Country Woman’s Courtyard Beans amid a plain atmosphere devoid of fancy artworks — or even cushioned chairs — that a more upscale restaurant in Western Europe might have. The fixed menu was redone in November 2013, adding the produce items while still highlighting its famous blood sausage and homemade cheese, washed down with house vodka. Good bets are the hernesupp suitsulihaga (pea soup with smoked meat) and tuuliku kama (dessert of grains, curdled milk, and red and black currants), which go great with A. Le Coq, a full-bodied beer produced in Estonia’s second-largest city of Tartu.

Despite its odd appearance, the meal of sült was satisfying, filling in a way only an American Thanksgiving or the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr can match. Hearty, anything but spicy, visually intriguing but uncomplicated in its taste, this was proof that looks can be deceiving when it comes to imagining how what was essentially a slab of meat next to potatoes would stimulate the tongue. At 13 euros ($17.70), it was a relative bargain compared to the sky-high prices common in Tallinn’s restaurant scene, particularly the tourism-driven Old Town. My waiter, Ville, was an attentive host, never too pushy but knowledgeable enough to know just what to recommend as an introduction to the cuisine of this country, famed as a holiday destination during the days of the Soviet Union, which only regained independence in 1991.

As tends to happen when eating, I was full, meaning it was time to walk around for a bit under a waxing moon. Tallinn may not have made a name for itself yet as a foodie city, but the word certainly seems to be spreading. That was immediately evident upon exiting Kuldse Notsu Kõrts, where, even despite the sheen of ice, the streets were full of hustle and bustle beneath a starry night sky. These visitors, both Estonian out-of-towners and international visitors from nearby Helsinki — just a 30-minute flight across the Gulf of Finland away — and further abroad, represent a more discerning crowd that typically trends older (and thus has more disposable income).

Regardless of origin, one of the best ways to spend a night here is with a steaming cup of gourmet coffee, and there’s much buzz about Anneli Viik, a chocolate café on Olevimagi near the equally-renowned Slothrop’s Bookshop. Here one can join a cosmopolitan crowd that wouldn’t be out of place in Manhattan. The airy interior references old Paris: romantic small round tables framed by minimalistic chairs and neutral-tone walls, all focused around the service counter featuring a glass cabinet that displays all manners of chocolaty conceptions. An added boon is a simple glass wall, through which customers watch confectioners at work. The cozy simplicity, coupled with a worldly clientele, meant it was just my kind of place, where I could sit back and listen to the goings-on of others whilst sipping a cup of my favorite drink.

Founded in 2004 and named for the woman who owns it, Anneli Viik has established itself as, perhaps, the premier coffee and dessert spot in Tallinn. The names of its sweets are inspired by classical music — “Aida,” “Amadeus,” “Tosca” and more — providing a very suitable background for what’s among the most sophisticated spots in the Baltics. Its coffee and chocolate focus may naturally lend itself as a magnet for couples, but it’s also a great spot for people-watching. And the food is simply divine. Take the “Amadeus”: a mild flavored hazelnut bonbon with coffee and almond cream. Or the “Madama Butterfly,” a bonbon with milk chocolate filling, flavored with Bailey’s liqueur. Just try to resist.

The next day is as cold as the night was before, with an overcast sky that’s threatening to snow. I weave through the Old Town’s maze of icy, narrow streets and slide into Olevi Residents, a light-colored building that would be rather nondescript were it not for the Estonian, Finnish and Russian flags flying out front. Chefs in Tallinn are now using locally sourced ingredients and reinventing traditional recipes, especially in the aftermath of the global economic crisis, and here it showed. Housed in one of Tallinn’s oldest cellars, dating from the beginning of the 14th century, Olevi is where some of Estonia’s most creative chefs work their magic using the New Nordic style, referring to a slow-food movement that uses ingredients such as sea buckthorn, langoustine, shrimp and rhubarb in a modern way.

The décor also has a modernist influence. Plain white walls decorated with various pieces of Estonian art frame utilitarian wooden tables with cushioned chairs and benches under a ceiling of exposed wooden beams, a cozy subterranean setting more commonly associated with a hip brewpub than a history-steeped kitchen.

But no matter how inviting the surroundings may be, the focus at Olevi is firmly on the food, and it delivers marvelously. Wild boar baked under dough with vegetables, alongside potato pancakes, cranberry sauce and diced tomatoes was presented speedily, as appealing to the eyes as it was to the olfactory receptors. The meat, generously slathered in sweet-tasting sauce, boasted a melt-in-your-mouth quality not expected of a creature known for its untamed ferocity. The flaky dough had a certain unsweetened flavor, suggesting it was homemade, the vegetables tasting as if they had come straight from a local farmers’ market. This didn’t feel like a restaurant; it was lunch in someone’s own dining room. And, at 11.70 euros ($16), at a price that — like dinner the night before — seemed outright highway robbery, on the diner’s part. Complemented by a shot of Vana Tallinn liqueur — a dark brown and robust rum-based liqueur produced by Estonian company Liviko since 1960 that tastes similar to an Irish coffee — for 3 euros ($4.10), it was an ideal climax to a brief soirée into this up-and-coming gastronomic locale. Adventurous, yes, but also sophisticated.

Belly once again full, it’s time to negotiate the labyrinth of the Old Town’s uneven cobblestones. Walking down the streets, an idyllic scene dominated by the soaring St. Olaf’s Church that from 1549 to 1625 was the tallest building in the world, a simple fact springs to mind: Tallinn is culinary heaven on earth.

Even the cold can’t mask that.

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