Though any reference to Estonian cooking generally draws a blank stare from even well-traveled gourmets, Alexander, one of the best and most interesting new restaurants in Europe right now, is found on the tiny and stunningly beautiful Estonian island of Muhu, a two-hour drive south from Tallinn, the country’s capital. It’s still rather confidential, but a gastronomic awakening is occurring in the countries that surround Europe’s other great sea, the Baltic, which has long been dismissed as a region of marginal culinary interest by a world besotted with everything Mediterranean
Alexander, which occupies part of the imposing, late-19th-century manor house that once belonged to Baron Axel von Buxhoeveden (the imperial hunting master at the court of Czar Nicholas II and a member of a distinguished German-Baltic noble family that arrived on Muhu in the 14th century), opened a year ago, following the renovation of this building into an additional 14 hotel rooms at the charming Padaste Manor hotel. The restaurant’s intriguing and delicious “Nordic Islands cuisine,” which was conceived by Peeter Pihel, a young Estonian chef, and Martin Breuer, the manor’s Dutch proprietor, has turned it into a red-hot destination table for gastronomes from Stockholm, Copenhagen, Riga, Berlin and cities much farther afield.
The Nordic Islands cooking concept was born during the culinary research expeditions that Breuer and Pihel made in April to other islands in the Baltic Sea, including Zealand and Bornholm in Denmark, Aland in Finland and Oland in Sweden. “For most of its past, Muhu Island has been influenced by the other seafaring communities in the Nordic Islands region, which can still be noted in the food and cultural traditions of Muhu families to this day,” Pihel says. “We decided to rediscover these traditions,” Breuer adds. “On each island, we met with the chefs and restaurateurs that aim to cook at the highest-quality level and also have a dedicated interest in — and respect and passion for — terroir.”
Breuer and Pihel found a variety of first-rate produce that is now served at Alexander — cold-pressed rapeseed oil from Bornholm has displaced olive oil in the kitchen, and a blue cheese from the same island has become part of the larder — but the most important result of the expedition was a decision to not only source from local and regional farmers whenever possible but also to forage for wild foods on the grounds of the Padaste Manor estate and in the forests and fields of Muhu Island. To accomplish this, Breuer recently hired the Estonian horticulturist and biodynamics expert Mercedes Merimaa to become Alexander’s director of wild produce. Pihel notes that numerous herbs he and Merimaa spotted on their first outing have found a place in his menus, including sea milkwort, which was spotted on their first foray to the nearby beach.
During their Nordic Islands expedition, Pihel blogged about the restaurants and producers that he and Breuer visited. The site also lists produce that he describes as “very much Muhu,” or native to the culinary traditions of the island. A short list of these hyperlocal products offers a useful primer for anyone who can’t imagine what sort of food you might find on a tiny island off of the Estonian coast.
“Very much Muhu” includes bear leeks, caraway seeds, garlic, onions, heather honey, turnips, Baltic sprats and herring, flounder, eel, whitefish, pike perch, crayfish, potatoes, sour cream, berries (lingon, rowan, goose and cranberries among them), sea buckthorn, apples, rhubarb, cabbage, wild boar, lamb, pork, veal and deer, as well as — somewhat improbably — ostrich, which is raised on a farm a few miles from Padaste Manor.
The menus that Pihel serves in the elegant, high-ceilinged dining room change constantly, but his cooking is alert, inventive and informed by a tender and very intuitive respect for the produce he uses. A starter of deliciously nutty locally grown barley was prepared like a risotto and garnished with Muhu Island goat cheese, baked beets and Jerusalem artichokes, while smoked moose — a deeply flavored and wonderfully rich meat — was served as a carpaccio with asparagus dressed with cold-pressed rapeseed oil and roasted onions.
Main courses were similarly winsome and pure in taste and presentation, including a sublime rabbit boudin blanc with spring cabbage, rabbit jus and marjoram; and pike perch with roasted cauliflower, marinated wild garlic and celery. A terrific selection of mostly Baltic Islands cheeses is served with cloudberry and cow’s-slip jam, cumin bread and apple-wine syrup, and desserts run to intriguing compositions like sea buckthorn with sorrel ice cream and roasted buckwheat. Breuer has also assembled one of the best wine cellars in the Baltics.
Between meals, the tranquil seaside setting and cosseting rooms of Padaste Manor make it a blissful place to hole up with a good book. You can also cycle, hike, take a hot hay bath in the manor’s spa, visit the Muhu Museum — a charming, well-preserved village — to learn about the island’s history or explore the neighboring islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. Active or idle, you’ll doubtless return home in awe of the gastronomic revolution that’s simmering on Muhu and elsewhere around the Baltic Sea.