It is a magic moment for Estonian cuisine. The culinary scene in this Baltic country has never been more active, with new restaurants opening every year. A new generation of chefs, born after the nation conquered his freedom from USSR, spent years in refining old techniques and studied new methods of cooking, revolutionizing the cuisine of this small country.
There is no Michelin Guide here. The leader in restaurant guides of the region is The White Guide, embracing all Nordic countries. Every year, they release a list of the top restaurants in the Baltic area, covering Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. At the top spot for the last two years in a row, NOA Chef’s Hall.
A 15 minutes drive from Tallinn city center, NOA restaurant sits on the border of the sea, facing the Gulf of Finland. Its modern, triangular shape is a perfect fit to the surrounding, with the lights of the old town of Tallinn reflecting over the Northern sea. Two different restaurants are hosted here: NOA, an 80-seatings restaurant with different menus and à la carte possibilities, and NOA Chef’s Hall. The latter, open only in the evening, sits on the corner pointing toward the sea of the building, featuring a beautiful open kitchen with a grill in the middle. There is only one menu option (the so-called “omnivore”) consisting of 7 courses.
Two young chefs are the creator of this Baltic gem. Executive chef Tõnis Siigur and head chef Orm Oja are two of the most prominent representatives of the new generation of chefs this country is offering to the world. Tõnis is a well-known entity in Estonian kitchens, previous director at Stenhus in Tallinn. Chef Orm Oja, 26 years old, is younger than the European Union. Youth and movement is the key in the kitchen. But it’s not only the head chef, all personnel on the other side of the counter is under 30, and the same can be said about hall’s staff, including the head sommelier, Sander Kink.
The menu takes inspiration from every corner of the world, proposing new solutions and pairings. We also opted for the wine pairing, featuring five wines all with European origins. There is an option to get a smaller version of the menu, with two fewer courses, but we opted for the longer, complete one.
Our table was a continuation of the kitchen counter, on the top level of the restaurant. In this way, we could admire the splendid hall and at the same time ask whatever question we could have to the excited chefs. The reception couldn’t be any better. Smiles were coming from every waiter, while we were promptly shown to our table, where one of the chefs greeted us and offered his help in any explanation to the courses.
Tasting Menu @ NOA Chef's Hall
The amuse-bouche is somewhat classical for Nordic cuisine: crispy salmon skin creates the base for a small ball of cream mixed with fresh dill and wakame. In truth, we were expecting something a bit more exciting. The idea is a bit old-fashioned, and the sour cream overcomes everything, without being satisfyingly contrasted by the fresh dill.
Bread is one of the fundamental ingredients of Estonian cuisine. At NOA bread is prepared in-house, in two versions. The traditional dark rye bread, or leib, and a white version coming straight out of the oven. These are served with homemade butter and pork crackling. They are both of outstanding quality, but, we must say, we may be biased as we completely fell in love with leib in this country!
The second entree is a signature dish. A tomato is peeled, smoked, glazed in BBQ sauce, and placed over a layer of blue cheese and scallion. Finally, a tomato broth is added to the dish for acidity correction. It’s a lengthy process of transformation for a vegetable. We appreciate how the chef managed to add umami to the tomato by increasing cooking times, but at the same time, we can’t understand the juxtaposition of the tomato with the blue cheese. In mouth, the melting result has a beautiful texture, but the taste is not entirely satisfying, with the acidity of the tomato coming out sharply against the deep flavors of blue cheese. It’s an idea, but we think it would welcome a severe dose of simplification.
A superb entree quickly redeemed the first miss. A delicate mushroom soup is served in a small glass, with its border surrounded by cumin seeds. Both ingredients are savvily balanced, giving the dish an astonishing aftertaste. On the bottom of the glass, some sweet capers deliver a final strike, increasing the complexity of the recipe and leaving a delightful impression.
The follow-up of this extremely flavored starter is a lovely vegetarian course, a charred leek infused with black truffles oil. A simple dish, making full use of the open charcoal oven behind the kitchen, delivering intense flavors with the right tone.
These first four dishes were served with a glass of Galician Albarino, “La Marimorena”, from Casa Rojo, vintage 2016. It’s a lovely white wine, with spicy and herbal aromas that well pairs with most of our starters (apart from the mushroom broth). In particular, it’s an inspired match for the tomato, resetting the palate from the massive doses of umami the dish carries.
The final starter is another intense, deeply flavored dish, the second signature dish of the evening and one of the immovable steps at NOA tasting menu. Black Angus tartar cooked with “fire oil,” and served with black bread, rocket mayonnaise & pickled fennel. Let’s start from the beginning. A thin Black Angus slice is rolled and put near the charcoal oven, to get a smoky flavor. The meat is lightly cooked by dropping tears of pork crackling on the beef with a funnel. A spectacular procedure with the burning fat creating tongues of fire in the oven. The dish is layered with a base of black bread, some mayonnaise, the black Angus and covered with pickled fennel. An extremely complex preparation with an underwhelming result. We felt there is not enough space for every ingredient to express at its best. We loved the different textures and temperatures of the dish, but the ending taste is just confused, with smoky flavors covering most of it.
The wine pairing for this course was our personal favorite for the night. Monte del Cuca 2013, Gambellara DOC is an orange wine from Menti family. The grapes,100% Garganega, are left fermenting on the skins without temperature control for 22 days. In this way, the wine gets intense, rich flavors of caramel and cooked apples. It’s a perfect match for this dish, managing the complexity of the recipe with a firm tannic note.
After a nice palate cleanser composed of a lovely sea buckthorn cream, with pear slices and juniper, served in an ice container, the first main is an exciting take on squid. The preparation, nicknamed “squidsotto” by our chef, is based on small pieces of squid joined together with a cream of egg yolk and mussel jus. The ending result is a risotto with the squid taking the place of the rice. A lovely course we enjoyed from the start to the ending. There are numerically fewer flavors compared to other dishes in our menu, but each one of them has time to open up and deliver different notes, where sweetness and acidity are perfectly balanced.
Together with the dish we received a glass of Bele Casel Prosecco. The particularity of the wine is that it’s refermented in the bottle, rather than with the classical Charmat method. This procedure creates a less fizzy, more structured wine, with savory notes. An interesting take on a challenging pairing, with a delightful ending result.
Lamb is the principal ingredient of the final main dish of the evening. In this preparation, a slice of lamb is charred and smoked over the fire and then presented with a layer of aubergines, pickled capers, and shiso, Japanese parsley. This preparation suffers from the same problem we experienced in the tomato. There is just too much going on on the plate, and we couldn’t follow every ingredient to its right destination. The lamb is incredibly moist and well cooked, but the pickles and the aubergine on top are fighting with it, while the parsley has very deep flavored that repeatedly hit our taste buds. We couldn’t appreciate this dish; it was just too confusing.
We felt the wine pairing was underwhelming as well (but sincerely, we couldn’t think of a possible pairing that may have worked here), and the Rioja 904 “Gran Reserva” 2007 appeared somehow lost among the different layers of flavors.
There is no second palate cleanser and no cheese plate. From the main dish, it’s a direct jump to the dessert. The only sweet course of the evening is a handful of blueberries macerated in olive oil and marjoram, covered with a “hut” made from meringues. It’s a fascinating dish that tries to play on the sweet and sour taste approach. We found the ending result to be a bit too sweet (the meringue were very aggressive), but we loved the idea. The wine pairing, a pear cider, was unfortunately unconvincing.
A series of petit fours closed our meal, with marzipan and some chocolates filled with buckthorn jelly.
It was difficult to rationally think about our experience. On one side, we really appreciate the effort of young chefs trying to bring new ideas and advance the culinary panorama in a region, but on the other end, we can’t leave untold that we just didn’t like some of the dishes and combinations of flavors. The service as well had some positive notes, everybody trying to do their best to give us a wonderful time, but some severe troubles (there was one chef putting food on the plate with his bare hands, not the best thing to do in an open-kitchen scenario). Among ups and downs, overall we had a mediocre experience. There is a ton of potential here, but it still needs time to smooth and get more refined.