On my last night in Lithuania, I was treated to a very authentic experience at the bottom of a cavern in a tucked away room reserved for our party of 15. Žemaičiai Restaurant, located on Vokieciu g. in Vilinius, is a traditional Lithuanian restaurant, buried inside an ancient catacomb. Numerous rooms stem off, creating smaller more private rooms with only two or three tables to somewhat larger rooms with five or six. The floors are made of stone, with uneven, largely original blocks as your main walkway through the unusual, yet inviting old world structure.
The ancient cavern wasn’t the only thing old world about the place; the dishes in all their authentic glory were broad with influences from Russia, Scandinavia, Lithuania, Estonia and even Poland.
A local DJ, an all male musical trio and a local TV personality joined our group and before we even had a chance to get to know each other, I was mesmorized by the preparation and making of a Borsch-like soup which was becoming a reality before our eyes on a rustic wooden table next to the one where we would eventually dine, a room which became ours for five hours. They started with cucumbers and beets and then poured Kaffir over both ingredients in a large bowl. Kaffir, remarked the local TV personality, is available in Los Angeles, as if it were the most important tidbit we’d learn that night. Then came the milk, followed by dill, diced chives, a half a lemon, sea salt and two quarters of boiled eggs, which she tossed in last. Since dairy is the foundation of this cold soup, why not go all the way she says with a smile, as she proceeded to top off the soup with a dollip of sour cream.
Afterwards, we tasted. The tradition is to dip a hard boiled egg with a little sea salt into the cold beet soup and so….we did.
Our infamous Vilnius TV personality had a camera guy with him. I later learn that he wasn’t always in the world of media. Like everyone in this part of the world, if you’re over 40, chances are you had a pretty eclectic and often harsh upbringing. At 45 today, he started out as a night sniper in the military at age 18, where he spent two years in the Russian army. Later, he studied journalism and while he is a blend of both worlds, and considers himself a foodie, he says that wouldn’t have a clue which mushroom was poisonous or not in the numerous infamous fields of mushrooms that lie in Lithuania’s pastures. His wife on the other hand would be able to steer him right 90% of the time, he says with a smile.
Eventually we moved to the main table, where we started with a platter of smoked meat and cheese, specifically smoked bacon, salted pork fat, smoked sausage, ham, cucumber, chives, tomatoes, marinated mushrooms with herring and horseradish. Whoah Nellie. Are we in Eastern Europe yet?
The main courses were equally as rich, traditional at its core and the table was decadent in that rustic kinda way. We dined on potato cake and potato dumplings, locally known as ecepelinai, potato sausage, which they call vedarai, and a wild boar stew with parsley, soft potatoes and carrots. For dessert we had apple cheese, sour milk cottage cheese with honey, strawberry and hazelnuts served in a pastry which was boiled in vegetable oil.
Other choices if you wanted to order ala carte off the menu include herring with boletus, hot potatoes, sour cream and pickled red onions, chicken liver pate with apples and butter, smoked eel with fresh tomatoes, salmon with dill, zucchini pancakes, sour cream and radish salad, beef tartar with cheese, green salad, vinegar and oil sauce and a meat jelly, which is made of pig’s ears (not a typo), knuckles and tongues.
It is served with hot potatoes, horseradish and vinegar. You can also order fried bread with garlic, cheese, smoked pig’s tongues, ears and snouts, salty biscuits, cheese, beans with butter and fried bread. They recommend this appetizer of course with a dark beer. I had to smile because of course, a big bold pint of beer is the right pairing in every way.
You can also order a beer soup, which is served with yellow peas, sage, bacon and sausage. It wouldn’t be Lithuania if there wasn’t a mushroom soup on the menu, which is served with cream and toasted bread of course. There was also sorrel soup with smoked country meat and quail eggs, a fish soup with pancakes and chopped garlic and a Polish soup, which was boiled with bull stomach and vegetables, served with a dough crust on the top. For another time I thought.
Here’s where the other influences come in. In addition to veal liver, lamb chops and the Polish soup noted above, they serve quite a bit of game in Lithuania. You could order a venison steak with zucchini pancakes and red bilberries, game cutlets with stewed beetroot and potato rolls. If you haven’t figured it out yet, beets are as popular here as they are in Russia. They also had a wild boar goulash, a rabbit pie served in a puff pastry with orange juice, capers and a Dijon mustard sauce and a traditional beef steak served in a red wine and garlic sauce. And, let’s not forget the pork shank. Vegetarians beware given how prevalent meat is on the menus here, however there are plenty of salad and raw veggie platters to choose from as a lighter alternative or you can always load up on Borsch soup with a whole lotta bread and potatoes for dipping.
After the first course, I decided to wander around a bit and as always, I had my Canon 7D by my side. The light was dim everywhere in the cavern, as they only used lamps and candles, all of which added to the experience of being whisked away to another time.
Romantic, rustic, authentic and just downright a fabulous experience we’d highly recommend. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
Even the toilet looked like it came out of another era in time.
What was most magical about the evening besides the traditional Lithuanian cuisine and our charming company were the musicians. As a musician myself, I found myself getting giddy as a ten year old who has just been given her first piece of candy. Despite how much I’ve traveled, I never tire of local folklore or for once, think “been there, done that,” for I feel the same way about music from my own heritage and is there anything that demonstrates a culture’s passion better than its music?
Whether you’re playing the instrument or dancing to it, that expression comes from a deep dark but joyous place where you can be yourself in that moment and let the world’s troubles disappear behind you. That fabulous scene from Unbearable Lightness of Being comes to mind….the one at the end of the movie where despite the communist corruption happening around them, in that moment, with alcohol pouring and instruments playing, they dance into the night, taking in nothing but themselves, their laughter and their joy.
The joy and authenticity of this Lithuanian trio was electric and highly addictive. I danced to every number….how can a girl say no?
Below is a glimpse of the music which echoed through our chamber for a few hours on that deliciously warm and inviting night, one which left a lasting impression on me. A positive one.
Now, for a little dancing.
Note: my dinner was hosted by the local Lithuanian Tourism Board, however my opinions expressed here are entirely my own.