I have never been to Ottolenghi in London, and I cockily didn’t understand the hype—I imagined his food to be like something healthy anyone would throw together in 10 minutes when cooking self a lunch to eat at computer—until my one meal in Riga. I know Ottolenghi has nothing to do with the capital of Latvia, and I hate comparing restaurants, because every restaurant worth writing about should be different, but since I only have an imaginary Ottolenghi as reference, I claim the position to make comparisons.
I stumbled upon Osiriss four doors down from my hotel on Barona iela when I was looking for tea and internet, but the moment I caught the waiter having a boogie behind the bar, I decided to stay for lunch, foregoing lunch at the famous Bergs.
The prices are very reasonable for the fresh, seasonal and ever-changing menu that they offer at this 17-year-old café (in post-Soviet age, 17 years makes it an institution). Most items are between 4 and 6.5LVL, which is about $8-$12. I ordered the most expensive main course on the menu, at 8.5LVL: filet of beef stacked between grilled eggplant and zucchini, with sun-dried tomatoes and paprika ice cream and sauce, served with parsley rice.
After months of beef-deprivation in Beijing (a lot of beef is fake and tastes like pig piss, again, imagined comparison), the thick thick slabs of real beef were exactly what my taste buds forgot they needed so much; the thick slices of vegetables were substantial enough even for a veggie monster like me. On top of that, the pumpernickel was the best pumpernickel I never thought I would like: fragrant with caraway and juniper, and so flavorful it almost has a built-in tomato-honey tapenade. But what really tied it all together was the sun-dried tomato and paprika ice cream: sweet and sour and salty and bitter and spicy and umami and fresh all in one bite; a taste of summer with winter ingredients.
Yes, this simple plate could be something I throw together for a lunch-until-I-have-time-to-lunch lunch, but I never have. This dish never occurred to me. And that is the beauty of this simple and honest cuisine: it’s not obvious until you taste it, and once you do it makes so much sense that you wonder how you had managed to not see it your whole life. And I imagine that’s why people love Ottolenghi.
Even my 3000-calories-per-day stomach did not believe I could finish this huge plateful at 11 am, roughly an hour after my breakfast, but the power of gluttony had my plate clean in 15 minutes. I only wished that I had more room to try their chicken liver warm salad, a menu classic, or a cream cheese crepe with berry coulis for dessert.
To make up for this disappointing lack of stomach capacity, I took home the recipe for their sun-dried tomato and paprika sauce and ice cream: