By Betty Gordon
© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.
This is the third in a series of posts about my two-week trip to Tallinn, Estonia; the country’s largest island Saaremaa; and Riga, Latvia, in May 2019. See my June 1 post about making an edible marzipan mouse in Tallinn, and June 10 about Salaspils, a former World War II concentration camp on the outskirts of Riga.
The directions from staff at our centrally located hotel couldn’t have been easier: Walk toward the huge Coca-Cola sign and turn left.
It took only about 10 minutes traveling north on Laikmaa, a wide and busy street, to reach the Rotermann Quarter (sometimes called Rotermanni), a revitalized commercial area of Tallinn that was once a hub of industrial activity and home to the city’s salt storage.
In American-speak, we’d call what exists today a mixed-use development of varying architectural styles, offering apartments, office space, restaurants and shops. Best of all, its inner streets are car-free.
As far as its general location, the quarter is east of Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its meandering cobblestone lanes, red-capped circular stone towers and its well-preserved Gothic Town Hall and square, which dates to the 15th century.
To the north of the quarter by two blocks is Tallinn’s harbor, a popular stop for cruise ships, ferries and cargo vessels.
But walk west for several blocks, and quieter pursuits such as joggling and fishing can be found, especially if you take the path closest to the water. On a Saturday morning amble, I even found a very small market where local vegetables and fish were being sold.
My friend Sylvia and I were in search of dinner, and wandering among Rotermanni’s narrow streets, we found choices ranging from Asian to Mexican, with a few craft-brew and wine bars mingled in among compact cafés.
We also happened upon an outlet for chocolatier Kalev, which we returned to more than once to buy samples of its delicious products.
In that so many eateries were in close proximity, we took our time going from business to business studying menus, evaluating entrees and their prices, and trying to decide what we were in the mood to eat.
One night we supped at Restaurant Platz, the dining space open and airy but with sturdy walls of alternating red and white bricks, its tables illuminated by candles.
I ordered Korean vegetable bibimbap, picturing a heaping bowl of rice topped with fiery kimchi, vegetables, beef and a sunny-side up egg as I had so enjoyed while in South Korea many years earlier.
Yes, I realize that the northern European country of Estonia is not in Asia, and the authenticity of the dish might be in doubt, but the menu description listed some of the “correct” ingredients. Its take: “zucchini, quinoa, pickled cucumber and radish shavings, kimchi, shimeji mushrooms, radish sprouts, gochujang celery root purée, citrus fillet and spicy tomato sauce.”
When my modest-size plate arrived, the elements were nicely presented, but consisted of hollowed-out zucchini boats filled with the above ingredients. I’m guessing quinoa substituted for the rice.
There was nothing wrong with it per se, the vegetables fresh and the entree mildly spiced. It just was very different than what I was expecting.
Sylvia had a a roasted chicken filet, served with potatoes, cherry tomatoes and chanterelle sauce.
On another night, we tried Saku Gastro, its motto “Ōlu & Hea Toit” (Beer and Good Food). This was probably our best dinner in Tallinn.
Its interior furnishings were modern and sleek, in unencumbered Scandinavian style. The bar was well-stocked, featuring the beer of Danish-based Carlsberg breweries.
I ordered chicken shashlik, juicy chunks of perfectly grilled thigh meat alternating with halved cherry tomatoes threaded on two wooden skewers. This was served over a bed of micro green and slices of roasted red and orange bell peppers and topped with crisp broccoli florets.
The entree came with a generous portion of sweet potato fries mounded in a copper tin and creamy sriracha sauce swirled into a ceramic ramekin.
Among the suggested liquid accompaniments for the entree was a six-percent Grimbergen Rouge, a fruity Belgian ale with notes of strawberry, cranberry and elderberry, which I ordered. I do not have a sophisticated beer palate, but I enjoyed the mild, slightly sweet beverage.
Oliver’s rib was Sylvia’s choice, a moist rack of pork ribs nestled among a green salad and fries.
Other diners ordered the Best of Gastro, featuring side-by-side petit portions of minced trout, coconut shrimp, roast beef, pickled Baltic herring and Peipsi smelt, meant to be shared by at least two, probably as an appetizer, served on rectangular wooden boards with handles at each end.
Saku Gastro also has outdoor seating, an inviting option on a pleasant evening.
The Rotermann family’s association with the area dates to 1829, when Christian Abraham Rotermann (1801-1870) opened a construction supply company on Mere Boulevard, along the western boundary of the quarter. Twenty years later he added a department store and built sheds, mills and warehouses for other businesses.
His son, Christian Barthold Rotermann (1840-1912), assumed the reins of the company in 1865, further expanding the businesses, including building a macaroni factory in 1887.
By the early years of the 20th century, the Rotermann Quarter housed a grain elevator and flour mill, a five-floor barley mill and a bread factory, among other enterprises. By the 1920s and ’30s, it was the largest producer of flour and bread in Estonia.
Ensuing years brought a wool factory; raw linen processing plant; lumber mill; workshops featuring glass, porcelain and weaving; and eventually a vodka factory, which also turned out other alcoholic spirits.
Soviet occupation during World War II was not kind to the quarter, resulting in architectural damage and the nationalization of most remaining businesses.
Disrepair of many buildings and lofty redevelopment plans to directly connect the streets of Rotermanni to the port of Tallinn almost doomed the quarter in the 1970s. Fortunately, those changes were derailed, but it took until well after Estonia regained its independence in 1991 for renovation to move forward.
The limestone building that had been the salt storage warehouse was restored and now houses the Museum of Estonian Architecture. It opened in 1996.
Tallinn has no shortage of places to eat — or things to do for that matter — but a stroll through this historic quarter reveals the many design and culinary elements that make Rotermanni such an urban hot spot.
Quick reference: Restaurant Platz: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays. Roseni 7, Tallinn. www.platz.ee
Saku Gastro: noon to 11 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Rotermanni 14, Tallinn. www.facebook.com/sakugastro
Kalev chocolate shop: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Roseni 7, Tallinn. kalev.eu
General information about Rotermanni: rotermann.eu