LITHUANIA: AN UNLIKELY GOURMET DESTINATION
If I told you this would be the last drink of my life, what would you make me? I ask as I sit at the bar stool, beside a towering, bespectacled young bartender. A Negroni, because it is bittersweet, like life itself, he responds without hesitation, as if he gets such strange custom regularly. I have already shed my duvet of a coat, a silly hat with ear flaps, gloves and a scarf that is large enough to cover my entire body. It is a school night, which might explain why I am one of only three punters at Apoteka; the two others sit by the window that overlooks the Vilnius night, slightly muddled by confused snowflakes.
I watch Karolis Jauniškis work on my drink, which does not involve much prep at all. We barrel age our Negroni for about two weeks, he says. Your drink comes from a batch that we opened just an hour ago. As I have my first sip, he asks if I recognise how smooth it is and if I taste the “oakyness”.
Negroni happens to be one of my favourite cocktails, a drink that I make at home. I have tasted the concoction in many bars and various cities. Apoteka’s aged version is truly smooth; it is darker than I am used to, thanks partly to Italian Antica Formula vermouth. Karolis lets me indulge in tasting the vermouth on its own. A dangerous new find, I admit.
By this point my Negroni has dwindled to a desperately low quantity, but the head bartender, Vainius Balcaitis, who has been involved in the conversation for a while, asks if he could interest me in another mix. I repeat my unconventional line of ordering. He looks at me concerned and enquires if I am OK. When I reassure him of my genuine happiness, he suggests a Hanky Panky. Why would you make that, I ask. Because if it is going to be your last drink, it doesn’t matter anymore.
There is a personal link here that I need to mention. The drink was the brainchild of Ada Coleman, a bartender who started at the Savoy Hotel over a century ago. Not only was the American Bar at the Savoy voted the world’s best cocktail bar, but it is my favourite bar for cocktails. How fortuitous that it is located in London, where I live. New York’s The Dead Rabbit seems to also be one of this bar’s inspirations. The book from this bar’s Battery Park vicinity takes a prominent position on the shelf.
These two delectable drinks have amused my appetite and I ask the two gentlemen in their fancy, brown aprons where I might find food as high quality as their drinks have been. They suggest a variety of places, but being aware of the grumpy factor associated with my hunger, I opt for their next-door neighbour: Sofa de Pancho, a charming Mexican restaurant that serves fresh tacos and excellent Pozole soup. But if you don’t mind me taking a detour, I will just recommend this place in passing and move on swiftly to another experience; one that you mustn’t miss.
What do I exactly talk about when I talk about Gaspar’s? It was a recommendation by the same Lithuanian friend in London who suggested I had to try Apoteka. It is as quiet as the bar when I arrive. There is a table of birthday celebrating family enjoying their corner. I am met by brilliant service, one thing that is not very common in Lithuania. The menu is varied, with influences from India and across the Middle East, including a Persian lamb shank dish that I love. But then there is the steak. I decide to take the risk since it is titled 57*c rib eye steak with Gaspar’s Indian Spices.
I am aware that a spiced steak can go wrong in so many ways, but I feel brave and ask for it. I am told it goes well with the Leone de Castris primitivo and I comply. The rib-eye arrives in a white plate. It is understated with a garnish of fresh herbs and a dash of green oil on the side. But it only takes one bite to knock me off my feet. The spice combination is impossible to identify, but you can taste a memory of Isfahan, a whiff of Delhi, and perhaps a reminiscence of Lisbon. It is insanely good.
Gaspar Fernandes is a spice maverick; his blends can add complexity to any simple dish. If I ever return to Vilnius, I know where I will go for dinner.
Fantastically friendly Amandus, yet artisanal in every aspect of presentation. You are greeted with artistic miniatures with compliments of the chefs. My favourite was the thin, Lithuanian beetroot wafer, carefully arranged in narrow incisions on pieces of stone. They also bring you a basket of dark bread, hot out of the oven. I had to ask for a doggy bag to take the remaining loaves home. They are to die for. The chef, who is trained in Denmark, Deivydas Praspaliauskas, is a kind and friendly man who will come and chat to you. The pride he takes in his product and his restaurant shines through in his speech and manners.
Do not hire a car in Vilnius. Uber is cheap as dirt. Most trips in the city cost only a couple of bucks.