Whether you describe the countries of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania as Baltic, or just Eastern European in general, not much is generally known about their collective cuisine, especially not in Bangkok. However, celebrity chef Martin Blunos – instantly recognisable with his white walrus mustache and black- rimmed spectacles – is set to change all that with Baltic Blunos, his second eponymously named restaurant in the city.
Although born in the UK, Martin is of 100 percent Latvian descent and Lettonie, his now closed two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Britain, took its name from the French word for Latvia. After relocating to Thailand in late 2017, he lent both his moniker and his culinary prowess to the aptly named Blunos, an international fare dining spot located on the 14th floor of the Eastin Grand Hotel Sathorn Bangkok. However, his latest restaurant venture trods a very different path.
As the name suggests, chef Martin is showcasing his Latvian roots at Baltic Blunos, which opened in mid-August in a beautifully refurbished house on Thonglor Soi 9. At the entrance a quirky wall-sized illustration of the chef/restaurateur greets guests, while inside the low-lit dining room large wooden tables, leather padded Danish modern chairs, and views of the illuminated greenery outside create a forest-inspired colour palette, offset by framed landscape paintings by Martin’s artist uncle.
So what exactly is Baltic cuisine? Well, as the chef himself is quick to point out it’s difficult to precisely identify, as this region of Northeastern Europe has been occupied for so long – up until 1991 by the USSR – and the food culture has adapted and borrowed from its various occupying forces. But if you want to lazily lump it in with Scandanavian cuisine, you’ll make Martin’s moustache bristle. “Not a meatball in sight,” he says wryly, alluding to Sweden’s most famous export after IKEA.
In an attempt to discover what Latvia in particular can bring to the table, the ever-morphing ‘Baltic Crossover’ set dinner offers the choice of a six or eight course tasting menu, both of which toss in a few extra surprises along the way. Our eight-course meal begins with an intriguing amuse bouche that evokes the heavily wooded terrain of the Baltic region.
“Latvia is 80 percent forest, so we give you a tree, with edible leaves,” explains the gregarious chef as a miniature tree arrives on what looks like a moss-covered pedestal. “And underneath our tree we give you milk foam truffles, flavoured with truffle and Parmesan and a little bit of porcini dust. Because truffles always grow under a good oak tree.”
Martin is a natural performer, as evidenced by his TV appearances on Iron Chef UK and MasterChef Australia, and he happily flits from table to table expounding at length on the intricacies of each course. His passion for cooking and his humourous delivery makes for a very lively chef’s table dining experience.
The second non-menu amuse bouche is by far the most visually enchanting course of the evening, and sets the tone for much of what’s to come. Introduced as the ‘Pearl of Siam’, it’s a shimmering opaque sphere that resembles a fairytale crystal ball. As we set our smartphones to video mode, servers armed with kitchen torches use the blue flames to cut circular holes in what turn out to be hollow globes with shells of ultra thin ice. Inside each, a one-bite Thai-style Miang Kham treat awaits, which sees avocado, crab, and pickled palm heart resting on a betel leaf.
In the next two courses that follow, the custom-made ceramic plating competes with the food for equal attention. The sea urchin purée and sapane tree consommé, with white chocolate gel and yuzu bubbles, comes in a wildly outrageous black earthenware bowl ringed by tiny tentacles. It looks almost alive. By contrast the edible moon flowers come in a white bowl that rests on a bizarre landscape of “moon craters”. Served with a cheese-like Thai almond paste, daikon, pickled banana blossom, and a Tom Kaa coconut broth with green pandan oil, it’s a stand out dish but there’s nothing remotely Latvian about it… except for the chef. It’s one of the confusing aspects of the restaurant, which seems conceptual – ie: Baltic meets Bangkok – but often centres more on Asian delicacies with varying degrees of flourish from chef Martin’s ancestral homeland.
A bit more Baltic background can be found in the very tasty mackerel, which is marinated in a mix of vodka, vinegar, sugar, and aromats, then singed with a blowtorch. It comes garnished with droplets of beetroot – flavoured with blackcurrant vinegar – and horseradish cream, all served with a ball of fried, smoked mackerel resting atop a potato cylinder. This time the dish is
introduced at the table by executive chef Aleksandrs Nasikailov, who previously worked at the prestigious Vincents Restorāns in Riga. A man of very few words, this laconic Latvian is an almost comical counterpoint to his charmingly chatty boss.
As the courses continue the elaborate storylines behind each technique and ingredient keeps our table enthralled. The foie gras tortellini, with truffle emulsion and puffball mushroom, is topped with drops of balsamic-like birch tree sap that’s naturally infused with the peppery flavour of the unlucky ants who get snared during the tree tapping process. As for the divinely tender scallops in hollandaise sauce, they are garnished with ethically harvested caviar – from Latvia – that doesn’t kill the sturgeon. This is followed by river prawn with seafood bisque and then by the outstanding Thai suckling pig with Indian gooseberries and pork jus – both we devoured very quickly.
After a superb dessert of caramelised coconut ice cream, Malibu rum gelée, and crispy coconut, we retire to the stylish bar area where the final treat of the evening awaits. In a glassed-in room beside the bar lies the restaurant’s own chocolate production facility, and from a selection of 15 imaginatively flavoured bon bons diners can select two (I chose the yuzu and the Latvian liqueur, both excellent).
The dinners come with per course wine pairings, but chef Aleksandrs has also created a set of unique “fermented pairings”, which are kombucha-style concoctions made using ingredients as diverse as roselle, butterfly pea, jasmine, mangosteen, and even mango and sticky rice.