You wake up from a coma in a strange city and ask yourself the “when the sleeper wakes” question: where in the name of God am I? If it’s Europe, you might want to narrow it down to “Western Europe” or “former Soviet country.” There are several ways you could do it: public transport running late? Congratulations, the dog shit you’ve just stepped in is probably British (or Irish.) There’s one sure fire way though to know. Walk around, count the number of Chinese restaurants, then count the number of Japanese restaurants. If there are more Chinese restaurants, you’re in Western Europe. If there are more Japanese restaurants/sushi bars, you should start singing the opening song of the Beatles’ White album to yourself.
When I first arrived in Riga, bleary eyed from the early morning Easyjet flight, there were only a couple of sushi places like Kabuki. Over the years, their number has spread faster than the speed of light. Soho, Samurajs, GanBei…you name it, as I type this there are a few poorly paid Latvian guys rolling sushi. It’s now normally sold in Supermarkets like Stockmann and Rimi. Hell, even chains like Double Coffee and Cili Pizza have now added sushi sections to their menu, can you imagine Costa Coffee in the UK doing that? I mean, who goes to a pizza place to eat sushi?!
Against that background, I recently came across this eyesore
Old Shanghai, a restaurant supposedly representing China, a country with a really rich culinary history. Yet what do they promote?Obviously it has to be that most Chinese of dishes…. sushi! Yeah, there are arguments that sushi started originally in south east Asia, before spreading to China and eventually Japan, but these days it’s generally seen as a Japanese food, so this is the equivalent of a French restaurant trying to attract customers by pushing their spaghetti menu, it just feels *so* wrong. It just shows a lack of imagination on the part of the owners and a lack of adventure on the part of the customers. I mean aren’t there more than enough other places which sell sushi? The message I get is that the owners don’t have confidence in the quality of their own country’s food and therefore have to pack food from other countries on to the menu just to draw customers in.
Sadly, this is a problem across Riga’s restaurant scene. It seems to be the done thing these days for many restaurants to have sprawling menus with lots of dishes representing different cuisines, trying to be all things to all men. In reality, the best restaurants usually have limited menus, focusing on quality not quantity and mass produced stodge.
The cynic in me thinks that the reason sushi has become so popular here is because it’s not a million miles away from traditional Latvian food. Raw fish has always been part of the Latvian diet and therefore raw fish wrapped in rice isn’t that much of an innovation. In truth, the sushi sold in Latvia, just like in most of Europe, isn’t really all that Japanese. Many sushi purists insist that it shouldn’t have raw fish, as that often wouldn’t happen in Japan. In the same way, if you order a paella in Valencia, the home of the dish, you’ll get a dish with chicken and rabbit and without seafood. Latvian restaurants skip those nuances.
Overall, while Riga’s restaurant scene has a competent enough selection, the variety trends towards the conservative element. There are lots of Italian restaurants, but only one Spanish and, as far as I know, no Greek, North African or Turkish restaurants, except a few dodgy kebab places, which have also grown like weeds in the last six years. There are very few exotic options, a couple of Indian ones, which actually do pretty good food and the standout for me, Soraksans, a Korean restaurant selling kimchi so spicy you’d be best avoiding naked flames for a couple of hours afterwards.
Among all that lot is the local cuisine itself, tending towards the same pork and potatoes stodge you’ll find across Ireland, the UK and the rest of Northern Europe. The Lido at Krasta Iela is so touristy these days that I almost expect to see t-shirt sellers outside it flogging “My boyfriend went to Lido Krasta and all I got was this crappy t-shirt!” Maybe that should be my new business plan?