Walking home from Russian tavern Traktir, it's with my fist clenched in victory and triumph in my chest: damn, Russian food can be good! I haven't really had that much Russian food previously (no, I'm not counting the Swedish specialty ”sausage Stroganoff”), but after a week-long trip to Saint Petersburg, my fondest culinary memories are from Soviet Café on Nevsky Prospekt rather than from the range of other world food restaurants I visited. Based mostly on potatoes, meat, cream, cheese and mushrooms, Russian cuisine is sturdy food for men with ample bosoms and women with more wrinkles than teeth, and is best enjoyed near an open fire while –40 degree winds are howling like wolves through the woods.
”russian cuisine is sturdy food for men with ample bosoms”
Maybe a little bit surprising, considering Latvia’s history, there are not that many purely Russian restaurants to be found in Riga*. A qualified guess is that there is not more than one Russian restaurant in each major part of the city. In Quiet Center, the one available to you is a basement tavern called Traktir. Not knowing what the word means, I wouldn't be surprised if it meant ”time capsule”, because visiting Traktir is like time warping to another century. Half a stair beneath the ground you enter a dark, shadowy tavern with dark wooden furniture, equally dark wooden floors and walls decorated with old style Russian paintings and wall paintings. It's not modern in any way, shape or form, and I'm actually surprised that they don't have that open fire I mentioned earlier. It could be very cozy if only it didn't feel a bit like a wide hallway and if it was on ground level so you could look out through the windows. Check the rather terrible pictures from the restaurant on Traktir's website if you want a grasp of what it looks like (I must admit that the lighting conditions down there are not very photographer-friendly, as maybe you can tell from my own sorry photos).
So, Soviet Café is a bit far when I have my cravings for Russian meat, so what kind of consolation does Traktir offer me? I've been there a total of six (or so) times by now, and I can't say that I've ever been disappointed. That being said, I haven't been fist-pumpingly happy either, apart from the above-mentioned last time I was there. Traktir serves perfectly decent Russian food, but just like with so many other restaurants in Riga, they are way too careful with the spices. The fist pump only came when they finally dared to give the ingredients the flavors they deserve. For those of you who have been to the Russian restaurant Slavu in Old Town, before they sadly closed down that restaurant, I have to say that Traktir is lagging a bit behind. Slavu, in my opinion, played in a higher division.
”visiting traktir is like time warping to another century”
What also feels like another century is that they can't seem to get their card payment service to work. To make matters worse, it's rather annoying that they don't inform you about this before you order and eat. No, when you're ready to pay the bill, you are told that you have to run off to an ATM machine. Also, what's the deal with serving warm drinks? Coke, water; it's all warm. These are all things that Traktir could easily take care of/inform their guests about, but which might make a serious dent in their guests' dining experience.
To summarize, Traktir will give you a decent Russian food experience, and they will not relieve you of too much of your hard-earned cash. But the second Slavu opens up again in downtown Riga, that's where you will find me.
*or maybe it’s self-explanatory, for the same reason? I’m just a stupid foreigner, I wouldn’t know