I’d heard enough about Riga’s reputation for hardcore hedonism to want to check it out for myself, with a certain anxiety level around it being yet another European bachelor party ghetto. My friends will tell you that my Jimmy Choos are pretty hollow, so a feeling of creeping apprehension at local mores of alcohol consumption is unusual for me. Still, this was Latvia, the former USSR, and I was here on my own, so I checked into the delightful Old Riga Palace Hotel with a job lot of Alka Seltzer and milk thistle. My goal was to sample the legendary, and scary-sounding, black balsam liqueur.
The hotel bar at the Old Riga Palace is unexceptional, with snooker on the television and the kind of harassed and vague service that results in tepid bar snacks and forgotten bill requests. Of more interest are the enticing complimentary mini bottle of Rigas sparkling wine in the hotel room, and the appearance of both said sparkling wine and vodka at the breakfast buffet.
I haven’t seen vodka feature on the morning menu since it made a memorable and incredibly unwelcome appearance years ago courtesy of a St Petersburg waitress who tried to force some down my, and my best friend’s, parched, gagging throats at 08.00. She claimed it could “cure” a hangover so bad I was literally seeing stars, like one of those cartoon characters who’s been bashed with an enormous mallet. After indulgently shaking my head at that horrifying memory, I stuck to apple juice.
Apparently many Riga tourists start out in the Irish bars, but I was keen to go off stag night message and wandered through the old town looking for something a bit less…Irish. Eventually I darted into Bar.Ber. It turned out to be a truly happening place, with eclectic decor, and an interior offering a fusion of exposed brickwork and serried ranks of disco balls around the ceiling. To make my 3 Lat glass of champagne even better value, I was suddenly presented with a brimming goblet of white wine because they were “trying new things” and keen to get feedback. It was hard to tear myself away from the groovy music, free alcohol and ridiculously good-looking Latvians, but it didn’t feel like the real home of black balsam.
Brilliant as Bar Ber was, it didn’t push the kitschy former Soviet haunt button I was seeking out either. It didn’t take me long to find that, though, at Gauja on Terbatas Street. A loud rock music soundtrack blared out and a rack of bras was hanging behind the bar. It was hilariously at odds with the dour portraits of Lenin, and Soviet-era living room mock-ups, which constituted the rest of the bar’s decor. The atmosphere was manically convivial, somehow managing to feel like a housewarming party in the 1960s. I would have been happy to tarry all night if my stomach hadn’t started to feel a little empty.
Fortunately, the drinking treats in this city aren’t all to be found in the bars.
On several locals’ recommendation, I made a beeline for the Neiburgs Hotel and Restaurant. I needed to soak up the alcohol and the food was, as expected, highly accomplished. After a starter of chicken liver pate with apples and lingonberry chutney, I devoured fried catfish with mushroom risotto, deep-fried horseradish root and white wine sauce. Perusing the menu, it was the first time I had ever seen a “hot drinks” shortlist between the chef’s selection and hot starters. The aperitif was divinely delicious and warming “hot cherry wine”, a combination of some sort of cherry alcohol and lemon juice, apple slices, cinnamon sticks and cloves. It wasn’t brandy but I could still somehow picture a solicitous St Bernard pouring it down my throat during avalanches.
At dessert I was fascinated by the sound of “creamy avocado pudding with basil and orange parfait, pistachio halva and black salt snack and dried raspberry”. I settled (relatively unadventurously) for “basil panna cotta with bilberry syrup, citrus and chilli sorbet and green pistachio and orange marmalade macaroons”. The mildly weird-sounding taste combinations were surprisingly effective, and the panache and ambition of the delivery seemed to represent the ethos of modern Riga in microcosm.
I guess I got caught up in the moment and finally demanded the local firewater. Turns out that black balsam is unbelievably disgusting. It’s the taste you might have in your mouth if you drank molten tar for long enough to bring up bile. Of all the unfathomably horrible national liqueurs I’ve drunk, from Finland to Montenegro, it is categorically the most repellent. I needed to walk away and wash the pain away with one more drink somewhere else.
There has to be a secret bar you want to write about which no-one goes to, right? Well, on my visit the beguiling cellar tavern, The Candle Bar, seemed to be flying satisfactorily under the radar. With a rowdy steakhouse above, no-one really bothered to notice the groovy boudoir downstairs. They were playing Fatboy’s Slim’s Praise You and it was one of those memorable moments when a track and a place just fit somehow. Riga, I have to praise you like I should.