Perched on the outer fringes of Vilnius Old Town, Užupis is a self-declared Republic populated largely by artists, free thinkers and poets.
Often compared to Freetown Christiania in Denmark or Metelkova in Ljubljana, the alternative district retains an avant garde appeal, but is increasingly home these days to trendy restaurants and shops, and apartments in the ‘Republic’ are among the most sought after in the city.
One of those restaurants is Sweet Root, a small, experiential eatery which serves an eclectic range of dishes, all adhering to an ethos which dictates that everything made in the kitchen be seasonal.
Visiting on a balmy Friday evening, I’m treated to a condensed version of Sweet Root’s approximately three-hour dining experience which – despite the relative brevity – proves to be excellent, each dish served with insight, panache and style.
A glass of Antech Cuvée Expression Crémant de Limoux greets us as we sit down to our first course, along with a sourdough bread lathered in creamy natural, butter so subtle you could trick yourself into believing it’s a health food.
The bread – always a deciding factor in my book, when it comes to judging a restaurant – is followed by an amuse-bouche of celeriac, semolina and wild cabbage blossoms.
“Be careful, it’s very delicate,” says Sigitas Žemaitis, the general manager.
He’s not wrong. The appetiser is as delicate and fluffy as it is divine, and the table – to a man and woman – nods in collective approval.
Our next dish, trout with pumpkin and unripened tomatoes from the restaurant’s own garden, is evidence of Sweet Root’s firm focus on small but perfectly presented courses, while potatoes cabbage and fennel seeds showcase its ability to reinvent traditional Lithuanian cuisine in new and interesting ways – as is the case with the tender lamb, onion and jerusalem artichoke course.
As with any haute cuisine eatery, Sweet Root could err towards pretentious, but Sigitas ensures things remain playful throughout the evening. At one point, I look down at a glazed, fermented carrot prodded onto a metal stick, which has been placed in front of me.
“It’s a carrot” says Sigitas, reading our collective confusion.
He smiles, reminding us that everything that leaves the kitchen in Sweet Root is seasonal, and native to the country.
Dessert is a carrot, quince and pollen Swiss-roll-style cake; flavoursome, delicate and a divine way to cap off a fine evening, though to much delight, it’s followed by a selection of ‘sweet and tiny bites’; small sweets which lend credence to the restaurants ethos that less is more.
Lithuanian cuisine tends to be heavy and often stodgy. Sweet Root, however, proves that classic dishes designed as fuel for a day’s work can be reimagined for the modern world without a wholesale delineation from tradition.
In a district that prides itself on free expression, open mindedness and – perhaps most important of all – not taking life too seriously, Sweet Root is a reminder that haute cuisine can be lighthearted without detriment to the flare and style which sets it apart from the everyday restaurant, and any visitor to the Lithuanian capital should consider a trip to the easygoing Republic’s sweetest restaurant.