Orm Oja is only 25 years old, yet he’s already the head chef at the best restaurant in Estonia – NOA Chef’s Hall. That’s not my opinion alone, by the way, but also the rating they got in the 2016 edition of the White Guide Nordic. I learned to know chef Oja two years ago, in October 2015, when I visited restaurant Art Priori in Tallinn. At that point, he shared the role as head chef together with Mart Klaas. They were 23 and 25 years old respectively, and the restaurant was considered among the top in the country. After my meal, I also included the place in my guide to Tallinn restaurants – and ranked it as my favorite. I remember the food as innovative and beautiful in its presentation, at times also excellent in taste, but with areas of improvement. Fast forward to chef Oja’s cooking in 2017, and he has indeed upgraded his food in a very short time. During the shooting of a series made for the Norwegian TV-channel Matkanalen, we once again got to enjoy his New Nordic cuisine – this time at NOA Chef’s Hall. Meet the future of Estonian cooking.
Chef Orm Oja
We are in the forest with Orm Oja and his forager Maret Allikas. They’ve taken us for a drive, at least one and a half hour from Tallinn city. The exact location I cannot reveal, of course, as this is a dream spot for mushrooms, berries, reindeer moss, as well as wild herbs and plants from the nearby beach. In a while, chef Oja will cook us a bonfire dinner with all the stuff we gather. While we walk, he tells us the story of his cooking career.
– I started to cook together with my grandmother when I was 10 years old. I remember, we made potato salad and marinated herring.
Born at a time when the Russian culture was starting to fade in favor of a more Nordic influence, his name, Orm, was, in fact, inspired by the character Orm from the Norwegian novel trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. The first meal he cooked alone was for his parents while they were at work. It consisted of a potato salad that probably lacked most of the vital ingredients and a blueberry pie that was basically flour, eggs, and blueberries cooked together in a pan.
– What a memory – I’ll never forget it!
At the age of 17 he got his first job as a chef in the Tallinn restaurant Chedi. A year later, he left the place but promised his colleagues that, one day, he would get a Michelin star. That may sound as big words for a junior cook, but it certainly demonstrates his determination and passion at a young age. His talent would bring him to restaurant NOA, and later on, after recovering from a motocross accident, to the role as head chef at Art Priori.
At some point, Orm left Art Priori in favor of gathering international experience, but before long he got a call from restaurant NOA. They wanted him back to lead their new concept with open fire cooking –NOA Chef’s Hall. He accepted the challenge.
– I still have a dream, that I will get a star someday.
The Michelin Guide doesn’t currently cover Estonia, but that doesn’t stop him from hoping. If he gets it, Orm tells us, his plan is to hold the star for a while. However, at some point, he wants to open a canteen that serves really simple Estonian home-style food like black bread, herring, and egg porridge.
– The prices would be the same, but I would make it at a higher level. I would make it with love. It’s a strange dream …
NOA Chef’s Hall
We enter NOA Chef’s Hall. The restaurant is located 20 minutes outside of Tallinn city center – but our taxi driver took us there in less than ten. We have reserved the Chef’s Table in the Chef’s Hall. Quite the hot seat! Literally as well, we soon discovered, seated at the pass, with the open fire right next to us. That also means that the head chef, Orm Oja, is right in front of us during the entire evening. His facial expression has changed since our quiet forest walk the day before. It is sterner. More adult. He is 100% focused on the task at hand – leading the kitchen of the country’s top-level restaurant. But he smiles when he sees us.
– This is the mushroom we picked together in the forest. I have pickled them – that’s all I had time for, he laughs.
The fresh mushrooms have been soaked in water and poached quickly, or else they would not have been edible. Afterward, they were placed in a pickle brine overnight consisting of vinegar, onions, and carrots.
– The recipe is a traditional Russian one, Oja reveals.
While we are still munching on the beautiful forest fungi, the first snack from the evening’s menu arrives: crispy fish skins with emulsified dill and dried seaweed. Very Nordic, and very delicious. It’s quickly followed up by a hot broth of cep mushrooms served in a small cup. The edge has been dipped in crumbs of black bread, making it look like an umami Margarita cocktail of sorts. Salty and with intense forest flavors – it’s warming and prepares our stomachs for the meal ahead.
The head sommelier of NOA Chef’s Hall – another talented young fellow named Sander Kink – helps us pick out a good bottle of wine. We are delighted to see a good mix of conventional and natural wines on his list, and end up with an old-time favorite from Arianna Occhipinti.
Memories of Kadeau in Copenhagen
The third and last snack turns out to be my favorite dish of the meal. BBQ pork ribs with a glazing of elderflower syrup, and a topping of pickled rose petals, pickled ramson capers, fermented spruce and elderflower blossoms. Both the taste and presentation take my mind straight back to restaurant Kadeau in Copenhagen. That’s one of my all-time favorite restaurants and currently holding one Michelin star – although they deserve two.
NOA’s bread serving consists of a focaccia-like loaf, a sourdough baked in a cast iron pot, and, of course, the traditional black Estonian rye bread. All delicious together with artisanal butter and pork fat topped with pork cracklings. Especially, the black bread which I vividly remember from my previous meal at the hands of Orm.
The Signature Tomato Dish
We move from snacks to starters. Tomato is a signature dish on Orm’s menu – he’s always had it. His current version has improved immensely from last time.
– Our bio tomatoes are peeled, dried and smoked in the smoker, they are glazed with a BBQ sauce made from tomatoes and smoked sea salt.
Through these techniques, the tomato flavor is enhanced and become concentrated, sweeter, and rich in umami – almost like a piece of meat. The subtle flavor of the blue cheese is present, but it’s the creaminess that is important to the dish. Lastly, a tomato broth adds the much-needed acidity.
Fire Oil From the Flambadou!
A plate of scallops, cucumbers, and horseradish is the evening’s weakest dish. It looks pretty, but the flavor combination doesn’t speak to me. The scallops aren’t the best either, and Orm admits to being frustrated with this particular product.
– Watch the open fire. That’s your next dish coming up, right there.
A chef pulls out a burning hot flambadou from the fireplace. Attached to a long rod is a metal funnel that has been left inside the fireplace until it glows red from the heat. The chef puts cold pork fat inside, which immediately ignites. A fire oil runs out from the bottom, and he drips it on top of a tartar.
– The meat remains raw, but it gets an intense smoky flavor to it.
The scalded tartar gets company from black bread, a pepper glaze, arugula mayonnaise and pickled fennel, in yet another dish that gives me Kadeau references.
I See a Squid Porridge, and I Want it Painted Black
A palate cleanser of frozen kombucha-compressed watermelon with pickled, unripe strawberries, smoothens the transition from starters to main courses. First out, a dish that is totally unique to Orm Oja: squid porridge.
– We chop the squid to really small pieces and cook it like a porridge.
A squid ink sauce with mussel juice paints it black. Finally, a miso-cured egg yolk is added to the dish tableside.
– The dish is inspired by the traditional Estonian buckwheat porridge that we cook with pig fat.
I have a feeling that Orm’s version is better. Much better. Two more main courses – smoked wild duck and grilled lamb – are both excellent. Great quality meat, cooked to perfection, with tasty sauces, and garnish. The duck is an off-menu item, that we got to test before it went on the autumn menu later on, but it also leaves us more full than we should have been at this point. Luckily, there’s only a light dessert and petits fours left.
The Future of Estonian Cooking
In the forest the day before, we asked Orm which dish on the menu we should look the most forward to.
– It’s a dessert with buckwheat and blueberries. It was voted the best dessert in Estonia two years ago and now it made a comeback.
I didn’t think about it at the time, but when I get it served again I immediately recognize the dish from my prior visit to Art Priori. However, not only did it make a comeback, but once again chef Oja has improved his cooking by a tenfold. If this is the skills of a 25-year-old Orm Oja, I can only imagine what he is capable of in a couple of years with even more age and experience. I believe Orm Oja, more than anyone, will lead the way for Estonian cooking in the future, and if the Michelin Guide does decide to pay a visit – he will get his star.
Have you experienced the cooking of Orm Oja? Please share your story in the comments below.
The embedded video is made for Matkanalen and sponsored by Visit Estonia. Funded by the European Union European Regional Development Fund. This article, however, is not related to that project and is my work alone.