Welcome to "is-a-good?" - an isadaddy restaurant review. This week:
Billa Maya Delivers the मसाले
One of the hardest things about living in Estonia is the complete and utter lack of decent ethnic restaurants. You'll notice I didn't say "great" or "authentic" - I know that when it comes to foreign cuisine, expecting to use those kind of superlative descriptions in a Nordic country is asking for a lot. There's a few really good exceptions, of course, but in my experience maybe only one in ten asian restaurants in Estonia are actually worthy of praise.
A great "melting pot" Estonia is not. Which is totally fine, as I find the unique identities of European countries both fascinating and exciting. Coming from Canada - whose metropolitan centres are cultural melting pots - it's an interesting and refreshing change.
Still, I do find it a challenge to go without such delicacies as "catch-of-the-day" fresh salmon sashimi, or an expertly prepared spicy tuna roll, or a really spicy pad thai. You have to hunt for this stuff here.
For example, not many sushi places in Estonia feature a Japanese chef (I only know of three). Considering most sushi chefs train for years just to handle the rice, then years more to perfect their skill with raw fish, I choose to pass on the twenty-eight year old Russian sushi chef experience. Or the Selver.
The same goes for Chinese restaurants. Vancouver's China Town offers an incredible selection of great places - you'd have no problem describing them as "authentic."
There are no shortage of incredible Thai places, either - or Indian, Nepalese, Ethiopian, Mexican, Mongolian - you get the idea. We love our diverse selection of ethnic tastes - and miss them when we travel to places with fewer or less authentic options.
So yeah, back to my culinary ennui. I'm always on the lookout for any good Estonian restaurants featuring good asian or Mexican food - especially any that feature a chef from the actual country the food comes from. This is like the holy grail for me. Sadly, as this article confirms, it's not easy finding such magical places in Estonia.
Spices galore in the Billa Maya kitchen
So it was with great trepidation that I first stepped into Billa Maya, located in beautiful Viljandi. Tucked away in the hallway of a shopping complex, this Nepalese restaurant is small and unassuming - but not without considerable charm.
A gallery of pictures from Nepal and traditional Nepalese music (I think) thankfully set the mood. There's nothing worse than having to listen to Lady Gaga while trying to enjoy the food from a different culture.
Grabbing a menu, I took a deep breath and prepared myself for...whatever. Despite my wife's assurances about the quality and authenticity of their food, I remained once bitten, twice shy. Actually, more like twenty times bitten, forty times shy.
Having watched every episode of Ramsay's BBC Kitchen Nightmares at least twice (a worthwhile endeavour for even experienced restauranteurs), I know some of the harbingers of doom when it comes to food. Thousand-dish menus are red flag number one. A scatter-gun conglomeration of too many different cultural styles is number two.
Billa Maya's menu is extensive, but not as crazy as some other places I've been to in Tallinn. Still, there's a lot to choose from, covering the bases from curry to Kung Pau. Was this a good or bad sign? Ramsay's voice continued to bounce around my head as I considered the dishes.
After ordering, I began to notice an odd occurrence happening all around me. The place was perhaps half full, all Estonians (I think). Everyone in the place was sniffling and coughing.
At first I started to grow annoyed - man, if you're that sick, stay at home! I actually made some snide comments to my wife, ridiculing these flu-mongering fools. Two older guys beside us sounded like they were gonna die. I actually considered moving, lest they infect me with some contagious disease.
Still, an odd doubt troubled my brow. "There's no way everyone in here could have bad colds," I thought. "Perhaps...could it be...that some of these people are sniffling and coughing...due to the food?"
My wife decided that this was indeed the truth, and I laughed silently with haughty superiority. "If that's the case, they must all be super-wusses when it comes to spice."
Gradually, as the reality of the situation began to dawn on me, I started to look at the other diners with a strange new mix of curiosity and hope. One of the more annoying things many asian restaurants do is remove all of the spice from their dishes to better suit the native population. Maybe this wasn't the case here?
I'm not a heat-spice-masochist by any means, but I do prefer authenticity of flavour and ingredients. If all the patrons seated around us were feeling the effects of spice, then perhaps the chefs here were holding to their traditions and doing things right. Certainly nobody was having a bad time. Everyone ate with abandon. Good sign.
I felt pleasantly surprised when our appetizer arrived. Our first selection: the vegetable and prawn spring rolls. These things were perfect. Nice and big, flaky-crisp without being greasy and packed full of ingredients. Really, really good.
We also tried the crispy Sweet and Sour Chicken and the Hot Garlic Noodles with Seafood - both were excellent with a nice little kick of heat. Portions were of good size and kept nice and hot with lit candles under the serving trays. Nice.
मसाले means "spice," and Billa Maya uses just enough without going overboard and burning our timid Western/Nordic palates to a cinder. It's a good burn. The menu accurately rates the spiciness of their dishes, so if spicy food scares you, have no fear.
Sure enough, it wasn't long until I was coughing and sniffling as well, eating my own snark-filled words with relish while stuffing my face with delicious goodness. Suddenly the room of contented snifflers took on a whole new context. The scene was quite comical.
The drink menu is decent but honestly I was so happy with the food I didn't give my beverage much thought. The same goes for the desserts, which we didn't even consider ordering as we were so full. Maybe next time.
I'm looking forward to sampling the rest of their menu. Can't wait to try more of the Nepali selections. Fortunately, the number of dishes offered is actually a good thing as everything appears to be made fresh.
The service was both quick and relaxed, and - best of all for us - the place is kid friendly. The owners are pleasant and have a good memory - we were recognized upon our second and third visits, even on our forth several months later. Maybe they don't get a lot of Canadians, but still, it's always nice to feel like a regular.
After one too many desperate trips to ChopSticks, Billa Maya is pure and absolute tastebud heaven. I've eaten in a few asian countries, guided by locals, so I have a bit of experience with what "good and authentic" tastes and feels like. This meal fit the bill. So much so that we ended up eating there two days in a row just to have the spring rolls again!
I haven't visited every restaurant in Viljandi yet, but I can confidently declare Billa Maya to be one of the best - if not the best - this small town has to offer. It's certainly the best asian restaurant I've experienced in Estonia so far (feel free to educate me on any other asian places in Eesti that feature authentic chefs). I only wish they were located in Tallinn...
If you live in Viljandi, then I'm sure you're already a regular. If you don't, then make sure to stop in next time you're in the area - you won't be disappointed. Oh, and don't forget to bring a few tissues.