Stockpot Riga: The Latvian spirit of The Culinary Diplomat

There are moments when I’m reminded why I started this blog. Moments that inspire me to share the joys of food – from the exotic to seemingly mundane Americana – with everyone. The first experience – well, ok, let’s be honest; all four visits – made me positively giddy with excitement to be able to share the joy of Riga’s Stockpot with the rest of the world. I originally wrote this post a few months ago, but re-reading and editing it even with the passage of time and hindsight, I am no less excited to share it with you

If one restaurant embodies my own goal of inspiring others to venture out of their culinary comfort zones to try new flavors from around the world, making them accessible to everyone, it absolutely is Stockpot. Owned and lovingly managed by a British expat, Richard, and his energetic Latvian wife, Linda and staffed by young Latvians eager to learn and create new flavor combinations, Stockpot serves up a wide range of dishes from around the world.

First of all, I take no credit for discovering Stockpot. Walk inside and you will see what Riga’s hipster scene has known for years. One of Stockpot’s many loyal, regular customers recommended it to a colleague, and I jumped at the chance to tag along. Nevertheless, the place had me at Facebook. Their simple menus change daily, but with the week’s menus posted on Facebook, one can plan ahead accordingly. Trying to label Stockpot is difficult, but a quick look at a typical menu announces its flare for international, exotic dishes – curries, soups, stews, and chilis cooked in stockpots for hours, and, most importantly, spice. Why is spice most important? If you’ve followed my blog posts thus far, you probably have picked up on the tendency of Baltic cuisine to be uncomplicated and relatively lightly seasoned (which does not equate to bland). Spicy curries and chilis appear to be exactly what the doctor would order to counter the dreary winters in dour Riga. To see an otherwise stoic Latvian happily sweating over a spicy Malaysian curry made me smile each time.

The restaurant itself is small and unassuming, brightly lit, small, with communal tables and window counter seating. It is the perfect place for trendy locals – including those on a tight budget – to drop in for a quick, easy, and reasonably priced exotic bite. The entire Stockpot team were friendly and approachable, but owners Richard and Linda reported that their customers often have difficulty with the concept of sharing their dining experience with their table-mates. Latvians tend to keep to themselves, minding their own business, so it was rare that our own table-mates were comfortable carrying on a conversation with us – with the exception of two expat medical students from Switzerland and Austria, who told us how much they enjoy their once weekly (sometimes more often) visits or take-out from Stockpot.

I realize that I’m a bit slow to get to the actual food. The food is the reason for frequent lines well outside of the front door. Though each day’s menu consists of only about 6 dishes, supplemented by a few consistent staples (Caesar salad and wrap, garden salad, smoothies, and hummus and tabouleh, choosing just one was incredibly difficult each time. Richard and Linda told us that they rotate about 200 dishes in their repertoire, and each day’s menu must include 50% vegetarian soups and two vegan dishes, while also accommodating a range of spice levels. Stockpot uses a scale of 1 to 10 to warn – I mean, advertise – the heat quotient to its patrons. They have found that they sell the most dishes with either high (8-10) or mild (1-3) spice contents, which I found pretty funny. The high spice levels draw the spice crazies out of the woodwork, while the mild levels may be more palatable to newbies to spicy food. British-Indian butter chicken is their most popular dish, served every Friday and requiring 40 kilograms (90 lbs.) of chicken to be marinated each Thursday. Endless variations on chili (Linda loves Mexican food) are part of the rotation, using varying types of meat or meat substitutes and beans, and, of course, spice levels rotate through their menus.

I felt so lucky to have the chance to eat at Stockpot on four separate occasions and to sample several dishes each time. On my first visit, the three of us in our dining party all ordered a half order of Thai red chicken curry after watching a local customer sweating. I decided a smoothie and side salad were in order to counteract this heat and fill my lunch-less stomach. Ultimately, the curry had a very nice, balanced heat and hint of coconut without being cloyingly sweet or oddly complex. Basmati rice was a nice accompaniment. The Chilean Carminere wine (3 EUR for a glass!) and complementary cheese plate – with a fitting assortment of English cheddar, Brie, and Lithuanian bleu cheese – were much more refined than the price point would suggest.
A nightcap of golden, French Chartreuse liqueur was a new adventure for the three of us. I still swear it tastes like Chamomile tea mixed with Sambuca – in the best way possible!

Malaysian chicken curry with salad, the Happy Hour cheese plate, and a glass of rich Chilean carminere make for one amazing meal.
Malaysian chicken curry with salad, the Happy Hour cheese plate, and a glass of rich Chilean carminere make for one amazing meal.

On my subsequent visits, I tried a lovely vegetarian yellow curry with cashews, a Malaysian chicken curry, spicy sun-dried tomato soup and their hummus and tabouleh platter (in the featured photo), and, of course, more rounds of the Carminere and cheese platter. I also sampled a chili con carne with a spice level of 8 or 9 (surprisingly slow-burning, the heat did not overpower other flavors) and Moroccan beef dish. I would recommend everything without hesitation.

We all admired Richard and Linda’s simplicity of vision for their restaurant. After years in the casino industry and with a love of good food (and spice!), Richard wanted to build a place to be able to cook what he wanted, without pretention and intervention. Richard noted that the absence of good food in Riga also motivated him. When asked for a chef’s restaurant recommendation in this city, he paused for a long while before recommending…an Uzbek restaurant (we tried it; it was delicious and had an otherworldly ambiance)! Richard, regaled us with stories of their trial-and-error journeys to find and procure the components for their exotic dishes in Latvia and with a limited budget – from the best values on basmati rice, to venturing to the Caribbean to find increasingly hotter chili peppers (chiles), to stumbling upon the wines they ultimately chose for their restaurant. These two are clearly driven by both a desire to innovate and introduce new and fresh flavors to Riga and keeping such dishes affordable to the average Latvian.

Unconcerned with the implication of a tax system that, strangely, penalizes businesses for charitable actions (donations are taxed to the donator) Richard and Linda, through a customer and the Red Cross, donate each night’s leftovers to seven local families in need, two of whom have handicapped children. In fact, neighboring restaurants and bakeries, afraid to flout the tax system on their own, join Richard and Linda’s donation pool. Strength in numbers is real.

Having grown to a team of nine, Richard’s criteria for hiring new staff was that prospective employees needed to love food but they should not be educated. What the what? Culinary students need not apply; purists do. This philosophy shows in their food. The team knows they are good and take pride in their contributions. One female staffer couldn’t withhold a rare Latvian smile when Richard informed her that she would be making two of Wednesday night’s soups herself. Why wouldn’t she? I’d be excited to cook here too!

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