Lithuania, they say, is a society built on potatoes. Almost all Lithuanian national dishes are made from them: boiled, mashed, grated, roast, stuffed, potato pancakes, potato pie… For a lover of Asian cuisine our dishes would probably taste unbearably bland and contain much too much fat: something the average Lithuanian, working in the fields, once tended to burn off. Unfortunately, even Lithuania’s not much of an agricultural country any more. Some families might still have a few furrows of… potatoes – but that’s it. As for drinks, we don’t much go in for vodka but are devoted to beer, and our national cuisine is probably impossible without kvass, a non- or low-alcoholic beer made from rye bread (those from outside Eastern Europe, where the drink is universally known, tend to switch off after hearing the last phrase). We also have a national liqueur made from honey, which certainly sounds good – unfortunately few of the younger generation have actually tried it.
A chance to feel closer to my home-country, the call of potatoes and the worst reviews on TripAdvisor brought me on a Monday night to ‘Shepherd’s Inn’ (Berneliu Uzeiga), the biggest Lithuanian restaurant in London. Hours before coming I anticipated how I’d start this review – I would talk about the smell of my mother’s kitchen and her warm welcome and then start complaining about how far this venue fell short. Yet after visiting ‘Shepherd’s Inn’ (I wanted to present my country’s cuisine to an Italian colleague) I shamelessly forgot all these ideas.
When you go to a restaurant on a Monday evening, you usually expect fully stocked fridges, a relatively uncrowded venue and well-rested staff, resulting – you hope – in higher levels of attentiveness. You also expect – with a cuisine as distinctive as Lithuania’s – to find most of the country’s standard dishes on the menu. Yet, despite the restaurant’s promise to make everything fresh and straightaway, I looked on the menu for the national dish cepelinai (zeppelins) and potato-pie-without-meat in vain: we wanted cepelinai with curd, and the restaurant only offered the meat variety. So my companion and I compromised, and ordered another first and main course: Deep fried bread with mayonnaise, garlic and cheese sauce (£4.50) and Cabbage and Beetroot mushroom soup (£5) to start, Grated potato pancakes with curd and dill dressing (£7.50) and Fried grated potato dumplings stuffed with minced meat (£8) to follow. The dishes arrived within minutes – but all at the same time. As a result we had to tear through the first course to make sure the mains were still warm.
After being brought 2 courses simultaneously, we decided not to make the same mistake again, and had a small break before ordering dessert – Lithuanian milk-curd pie with ice cream (£4). The dish was tasty enough but inauthentic, tasting more like mascarpone cheesecake than grandma’s home-made delicacy, and it wasn’t improved by the waiters leaving our starter- and main-plates beside it until we’d almost finished (this despite there being only two tables in the restaurant to serve). The plates themselves were like a theme not being followed through: while starters and mains were served on authentic Lithuanian crockery (full marks for this – it reminded me of my grandmother’s house) desserts came on peculiarly modern white porcelain triangles. And why are the marvellous oak tables covered with cheap paper posters – the kind you might find in the dodgiest takeaway?
So much for the food and service. As for drinks, the restaurant had just one Lithuanian beer and no national honey liqueur. So again we had our second choice – a rather obscure Lithuanian beer (£3,5), and liqueurs made from cherries (£2) and a distinctive one made from Lithuanian herbs (£3)
Food and drinks are not the only reasons why one goes to a restaurant – it’s the atmosphere too. So what did this consist of? A cheesy Lithuanian music mix, a TV showing everything from dishes to Lithuanian scenery and national dances, the joy of the restaurant’s closing one hour earlier than expected, and no pre-warning that only cash is accepted.
After that… what’s left? A polite, nationally dressed waiter who was able (thank you Lithuanian education system) to speak English, warm, authentic decor and low prices (£25 each for drinks and a 3 course meal which we weren’t even able to finish).
Was a trip to the far East End of London – Leytonstone – worth it? Considering my determination to go back there again and the fact it’s not as far away and expensive as Lithuania, my answer would be yes. But is it a suitable place for native Brits to go? Hardly. The misleading description of the food and the typical Lithuanian manners might scare them off visiting our flawed but beloved country. Meanwhile, the restaurant’s launching a branch in Russia – maybe people from the East will find Lithuanian hospitality exceptionally warm. The only worry is how the restaurant will overcome the recurrent Russian embargo on Lithuanian food…
In the end it’s worth remembering the conversation shared with a tipsy Lithuanian couple at a table nearby. “So how did you like your dinner?’’ one of them asked.
“It was ok,’ I said, ‘Although they didn’t have half the dishes we wanted to try”.
“That’s not so bad. Acceptance is the key to improvement”, the man said, visibly proud of his wisdom.
“No,’ I snapped back. ‘Criticism is the key to improvement…’
It’s a perfect summary of our experience of Shepherd’s Inn and the darker side of the mentality of the Eastern Europe. It’s worth going there and you may even fall in love with it, as long as you stay critical. After all, everyone makes mistakes.
Shepherds Inn – Berneliu Uzeiga, 485 High Road, Leytonstone, E11 4PG (Tel: 020 8988 9980), is open Monday-Thursday 12-11 pm, Friday 12pm – 1 am, Saturday 11 am – 1 am, and Sunday 11am – 11 pm.