No. 5Šturmų švyturys
Šturmų Švyturys serves as a proof that even in the modern world which is always in a hurry, you can find something genuine, peace, passion and... exceptionally fresh fish. Those who visit this restaurant on the shore of the Curonian Lagoon, find themselves as if in the alternative reality with no problems – where there are only waves of the Lagoon, fishermen’s boats, whispering bulrush, a soft breeze and a pleasant smell of fish soup.
A large part of this peaceful and simple feeling has been transferred to the restaurant Šturmų Švyturys, located in Vilnius, in Užupis quarter, where this restaurant is also called the Embassy of the Curonian Lagoon.
Both in the capital and at Ventė Cape, the route of the fish to the plate is especially short because the restaurant’s owner buys the fish directly from small fishermen who catch different fish in the Lagoon every day and deliver it to a little harbour of the restaurant. The menu of Šturmų Švyturys depends on the fishermen’s catch and the season of the year.
Such unpredictability is not a problem at all for chef Česlovas Žemaitis, the founder of the restaurant and the expert of dishes of Lithuanian wild fish. Vice versa, he enjoys that because, as he says, he can improvise and create every day without hiding behind recipes where the ingredients are calculated to the exact number of grams. He just realises a harmony of tastes born in his head, accompanied with precision by wine chosen by Asta, the wife of Česlovas. Thus we will tell you a story, which will be a little longer than usual (because we talk about two restaurants), about Šturmų Švyturys which is a creation and the way of life of the Žemaičiai family.
MENU – HERE AND NOW.
Early every morning, chef Česlovas Žemaitis goes to the Halė market. There he buys vegetables necessary for the dishes of that day. Česlovas knows already in the evening what fish is coming from the seaside to Šturmų Švyturys in Užupis, therefore, he creates while walking from counter to counter and choosing the best ingredients from well-known and reliable traders.
While Česlovas buys vegetables in the market and engages in alchemy of fish dishes, fishermen catch fish in the Curonian Lagoon. And this happens every day, in order to ensure that fresh and fragrant Lithuanian fish reaches the plates of visitors of Šturmų Švyturys.
Due to dependency on natural processes of nature and the fishermen’s luck, the menus of both restaurants are ever-changing and some of the shortest in Lithuania. If you visit Šturmų Švyturys in Vilnius, you will always have a possibility to choose from traditional fish soup, two or three cold starters, one or two main courses and, certainly, a dessert created by Asta Žemaitienė.
Since the very opening of the restaurant Šturmų Švyturys on the shore of the Lagoon 10 years ago, one of the main features of dishes created by Česlovas has been the excellence of marinating and pickling of vegetables and fruit achieved by him and his team. This excellence and caramelisation, compotisation and stewing, in the stove, of ingredients by the team help to harmonise tastes which may seem incompatible and unexpected.
According to chef Česlovas, this is the real culinary science – when you choose and create everything with your hands. When you even salt the fish yourself, because there are no two fish that are the same, therefore, you have to feel and understand what you need to ensure that a dish is pleasantly exceptional.
Helpings of all dishes, except for dessert, are indeed large. Dishes are brought to the table on big plates or in special copper vessels from which every visitor may take as much as they want. According to Česlovas, it is best to eat dishes sharing them with another person. In this manner, you can try more dishes from the menu of that day.
In the restaurant Šturmų Švyturys located at the seaside, everything is even simpler. The fish which has just been caught is fried on fire in the fireplace. During that process, ash, wind and dunes on the other side of the Lagoon seem to form one unparalleled flavour. Therefore, it seems that food almost does not need any other extras. Or, maybe just a stirring of the fish soup with a brand of a branch of an apple-tree taken from the fire as a voodoo priest would do.
Šturmų Švyturys does not have a freezer – all fish is fresh and kept cooled on ice. Visitors in both restaurants can choose which fish they want to be prepared by the chef.
Asta is an experienced sommelier, and the couple travels to Austria, Germany and France a few times a year in a car which is specially equipped for transporting wine. There, they visit local winemakers.
Having returned to Šturmų Švyturys, Asta shares her knowledge with visitors and advises which wine goes best with the dishes cooked by Česlovas. By the way, the Žemaičiai family have an impressive collection of Grüner Veltliner and Riesling wines, which is the largest in Lithuania and comprises 400 different sorts of wine. Šturmų Švyturys also has interesting offers of champagne. The owners bring champagne themselves, too, from the province of Champagne in France.
The top-floor room of the restaurant Šturmų Švyturys in Užupis is an ode to fishermen. When you enter the room, for a while you feel like you are on a boat. You immediately notice ancient fishing tools used in the Curonian Lagoon, which are now hanging on the walls, paintings representing the sea, a model of the ancient boat “kurėnas” and other interesting highlights. A harmonious ensemble of elements of the marine theme is crowned by a huge photograph of an unknown fisherman, which looks like a small altar at the end of the room. The fisherman in the photo is dressed in festive clothes. In his hands, he is holding two things which are dearest to him in this world – oars. According to Česlovas, the installation of this room reflects immense gratitude to the fishermen of the Curonian Lagoon, because Šturmų Švyturys probably would not have been born without these fishermen’s work, traditions and legends.
The ground-floor room of the restaurant is dedicated to Dutchman Ernst Wilhelm Beerbohm, the father of weathercocks in Neringa. It was him who invented separate marking for boats for each village of Neringa, the fishermen of which caught fish in the Curonian Lagoon. Nowadays, this marking is known as unique weathercocks of the Curonian Spit. Česlovas Žemaitis often tells visitors with great enthusiasm about their history and characteristics.
At the seaside, the restaurant Šturmų Švyturys is located on the shore of the Curonian Lagoon, next to a small harbour where the hotel of Šturmų Švyturys is situated. There, you can feel the ancient spirit and see the architectural heritage of Lithuania Minor everywhere. There, you will not find anything unnecessary, anything that would hinder the enjoyment of peace, unique tastes of the dishes, cosy spitting of the fire in a fireplace and a pleasant silence which is sometimes interrupted by the sounds of nature.
For a long time, Česlovas Žemaitis worked in Vilnius where he lived an intense, demanding and stressful life of a contemporary urban resident. Finally, he reached the end of his rope and understood that something had to change. And he made a radical decision which was unexpected to many – Česlovas sold the business he had and, 10 years ago, bought a derelict fisheries farm on Ventė Cape, in Šturmai village. That is how the legend of Šturmų Švyturys started.
Every time chef Česlovas receives fish from the Curonian Lagoon, he hoists a flag at the entrance to Šturmų Švyturys in Užupis to indicate the main fish served on that day. This is an old Curonian tradition. In this manner, Česlovas wants not only to inform the people about the restaurant’s menu, but also to educate them and show how the catch changes during different seasons.
In this restaurant, differently from others, you will never hear music in the background. In this way, the restaurant’s owners encourage visitors to focus all their attention on communication, tasting, enjoying the moment and listening to stories. Usually, if he can, the chef himself approaches the visitors. Not only does he greet the visitors and ask whether they liked the food, but he also tells interesting stories about the fish, catching it or even cooking it.