I met Česlovas Žemaitis last autumn, when my friends insisted I visit Šturmų Švyturys, the fish restaurant he opened with his wife Asta in Vilnius’ up-and-coming Uzupio district. The restaurant in Vilnius is their second location; the first is a peaceful hotel on the shores of the Curonian lagoon, where many of the fish served at Sturmu Svyturys are caught. The couple used to run an advertisement agency before they changed tack in an effort to live closer to nature.
Many of the most passionate chefs I’ve met are not professionally trained; Mikael Jonsson in London and Bruno Verjus in Paris come to mind. What strikes me in each case is the extent to which their knowledge about ingredients and cooking techniques approaches an obsession, one that continuously results in new discoveries.
Šturmu Švyturys is a lesson in Lithuanian fishing tradition. Česlovas lives a net to plate philosophy, buying fish caught daily by local fishermen in the Nemunas river, the Baltic Sea or the Curonian lagoon. Depending on the season and the day’s catch, any number of these make their way into the restaurant’s daily-changing menu, accompanied by seasonal herbs and vegetables.
Česlovas has a reverence for fish. Bending toward a glistening filet, he explains that the first sign of a quality fish is its scent. Smelling catfish from Nemunas river and turbot from the Curonian lagoon, I felt as if we were inventing a new profession: fish sommelier! Like in a fine wine, we could smell the minerals from the sea and the seaweed from the river, clues to understanding where each fish came from and what influenced its flavour.
The restaurant itself is an ode to nature and fishing tradition: nautical details pay tribute to the Lithuanian fishermen who carry on this tradition, while a bed of ice cradles fresh-caught fish for diners to choose from. Česlovas favors seasonal herbs and vegetables, and vibrant hues of carrots, peaches or strawberries brighten up many plates, including a surprising strawberry gazpacho. One of my favorite dishes, which might be what made me fall in love with Šturmų Švyturys, was a salted vimba bream with pickled ceps, dried apple chips, salmon roe and sunflower oil.
Šturmų Švyturys is also famous for its homemade fish soup. While many fish soups are made with fish scraps, Ceslovas’s version relies on whole fish for flavor, and changes day to day, depending on what the fishermen bring in. Most often, starts with a full pot of flying bream, perch, pike and roach, to which is added water, celery, carrots, onions, garlic and parsnips, then simmered for several hours.
A feeling of simplicity and calm reigns at both Šturmų Švyturys and Česlovas’s hotel and restaurant on the lagoon. There, fresh-caught fish and seasonal herbs and vegetables are combined in a homey atmosphere that includes a crackling fire and friendly staff. It’s not uncommon for people to bike or boat to the harbor.
As always, it was a pleasure to meet a chef who seems to follow his passion for an ingredient over any financial rewards. The fact that Česlovas Žemaitis is so proud to support Lithuanian fishing tradition made this discovery that much more special for me.