Thursday, December 31, 2009

Where Are They Now?

Over the past eight months, we at Tartu – City of Good Food have reviewed nineteen eateries in Tartu. Some people have expressed concern that we will quickly run out of places to go, places to review, but a quick glance at Tartu’s official homepage reveals that there are upwards of seventy establishments. And while the number may be finite, it is also in flux. Many will close their doors, some will move, some will reinvent themselves, and a great many will open their doors for business for the very first time. Of the nineteen we’ve visited, where are they now?

Café Truffe still serves the best latte in town. I haven’t eaten there recently, but I’ve heard mixed reviews. They seem to be out of menu items quite frequently.

Alvi Kebob alas is no longer there. They’ve moved three meters. Their new location is the old porno rental shack behind the now-absent trailer kiosk. There was a time when I ate there a couple times a month. But as we all know, the quality of a meal depends on who prepares it. There was a tall, lanky blond guy—very polite in fact—who just couldn’t make a good kebob. The tortillas he served were consistently over-grilled and crunchy, making a messy meal even messier. I scoped them out once to see if he was there. Someone else was working at the window, so I ordered a couple kebobs for Mrs. Mingus and myself. Then he appeared from around the corner, in the seating section (you can eat inside now, but if you do, everyone will know you ate there, because the scent of kebob clings to your hair and clothes for at least a couple days—make sure you don’t go in wearing a nice coat). The kebobs were crunchy, not too enjoyable. A shame really. If he quits I’ll go back, but the only way to see if he’s there is to go inside, which I don’t want to do.

Kissing Students is still doing well, but the rumors of amazing steak have been silenced. I don’t know why.

Istanbul is rumored to have debts to the city, like a number of other places. Talk in the newspaper hints at preferential treatment. Better to lower the rent than risk being rentless. This has angered other restaurant proprietors, who shout out “unfair competition!” But I’ll talk about that later.

Opera Pizza is still the exact same as ten years ago. Good pizza on a good night, salty and greasy on a bad night. They seem to be struggling to understand special orders. “Hold the pepperoni, please” often results in extra pepperoni.

YamYam has expanded to Solaris in Tallinn. Solaris is the new downtown Tallinn mall that has recently opened with some controversy. Namely that it was rushed and almost crushed a theater full of people when the ceiling collapsed. Luckily people weren’t due to enter for another ten minutes. A day or two later, a friend was walking by on the street and a large piece of roofing material was blown from the structure and landed on the sidewalk in front of him. Oddly enough, I haven’t been back to the YamYam in Tartu, so I can’t confirm it’s still there. The webpage doesn’t open either. In fact, the Solaris franchise is called "YamYam To Go", apparently an international chain. Did the Tartu guy copy someone?

Volga—Tartu’s most expensive dining establishment—changed owners. It’s still pricey for Tartu, but now serves Russian cuisine. I haven’t tried it yet.

The Black Pepper Grill, it seems, has moved and changed its name. It is now Musta Pipra Grill, which means Black Pepper Grill. A pizzeria called Hagar (the Horrible) justly went out of business, replaced by our grill (I still have a scar on my arm from eating there). Now in the Zeppilin mall on Turu tänav (Market Street), their webpage has a section labeled “Food and Drink”, leading you to believe there’s a diverse selection of cuisine. Click on it and you’ll see only our grill and a double-X grocery store.

Ungari Köök continues its successful run. They haven’t moved or expanded, yet. I get the distinct impression the owner would like to expand, open a new restaurant downtown somewhere, but he’s probably being hampered by the city’s relentless bureaucracy. He has, however, started offering “something different” on Saturdays. I’ve only had the opportunity to try it once, but if this is the type of food he would offer on a daily basis in any expansion in the future, I can fully understand why the city would want to stop him. He’d put everyone else out of business.

Moka is on what I will start calling “Restaurant Row”. On one stretch of an Old Town street, you’ll see Volga, Moka, Žen-Žen, Tsink Plekk Pang, Entri, a new Starbucks-styled café I haven’t visited yet, and I’m sure there’s another place there as well. At least half a dozen more just around the corner, whichever way you walk. One by one, the boutiques and businesses are emptying from the small Old Town and moving to malls. In their place are bars, cafés and restaurants. I think this is the natural evolution of any modern downtown area (complete with artificial dinosaur bones).

***

When you write about something, you tend to think about things, notice things, you otherwise wouldn’t. I have noticed three main trends in eating out in Tartu. The first is apathy. It’s not everywhere of course, but it is common enough to denote a trend. Many of the dialogues and stories I have quoted bare the insolent demeanor of the people who bring you food in Tartu. A simple question about what is on the menu is akin to pulling teeth.
“Do you have this?”
–No.
“What do you have?”
–What do you want?
“I want this.”
–We don’t have it.

There may be many causes for this, among them simply poor communication skills. Culture, family background, hangover—it doesn’t matter why. How can you change it? You as the customer have but one weapon at your disposal. The Tip. But Estonians don’t really tip. If you’re the only person who tips, how does that help dry up an ocean of tiplessness? Well, at the very least, it creates a good reputation for farners. Wait staff will expect a tip if they are polite. Reward them. After all, the waitress doesn’t care whether you’re satisfied with your meal if you’re not going to leave her cash for a drink. She makes the same hourly wage regardless of how busy the restaurant happens to be. So long as the place doesn’t close, she’s content with the status quo.

Apathy can be seen in the food itself, as well. There’s very little passion in Tartu’s food. The general idea is that you get your hunger satisfied. Taste is secondary. Show me a passionate chef and I’ll show my face in the restaurant.

The second trend is that overall, the food in Tartu restaurants just isn’t that good. No one says, “Come to Tartu—we have great food!” The city could advertise itself with “Come to Tartu—we have food!” but I think somehow that wouldn’t attract too many tourists, especially at a time when tourism is such an important contribution to the local economy.

Now I know what many of you are thinking—the food isn’t as bad as I just made it sound. And you’re right, it’s not that bad. There’s a lot of good stuff here, to be perfectly honest. A lot. But you will be disappointed if you’re expecting Little Italy. Estonian cuisine isn’t that diverse. There are some delicious, traditional recipes, but there aren’t that many “Estonian” restaurants. Unless it’s “ethnic cuisine” (which basically means it’s a foreign style) or what is considered an expensive restaurant (like Volga before its metamorphosis), most of the stuff is Soviet-era meat sauce and potatoes with degrees of freshness corresponding to price. The best restaurants employ farners in the kitchen. They seem to enjoy what they do.

And the third trend is poor stocking. The Chinese restaurant that runs out of rice. The coffeeless café. The beef restaurant that only serves chicken. “Then go to the shop and buy some rice!” Wait just a minute—it’s not that simple, I’ve recently learned. Restaurants can’t just go to the shop and buy rice. The rice has to come from a certified and approved wholesaler. As far as I know, there’s only one in Tartu—Aardla Hulgimüük (Aardla Wholesale). It’s a wholesaler that allows you to buy individual items from a gross—hardly wholesale. And the prices aren’t wholesale either. It’s quite often more expensive than a regular shop, gram for gram. This is essentially a state-sponsored monopoly in the world’s thirteenth-freest economy. Pure nonsense. (On a side note, before the Great Recession, Estonia was pretty much dead last in Europe in terms of labor freedom. This is both good and bad in that it creates job security but makes it difficult for an employer to get rid of a lazy worker. You could say that the state supported bad attitudes. This has changed somewhat now. Companies may now fire at will.)

This might explain the amazing similarities between the foods offered in Tartu restaurants. I’m not sure, but I would imagine that chefs in France aren’t forced to buy their veggies from Carrefour or Monoprix. That’s not a fair analogy actually—those aren’t wholesalers. But to paraphrase what one Tartu restaurateur recently said, “I would love to shop for my restaurant at a regular grocery store. The limes are green.”

However, this shopping farce still doesn’t explain why restaurants allow themselves to run out of a particular product. If it’s popular, stock up on it. Think ahead. Buy in advance.

So on the eve of the Year We Make Contact, allow an alien to make five suggestions:

Customers: tip for good service.
Estonian customers: be more demanding.
Chefs: put down the knife if you are not passionate about your job.
The Powers That Be: relax your laws just a bit. It’ll taste better.
Waiters and Waitresses: open your mouths and communicate.

***

Dish of the Year: Moka. Thanks for making me love yams!
Steak of the Year: not applicable.
Drink of the Year: Illegaard. Captain Morgan Spiced Rum and Coke (only fifty kroons!).
Salad of the Year: Volga.
Pizza of the Year: House of Mingus. Deep-dish with sausage and fennel.
Soup of the Year: Ungari Köök. They know how to use pumpkins.
Crap of the Year: Õlle 17. But that doesn’t really count because it’s in Võru.

Goodbye, Kristiina, and good luck wherever life may take you!

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Illegaard

Trying to find food in Tartu after dark—nay, it’s dark at three right now. Trying to find food in Tartu after eleven at night can be a somewhat trying experience. Should you just walk the extra distance from the downtown bars to go to McDonald’s, Statoil, Rehepapp or Alvi Kebob in that little late-night grease-cluster? Or should you risk soaking up alcohol with items produced—nay, heated up—by an insomniac chef? Nay, not a chef, but a college student delirious from mind-numbing reading for college courses in front of a bar microwave who probably hasn’t had her tuberculosis X-ray taken this year. If you’re brave, reckless, hungry or just plain drunk, every bar in downtown Tartu will serve fried or boiled Russian ravioli (pelmeenid), fried garlic bread (really good, but gets tiring fast), or a bowl of beans with chunks of bacon. You’re probably better off eating where you are, not venturing out in the semi-cold on a fool’s errand.

And where was I this past weekend? A place called Illegaard on Ülikooli Street. It’s old. It’s in a basement. It’s been saved by the bell. It’s a sports bar. Kind of. The English owner (yeah, he’s an authentic English bloke) has taken the tattered remains of what once possessed Tartu’s dingiest jaan and turned it into the barriest bar in a university town which otherwise should be resplendent with barriness. I mean, apart from a few bars, which I’ll mention in just a second, there’s no place to go out really, unless you want to pretend you’re in some old woman’s late-life crisis-decorated living room with shiny wallpaper and doyleys under all the cups and mugs and glasses.

Or perhaps you want to feel like a big-shot and pay big-shot prices for big-shot drinks, like the Mojito, while sitting around a table on sofas so comfortable that you absolutely cannot have any sort of conversation with any of your party (mainly because you really like the Phil Collins song they keep playing—unless anyone else can think of why no one would talk). Or maybe the lights are too bright or too dim everywhere else.

There is Krooks, but the lines are horrible, the clientele all wear bomber jackets and it’s ridiculously hard to move around if all the tables are occupied. Zavood is definitely considered a cool place, but I just feel a bit old to go there. It makes Krooks seem spacious on a big night, it’s so crowded. Genialistide Klubi is like a high-school dance in a haunted house that plays really good music. And they don’t offer food anyhow. Or alcohol, I think. Wait, I did get a rum and cola in a Dixie cup once. So if you want to drink late, you want a more international crowd (with hair) and space to move around, go to Illegaard. It’s the kind of place your embassy warned you about (meaning, farners congregate there).

Now why would I write about a bar? This little site’s for restaurants. Technically, they do serve food. But this is a fun place to go after eating at a real restaurant. It’s part of the experience of eating out in Tartu. It qualifies for a review, I think. It’s also a good measure of the food you just ate. If it wasn’t good or there wasn’t a lot, you drink more (or less) when you hit the bars.

Illegaard and I go back a long way. Originally, before the days of Mingus in Tartu, it was essentially the first bar in Tartu. You had to have a membership card to get in. It was exclusive. It was elite. It was easy to sneak into, I heard. It was split into two rooms, the second room being opened only when the patrons in the first room began to feel like sardines. The first room had steel tables that could double for tanker anchors. The second room had furniture made of aluminum foil. The furniture’s all still the same today. Only the sofas have been replaced a bit or reupholstered. The barriness of this place stems from the sofas yet again needing reupholstering. Your interior doesn’t need to be spic ‘n’ span. Well, clean, yes, but not sterile.

A really rich guy married some woman. He died. She bought property. Including the Villa Margaretha on Tähe Street. A beautiful building, replete with doyleys, and absolutely no business. She still drives million-kroon cars to work. She also owned Illegaard, and gave it a facelift around the turn of the millennium. A dark, dank dungeon bar suddenly became what Zack, Screech and Slater probably would have considered their favorite hangout before going off to college. Don’t get me wrong, it was an improvement. It’s the jaan I want to talk about, before it was saved by the bell.

One tiny little stall, right by the front door. No ventilation, no drainage in the floor, and certainly not the first thing you want to smell when you enter. The bowl was there—one of those Soviet-era things with the poop shelf (so you could separate your waste?)—and it flushed, but there was a metal grate on the floor that was about five or six centimeters thick, along with an ever-present body of water. Sewage really. You could play Creation in it. It was disgusting. There were lines outside by the courtyard parking lot to relieve yourself because no one wanted to go inside.

So one night at a friend’s party (he lived upstairs, in the same building), I discovered an eel wrapped in plastic in his fridge. He said it was a gift, he didn’t know what to do with it, and I could have it. I thanked him, wrapped it around my waist, put my coat on and we all went downstairs to Illegaard. When no one was looking, I scampered off to the jaan, unwrapped the eel and laid it in the bowl. A few minutes later, a princessy type came floating down the stairs out of the stall, arms hanging down but hands up like airplane flaps, and shaking her head. An emo boy from her table went to investigate, immediately ran back out and announced to the whole bar, “It’s genius! It’s amazing! It’s a work of art! Only an art student could have done this!” Every single person stood up in one coordinated movement and flocked to the door to see this œuvre d’art. I can’t even draw a square. If only that guy had known it was one of them darned farners.

A few minutes later the bartender—Kristiina—was seen wrapping up the eel in newspaper, behind the bar. Now, you’d either throw it away, or you wouldn’t. Throwing it away would not require newspaper. She must have been taking it somewhere, and wanted to keep it clean. Mrs. Mingus, to this day, does not believe me. But the kind of person who would leave an expired eel in a public jaan is not the kind of person who would make up some harebrained story about a woman and her apparent dinner.

A year ago I ordered fried pelmeenid. An hour later I was served. They were burned. A couple weeks ago, a friend and I went for drinks and she got the munchies, ordering two plates of onion rings and a plate of salsa and tortilla chips (tor-TI-ya, people, tortija—not tor-TILL-a). The onion rings were good, all eight or so of them, as was the dip. We both got heartburn though. Maybe the third time ever in Europe that I’ve had heartburn. Thing is, you must keep in mind that this is bar food. It’s not restaurant food. It’s frozen and reheated. At least the selection is a little more Anglo-American than other places. This should be pretty popular with Anglo-American people, too. And yes, I try whenever possible to use the term Anglo-American. It makes me feel more upper class through association with, well, the upper class (okay, not really—I just use that term to take the piss out of people with Angles). But I would choose good tapas any day over Freedom fries.

Gone are the days of the Romanian chef from Ireland. When Wilde finally went bust, our Romanian needed a job. He found a temporary one in Illegaard. Now he’s back at the new Vilde (not Wilde, but Vilde), and fried fish and chips are back in Illegaard. Apparently the Romanian dude is so passionate about cooking that he’s willing to cook privately, if you cover the cost of the food and a small fee for him. I don’t want to advertise him for something I’m not sure about, but if a person loves his job so much, and the job produces food available to the public, I just have to try this.

Illegaard has one of the few Fußball tables in Tartu. Five kroons a game, buy your tokens at the bar. Don’t worry about losing them. The owner claims to go through hundreds a month, at the expense of the supplier. I guess the table is rented. I like playing against Estonians, because most of them aren’t that good. Yes, that was a challenge. I refuse to play against the French though. They have so many stupid rules it’s infuriating. You can’t score with the goalie, and if you do, you lose points? Putain de bordel de fessage, cems! I have a substantial collection of these tokens at home, because after a couple games, my opponents just quit, and go leave Christmas gifts on the jaan seats.



Illegaard has some nice graffiti in the stalls. Things seem to be going well for Denis. He is rule, after all.

The thing I don’t get about Illegaard is why more bars aren’t like this. Granted, not everyone likes the English bar style, but this is more of a cross between English and Estonian. English energy, I mean the kind you can only find in a pub. You don’t hear chavs oi-ing or the now-internationally-famous football hooligans making up lyrics as they mumble out toneless stadium tunes, but there’s an energy here. Not so much limited to the studentele, because the clientele is mixed with townies.

But seriously, take a good look at a lot of the other bars here in Tartu. They’re nice enough, but they’re all just kind of snooty. You need a scarf to enter, and if you order anything other than tea and brandy you’ll be sitting alone. And who’s making the money? Who’s successful? I don’t want to state that all bars in Tartu should serve only frozen and fried food, but a little modern rock couldn’t hurt. Other bars (and people, too!) could take themselves a little less seriously, and I think that really couldn’t hurt either.

And just to take the piss out of the owner, the Angled guy, I heard he’s offering a free round of drinks to anyone who can correctly identify all the languages posted on the front door. And a bowl of nachos on the house to the first person who can translate them. And what the hell does Illegaard mean, anyhow?

***

Father Mingus is visiting for the holidays. His flight was cancelled for some reason, causing him to spend the night in the airport. When he boarded, the Dutch decided that the carry-on he had—his only bag—was too big, even though he’d already flown across the ocean with it in the overhead compartment. They forced him to check it, and subsequently lost it. Anyhow, according to him, it’s becoming more difficult to wish people a Merry Christmas in America. You might offend someone, if they’re not Christian or pagan. His suggestion? If someone makes an issue of it, say that wishing them a Merry Christmas is the best you can offer. It’s the sentiment that counts. The wish for wellness to other people. So when I say what I’m about to say, don’t get offended, just understand I want you to be happy. Merry Christmas! (Happy Christmas to people with Angles!)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Žen-Žen

Eating in a restaurant encompasses not only the food you consume, but the service, environment and everything else that is involved in the process of making your belly bulge. There must be a why, a where, a how and a consequence. While eating may be the whole reason for this grand ordeal, it is perhaps one of the shortest steps, and definitely not more important than the other steps. If you don’t order, you don’t eat. If you don’t decide where to go, you don’t eat. If you don’t wash your hands before eating, there’s a chance that very soon you won’t eat for a couple days. Restaurants need quality and well-equipped jaans.

This review of Žen-Žen (pronounced "ZHEN zhen") will attempt to paint a picture of the overall dining experience, beginning with the why and ending with the consequences. A slice of life, as it were.

The reason we ate food from Žen-Žen last night was the result of events which occurred over the weekend, which in turn were resultant from Thanksgiving, and which were ultimately consequences of some bishop or priest—essentially an aggressively dogmatic missionary—who decided to make the date of Christmas coincide with the pagan rituals of the winter solstice in order to attract more followers (that’s why Christmas is exactly six months from Midsummer). No one knows for certain when a Certain Someone was born—I’ve always heard April is a good candidate—but it certainly wasn’t on Christmas. I mean, it would be absurd to believe that this omnipotent being would choose to share a birthday with Ricky Martin or Jimmy Buffet (depending on what time zone you’re in).

Our home and my meager culinary talents can only accommodate so many people at a time. So after Thanksgiving and before Christmas, we usually have a White Elephant dinner party for homeless Americans (Yankees in Estonia who don’t have families here as well). White Elephant means you bring a funny gift that you do not buy. A regifting party. Everyone brings one, assigns a number to it, and lots are drawn to divvy them up. Examples would range from an old Whitney Houston record to used slippers, or last year’s half a cabbage wrapped in nice paper to this year’s Matryoshka bag (we had at least a hundred plastic bags in our collection and desperately wanted to rid ourselves of them, so I wrapped them all inside each other, one after another). Anyhow, I spent nearly twelve hours in the kitchen on Saturday, and come Wednesday I still refused to cook. And as I'm the preparer of food for my family, this meant ordering out. This is the why.

We were very hungry, and slightly tired, so bundling up the kids in this late yet welcome winter weather seemed less than appetizing. It’s almost zero on the Fahrenheit scale, and last night we had flurries. Beautiful, romantic Christmas weather. I opened Žen-Žen’s webpage and wrote out an order to call in. They also deliver, but I had to go to the shop anyhow, in the same neighborhood. This explains the where. Delivery in Estonia is a funny thing sometimes. While there are very few places that allow you to pay by card at your own front door (but how fantastic is that?!), there are more than enough places that do deliver. And they make you pay for it, too. You’d think capitalism and competition would have eliminated that, but alas no! There are, after all, still cafés that charge you for sugar and milk.

Some restaurants, among them a place I despise called Tsink Plekk Pang (at least years ago it was a nasty “Asian” restaurant in Tartu, reminiscent of American commercials advertising a specific product as “European”), used to offer e-takeout. You could place your order on their on-line form and even pay on line. We tried this once, years ago, and two hours later called to find out where our food was. “Oh, we didn’t check our email.”

I climbed into my motorized sleigh and set off across the snow-blown roads of Tartu, destination Selver (a local grocery chain). They were out of milk. Two guys in line behind me were each buying a six-pack of Saku, Tallinn’s beer that tastes like lake water (it is brewed using lake water). They mumbled, “Kas võtame viina ka vä?” (“Should we get some vodka too?”) Outside in the parking lot, one of them pressed one nostril and blew something out of the other. Then spat.

I started driving to Žen-Žen, but got stuck at a train crossing. The lights were flashing, the gate was down, and no train. Three minutes later, it appeared—one of those long freight trains with at least sixty tankers of oil. Ten minutes later it was finally gone. Another two minutes and the gates lifted, the lights stopped flashing, and I could be on my merry way.

Žen-Žen is on Näituse Street, a very beautiful Tartu street with modern, Estonian and Stalinist architecture alike, with a direct outlet into Toomemägi Park. There’s no parking though, so you have to pull up on the sidewalk across the street. The restaurant itself is fairly small, just a few tables, and has all the feel of an authentic North American Chinese restaurant, traditional yet digital clock and everything. I’ve been a frequent customer of Žen-Žen for years now. Why? Because it’s good. Not only does it serve the best Chinese in Tartu, but I believe it could maybe even hold its own with San Francisco’s finest. The owner is, after all, from China.

He also runs the Hiina Keskus (Chinese Center) on Riia Street. Chinese goods on sale and a massage parlor. I wish the guy success in his business affairs, as he’s a very pleasant man, at least the one time I talked to him.

The Estonian waitress gave me a warm, welcoming smile and told me my food was being packaged up, just a minute more. She then went into the kitchen and I heard her shout out something in Chinese. Cool! When she came back to the register so I could pay, I asked her where Kristiina, the usual waitress, was.
“Oh, she moved to Brussels.”
—Really? What’s she doing there?
“She’s some sort of EU official now.”
—Good for her! I didn’t even know she was qualified for it.
“She isn’t.”
—Then why is she there?
“Well, someone had to go from Estonia.”

That’s one major drawback about being from a country with three hundred million people. The competition for unique positions is three hundred times more difficult than in Estonia, a country of a million.

My food came out of the kitchen, and I crossed the gusty street and once again began to drive in my sleigh. Ever so slowly, because it was a perfect night for a nice, relaxing drive on mildly slippery streets, and also because I didn’t want the stacks of takeout boxes to tip over. Ever so slowly—the speed limit in fact—and I got passed twice on a two-way road with cars sporadically parked in each lane.

Home again, we served the food. The two rices I’d ordered seemed uncharacteristically small this evening. About half the normal amount, and it was dried up and crunchy. I would be willing to assume they’d just had an off night, as I’ve eaten in Žen-Žen probably twenty times over the years, but this was the second time in a row there’d been a problem with the rice.

As I said earlier, I wish Žen-Žen success. And they have indeed been successful, expanding to a buffet-style eatery across the street from that Stink Plaque Bong place, on Küütri Street, the Old Town (right next to Moka and Volga!). I went there for dinner with a visiting friend, trying to give him a good Tartu meal. We ordered something from the menu, as the buffet is more for lunch and was relatively empty that evening. We waited, and waited, and waited. Eventually, the waitress—Kristiina, before she left—announced to us that the restaurant was out of rice. You’re a Chinese restaurant! How can you be out of rice?! They even had rice on the Battlestar Galactica, for frak’s sake! But this seems to be a common problem with Tartu venues. I went to Café Noir one time and was told they were out of coffee. The biggest grocery store was out of potatoes last week, the most eaten food in the country. Tartu businesses seem to have dastardly stocking practices.

Whatever, we subbed for noodles and still ate a great meal. I particularly like their potato and chicken thingy, not an egg roll but more of a hockey puck in shape, available only in the buffet, and not in the other, original restaurant.

I habitually eat their Kung Po chicken (“Gong pao” on the menu). It just happened to be overly salty last night. Last year in Seattle I ordered it, and it wasn’t nearly as good. But when I said the name, heavily influenced by the Estonian phonetic spelling of it that I was used to, the Chinese waitress asked if I spoke Chinese. When I said no, she seemed surprised, and told me I had pronounced it absolutely perfectly. Hmm…

Everything else I’ve tried there has been pretty good as well. Ginger chicken for example, and there’s also something on the menu, not sure exactly, that is truly delicious. I think it’s the “Stewed pork with house sauce” but I can’t remember. Warning: only order this if you can afford it cholesterolly. If an Estonian waitress has to warn you about the fat content of something, you can bet your arteries she’s not kidding.

Žen-Žen is one of the few restaurants whose food our kids will wolf up. And definitely one of the very few spicy foods they’ll eat. Just check the rice before you pay for it. And oh yeah, you can comfortably wash your hands in their jaans.

However much I like this place though, Mrs. Mingus—who likes it too—is not quite as crazy about it as I am, and furthermore thinks I’m crazy to liken it to West Coast Chinese food. Just a matter of taste, I guess.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dorpat

Recently one of the Mingus clan experienced another birthday. A unanimous decision was made to dine in the Hotell Dorpat (not Hotel), but only because I was excluded from the voting process. The building looks nice, definitely a good locale overlooking the Emajõgi River, but the restaurant itself is just kind of…boring. The dining room is fully lit at night, making it difficult to see out the floor-to-ceiling windows to watch the drunks feeding the ducks in the dark behind the Tasku mall.

For almost a year now I’ve been picking up favorable chatter about Dorpat’s lunch buffet. Now that they’ve lowered prices from near a hundred kroons to forty kroons for the soup buffet, business is apparently booming in this place, bearing Tartu’s former, German name. And while my review of their entrées is going to be less than ecstatic, I do hope they can stay in business. It would be a shame if they went bust and the premises were occupied by yet another grocery store. At least it would be the Dorpat Hotel, Spa and Supermarket instead of a Mall Rimi.

We’d had reservations for almost a month, to ensure we got a window table for ten. The place was utterly empty upon our arrival. Two more parties of two did arrive before we left, and there was a long dining table reserved, and I hope that was why they had four wait and bar staff on duty for our one table.

For simplicity’s sake we had pre-ordered the package dinners, giving us a choice of grilled salmon, chicken and pork. I chose the salmon. The only side dish offered was mashed carrot and potato. It wasn’t my favorite thing, but I might have also been influenced by the fact that the purée was riddled with shrimp, not described in the menu. Carrot, potato and shrimp purée. Not what I would consider the best idea I’ve ever seen from a peakokk (head chef, not peacock). Unfortunately, the salmon was also a bit, er, boring? Essentially I was not impressed, and I can’t say that I would recommend it to visiting friends. I did try the chicken and pork others in our party had chosen, and it tasted surprisingly like chicken or pork.

The menu itself wished me pleasant taste experiences. As I’ve said before, I find these types of phrases off-putting. Almost like a warning. Not “Enjoy your meal!” but rather,
“We made something really special here
It might in fact go well with tongue of deer
We wish you a pleasant taste experience
And a happy Saku beer!”

I’m really sorry for that. I do apologize.

The kids’ menu was rather extensive, and offered real food as opposed to wieners and fries. My girls wolfed down broccoli and other veggies, but didn’t like the processed, frozen meatballs too much. So I ate them, because I wasn’t full at all.

The one redeeming experience here was the wait staff. Because we had three of them serving us, we didn’t have to wait long for anything. They were pleasant, as the menu hinted at, professional and they even smiled! Wow! Our main waitress, Krista, went so far as to chuckle and offer a reassuring “It’s fine, don’t worry about it,” when our toddler smashed a peppershaker all over the tablecloth. In the Olden Days (six or seven years ago), we would have been charged for the damages.

I approached the bar just after we got there to secretly order a round of vodka shots. There was some confusion. Here’s a transcript of the conversation.
“Hi, could I have four shots of vodka for our table?”
Kristiina the bartender: What?
“Four shots of vodka, please.”
—Four what?
“Four shots. Of vodka.”
—What’s that?
“Vodka?”
—No, four what of vodka?
“Shots?”
—What’s that?
“A small glass. For drinking alcohol.”
—Why do you want that?
“Because we want to drink some vodka.”
—Alright, and how should I serve it?
“In shot glasses.”
—What are those?
“How about this—I would like four times four centiliters of vodka.”
—In one glass?
“No, four centiliters of vodka in one glass, then four centiliters of vodka in another glass, and so on. Four shots.”
—Four what?
At this point, I just went through the motions of doing a shot. She understood, and asked once again how many I wanted. I counted one, two, three, four on my fingers, and then pointed at our table. And I swear this is exactly how it happened. It’s not made up for humor’s sake.

A moment later when the shots arrived, she placed two of them in front of Mrs. Mingus-in-law right off the bat. I don’t know why, because I’d never even indicated her in any way. I said, “Actually, just one for her,” and I pointed to whom the other shots were intended. She picked up the two shots she’d already served, put them back on her tray and started to walk off.

“Excuse me, you’re right, please come back. My mistake!” I uttered.

She was visibly angry at me for the confusion. We allowed her to give my mother-in-law the two shots and whomever else she felt deserved a shot. I thanked her, she left, and we redistributed the glasses.

Now I know I have an accent in Estonian, and that it’s frequently the first time an Estonian has ever heard a foreigner (at least non-Russian) speak Estonian, but she shouldn’t have had that much of a problem understanding me. She was also in her early twenties and should have known the word “shot” in English, as she’s a bartender in a hotel full of foreigners.

A couple days later I recounted this harrowing tale of futility to a friend, who explained that the word “shot” doesn’t exist in Estonian. That was the source of the misunderstanding. I should have used a different word for it. Fair enough, except for two points: I’ve used the word “shot” for eleven years, and this was the first misunderstanding; and what I wanted should have been more than obvious to any bartender who can tie their shoes. Kristiina would make a good contestant for that upcoming reality game show called Dancing with Darwin.

But I did like the crème brûlée. The cranberries were an excellent choice of garnish.

The cute part of the evening was our older daughter begging us to dance to the elevator Muzak under the giant disco ball. Luckily there were no other customers.

***

This wasn’t the first strange thing to happen to me at Dorpat. Earlier this year, Mrs. Mingus discovered the spa part of the hotel was offering discounted massages from student masseuses. She went one morning, then demanded that I go that afternoon.

“Was she hot?” I asked.

Mrs. Mingus said she wasn’t bad looking, but not cute enough to be worried about her having her hands all over my body, in a professional setting.

“Good. Sign me up.”

I walked in for a forty-five minute, full-body massage. I was told what room to enter, and as I opened the door I saw some old guy standing there, looking down on me. I’m not an especially tall man, but I’m well above the official average height of Estonians. This guy towered over me. “Are you my masseur?” I asked politely. He nodded. I was sure Mrs. Mingus had played a joke on me. He told me to change. Mrs. Mingus said she’d worn a swimsuit, so I brought my swimming trunks. I’m American, so I cannot go out in public wearing a bikini. Make all the “Americans are prudes” jokes you want, but they don’t apply to me. I just won’t say why.

My masseur said my trunks were unacceptable, and proceeded to pull a tiny, flat plastic bag out of a drawer. Inside was something truly miniscule, something worse than a bikini. It was a disposable male thong. Made of paper. One size fits all. But at least I was man enough not to walk out. He was extremely professional, and I didn’t feel uncomfortable even during the full bum rub I received.

Yet as this was my first professional massage of any type, I had no clue what to expect. When he was finished, he merely quietly slipped out of the room, not saying a word. I assumed I was supposed to get dressed and leave. I couldn’t find anything to dry away the massage oil with, so I got dressed. Then he walked back in, and was visibly shocked to see me fully clothed. It turns out I was supposed to lay back and relax for a few minutes, and he’d brought me a towel for before dressing.

I chatted him up a bit. He was an ex-construction worker. Unemployed from the recession. He really liked working with people and his hands, he explained, so the transition to masseur made perfect sense. A very nice guy overall, and strong construction hands made for a promising new career for him. I would have talked more, but my clothes were all sticking to my skin. I was starting to feel claustrophobic from it, so I thanked him and left.

Later I found out Dorpat’s policy is to mix genders. Meaning no woman should massage a woman, or a man a man. They were oh for two that day.

***

Our clan generally seemed a bit disappointed overall, and I was the only one eating in Dorpat for the first time. They said it was just an off night for the kitchen, and still had positive things to say about their previous pleasant taste experiences. Maybe I’ll give it another try.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

McDonald's

Trying to enjoy the company of your family and traditional food at least once a year is a common practice throughout the world. How, why and when this is done are specific to where you are. Most of these family reunion feasts are religious in nature, like Christmas dinner in Estonia—a country full of atheists. In America—a country full of believers—Thanksgiving is a secular and federal holiday.

History offers somewhat foggy versions of how Thanksgiving began in the States. Most agree that the Pilgrims held a big banquet with Native Americans to thank them for teaching them to grow corn and catch eel. Basically, for teaching them how to survive in the New World—a decision I’m sure many of the guests sitting on the ground and not at the table later came to regret. The painting here depicts the first Thanksgiving, revealing an unsettling pattern some of you may recognize. Oddly enough, this work of art is less than a century old.

President Lincoln reestablished the dead tradition of Thanksgiving during the Civil War, but it wasn’t until the Great Depression that it became a federal holiday. This is another pattern—war, economic turmoil and martyrdom seem to be the common denominators under modern holidays. As the decade Time magazine refers to as the “Decade from Hell” draws to a close, can we expect a new federal holiday to appear? National We’re Still a Country Day? And as everything has to be bigger and better than before, will home appliance manufacturers experience a boom in sales of maxi-sized ovens so people can cook whole stuffed ostriches?

Well at least eel is no longer the main dish. Turkey is. A food that most Americans openly admit to disliking. That’s probably why not nearly as many people as you’d think still serve the same recipes they did in the twentieth century. A stuffed turkey is often replaced with turkey curry, and mashed potatoes make way for something Tex-Mex. This is based on what hundreds of American friends on the Internet have said they ate this year.

As a foreigner in Estonia, I follow the Thanksgiving tradition to the letter. Our family places great importance on practicing both of our cultures. Some traditions may be odd and old-fashioned, but our children can make up their own minds about which ones to keep when the day comes.

So how is it to prepare a full Thanksgiving meal in Estonia? I don’t know, because I have nothing to compare it to. I didn’t start cooking turkey, pumpkin pie, stuffing and those other tasty delights until I came here. But it tastes authentic, so I must be doing it right. Finding a turkey though is somewhat of a challenge. The largest bird on sale in Tartu is just under eight pounds (three and a half kilos). In North America they average twenty-plus pounds (ten kilos). Another pattern.

Incidentally, turkeys are considered really dumb birds. It’s said they will look up during the rain until they drown, and are really clumsy. There is some truth to this, but it’s most likely just because the birds weren’t supposed to be this monstrously huge when Mother Nature first laid a turkey egg. Or did She make a turkey first?

Of course my highly protected Thanksgiving practices have incorporated some new traditions from Estonia. My mother-in-law brought a bottle of vodka this year, and we did a couple shots while eating and drinking wine. But my favorite newbie is that you cannot buy canned pumpkin purée in Estonia. You have to make it from scratch. And also celebrating Halloween—perhaps even making a bigger deal out of it than is done in the States—means we need a lot of pumpkins. Every year now we go as a family to a local pumpkin farm and buy more than ten of these orange squash. I’m sure I could find a live Gigantor turkey in Estonia too, but I wouldn’t want to make too much of a mess in the bathtub while defeathering it.

Back to talking about practicing both cultures. I instantly fell in love with Christmas dinner in Estonia. It’s important in America as well, and many families do eat turkey again, but there are no real rules about what to eat. Here you eat a pork roast stuffed with garlic, a side of sauerkraut, and my favorite—blood sausage.

The name is not entirely inaccurate, either, but variations in other countries go by different names. Black pudding and blood pudding (even worse name!) are a couple examples. Eaten with something similar to cranberry sauce, bacon and sometimes even sour cream, it’s simply an amazing dish. Luckily nowadays blood sausage is sold everywhere, and all you have to do is shove it in the oven, thus preventing me from cleaning up another red mess.

There’s another food on the table in Estonia, too. Head cheese. Not to be confused with Christmas Brie, it is not a cheese. You take all the meat from a pig that you normally wouldn’t eat—including head meat—and congeal it to form pork Jell-O. Eaten with vinegar and horseradish. Most foreigners won’t touch it, even though it’s delicious. It’s just a bit too foreign I guess. I personally don’t like it, either, but only due to the texture. Meat and jelly together aren’t my idea of a happy taste experience, as Estonian restaurants wish on their customers.

The only thing I can’t get too excited about with the Estonian holiday is the traditional Christmas mandarin. Yes, mandarins are found on almost every table on December twenty-fourth. Why is that, you might ask? Did they really grow citrus fruit in Estonia hundreds of years ago? No. It’s a Soviet thing. Flush all the old Soviet stuff away, including your Zhiguli cars (based in a city called Tolyatti), but let’s keep the mandarins. But that’s how traditions are started, right? Some weird thing happens, everyone forgets about why, but they keep doing it. That’s why people bring trees into their living rooms every year and a hulk of a rabbit hides a basket full of candy and grass in your house. And a winged midget steals your teeth.

What else is on the Estonian Christmas table? Oh yeah, vodka. I do cherish each Christmas meal with the Mingus-in-laws, and we always, always have a great time. Because of the vodka. At the beginning of this post, I mentioned “trying to enjoy the company of your family”. Millions of Americans fly from coast to coast to see people who stress them out. “I’m thankful Thanksgiving is over”, is a common sentence you’ll hear at the office on Monday morning. Guys, do a few shots of vodka at the dinner table! Before you go to bed, you’ll have business plans with your father-in-law. And your mother-in-law will admit that she actually does like the fact that you’re sleeping with her child.

And the now-traditional Christmas Day Hangover is begun with being frenetically shaken awake by possessed children who want to open their Red Ryder BB guns. All I can think of is getting to the coffee pot, but I’m forced to explain why Santa visits us twice on the same night. Like I said, we practice both cultures. Santa stops by after dinner and passes out presents, and then he breaks into your apartment after you go to bed. Presents from the American family, shipped overseas, are opened in the morning. Last year I told my daughter that Kris Kringle forgot his sunglasses, and that’s why he came back (Mrs. Mingus’s dad dresses up as St. Nick every year, but has to don some shades so he’s not recognized).

Now what in Tarnation, as my mother says, does this have to do with McDonald’s in Tartu? I will tell you.

I studied in France for a year in university. Some Americans got together, rented a room in a restaurant, and gave the chef Thanksgiving recipes and canned pumpkin purée for the pie. The chef decided that the idea of a pumpkin pie was unzeenkable, and instead served a zoroughly disgusting pumpkin-and-stinky-cheese casserole. The turkey hadn’t lost its head, either. And a month later an American friend and I ate Christmas dinner at McDonald’s, just to be able to say we’d done it.

But this blog is about restaurant reviews. McDonald’s in Tartu is much better than in America. And I swear to you they will have at least three Kristiinas on the clock at any given time.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tbilisi

A week ago last Sunday was Father’s Day in Scandinavia. It has different dates around the world, but Estonia celebrates it with Scandinavia. Because Estonia is in Scandinavia. Estonia is also one of the Baltic States. By that logic, so are Germany, Poland, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and—technically—Russia. But Latvia and Lithuania, which are no more a part of Scandinavia than Estonia, didn’t celebrate Father’s Day last Sunday. Neither did Denmark, which is odd, seeing as Denmark is actually part of Scandinavia. Even stranger is that the countries themselves decide when to celebrate it.

Regardless, the Mingus family had two and a half members of the Father’s Day Club this year: I am one, Vanaisa (grandfather) Mingus is the other, and Mr. Mingus-in-Law (if you drop the “in-law” part) is the half, as Ms. Mingus-in-Law is expecting. Marriage is waning in popularity in the Baltics. At least in Estonia. The pattern is frequently that a couple, if they decide to get married at all (there is more of a decision made than a proposal), do so when they’re expecting. In the States we call this a “shotgun wedding,” but not because we like guns so insanely, although I’m sure one of the McCoys was rushed to the alter with a muzzle in his back because of certain indiscretions with one of them Hatfield girls. You could hardly describe the Estonian pattern this way, however, because these marriages are usually consummated when they’re expecting their second child. The first one was a trial run, to see if the relationship would work. Perhaps these could be dubbed “miks mitte” marriages (“why not”)?

But I digress.

We went bowling at a mall called Eeden (Eden). It was a lot of fun, teaching my older girl to bowl. The lanes were equipped with rails, so she didn’t get a gutter every time. The funniest thing I noticed was a list of high scores on the wall.

There were at least eight people who had bowled perfect games, with one guy having even bowled more than ten three-hundreds. That’s a big change from when this place opened the better part of a decade ago. Whenever I went bowling back then (maybe once a year), I was always the winner, simply because I had gone bowling before. I’m not good at it. This time I scored lower than almost every other person there, and the lanes were all occupied. No one was smiling though, and not even the teenagers appeared to be having fun. But unlike joggers and cyclists in Estonia, no one was wearing the official uniform. We were still the only ones drinking beer. And the only employee who was smiling, for reasons I don’t wish to fathom, was the shoe guy.

After bowling we had quite an appetite, so we decided to eat some Georgian food together. We’d all been to Gruusia Saatkond (Georgian Embassy) more times than we could remember, and had heard mixed reviews about the new place—Tbilisi—on Küüni Street, in a windowless room on the lowest level of the failed shopping center known as Kaubahall. It almost felt like it was in a former corner casino. In fact, I think it is.

Based on what I’d heard, the cons were that some of the dishes on the menu were rumored to be fresh from a frozen bag. The pros were that the food was alright. Much too often, getting a favorable opinion from Estonians is like herding cats. “Did you like it?” Response either: “No, it was very bad,” or “Yes, it’s very normal.”
“Well then, did you enjoy it?”
“Yes, I would go there again.”
“Right, but was the food good?”
“It was normal.”
“Did it have a good taste?”
“It tasted like Georgian food.”
“But is that a good thing?”
“Yes, it’s quite normal, I think.”
“Did you like being there? Was it fun?!”
“We had dinner there.”
“Aaaaarghhhh!”

What was a very surprising turn of events was that the proprietor (I think) came to chat with us, assuring us that anything on the menu could be made in pint-sized portions for the children. Anything you want, come tell Uncle Ivan. I wasn’t sure of his ethnicity, but he spoke Estonian, didn’t look Georgian, but wasn’t quite Russian either. He had a gray ponytail, was very reassuring, and we felt safe. If there had to be a knife fight in the kitchen, you’d want Uncle Ivan on your side.

He told us lots of things that we didn’t need to worry about, as we were in his capable hands. But he wasn’t overbearing, and we didn’t feel uncomfortable. Uncle Ivan was very polite. The service was quick, and Kristjan the waiter smiled and informatively answered any questions we knew to ask. And if he didn’t know (he was new), Uncle Ivan made another appearance.

We didn’t know to ask about sides though, and this bit of rather important information was not volunteered. There are absolutely no side dishes included in the price of a main dish, apart from garnishes. Sides are available for an extra charge, but you have to know to ask.

None of us at the table discussed what we wanted to order, so we ended up with several portions of pork shish-ka-bobs. With no sides. But here’s my opinion: this was the best Georgian shish-ka-bob I’ve ever had. Keep in mind that I’ve eaten Georgian now in only three or four different restaurants, but this was hands-down the best in terms of flavor. We didn’t care much for the desserts, and had no opinion on the sides. The hinkali, a large form of pelmeni, or meat dumpling (also known as Russian ravioli), may have come from a frozen bag, but it was very normal.

The appetizer we collectively ordered, a cheburek (deep-fried mystery meat pastry), was delicious. And on top of that, it was delivered far enough in advance that we could all enjoy it without being distracted by our entrées (as I’ve mentioned before, appetizers in Tartu are frequently delivered with or after the entrée).

The price per ounce though was not particularly cheap for Tartu. Our party had to foot a rather massive bill, and we left not hungry, but not comfortably full either. We were kind of drunk, from the one beer, glass of wine and mug of something I can’t pronounce that we each drank. I wish I’d ordered a side dish.

That mug of unpronounceable liquid was cleared from the table before I’d finished it, while I was in the squeaky clean jaan washing my hands. No problem. Kristjan gave me a full, fresh mug at no charge, plus an apology. An apology in Tartu. Inconceivable! In return I gave him a fat tip that more than compensated for the free refill.

The restaurant itself was brand new, although the interior décor was not very Georgian, at least not compared to its other Tartu competitor. The owners are Georgian and Greek, according to the newspaper, although their web domain ends with .ru for Russia. Maybe Uncle Ivan was one of the owners, and not the manager? But it was clean, everything on the menu was stocked (which is rare), and you had no clue what time it was until you left, due to the lack of windows. Uncle Ivan sat at a nearby table discussing “beezness” with a man whose face was cast in shadow. I suspect they still had slot machines hidden in the kitchen.

I will certainly go to Tbilisi again, armed with my new knowledge of side dishes. And if anyone asks what I thought of it, I will show them two thumbs and say it’s quite normal.

Editing is important. Look through the greenery to see the lamb strangled by a vine, and the spicy chicken served with old tomatoes?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Nobel

After nearly a solid week of low-sleep nights and high-decibel-days due to one of our daughters being sick, the fever broke on Father’s Day morning and we went out to celebrate—at the new Lõunakeskus mall in Tartu. Father’s Day in Estonia is not on the same date as in the States, if you’re wondering.

In terms of mallness, it’s very mally. Which is a compliment, especially for Tartu malls. This is Lõunakeskus 3.0. And like the new Solaris in Tallinn, where P-Funk gave a concert in the cinema (no injuries luckily), I believe that Lõunakeskus 3.1, 3.2 and 3.3 will make their debuts within the next twelve months. Lõunakeskus 1.0 was basically a warehouse with flimsy cubicles set up on the floor, each cubicle being a shop. You could throw garments over the walls into the next shop, and then just walk out with it because the radio frequency for the security devices was different at the neighbors’ doors. Then 2.0 appeared, with an ice rink and casino in the basement. And a lawnmower shop. At a mall.

The new 3.0 is very Western, like Tallinn’s Ülemiste and Viru malls. Overall, I like it. It’s still not a two-floor mall. It is technically, but I think a bookshop as the second-floor doesn’t count. In the 2.0 part of Lõunakeskus, I entered the new 2.1 section, which I will call the Financial and Lingerie Department. There are three banks, two insurance branches, a currency exchange and a lingerie shop crammed into the same area. Let’s go to the mall and buy some insurance!

In 3.0, there are two electronics shops right smack next to each other. The security guards will probably give you a hard time if you buy something in one, and then continue shopping in the other. I’ve never understood why local malls group shops the way they do. In Tasku, for example, there are five shoe shops in a row. Americans are rather advanced in sales techniques. You’re exposed to everything whether you want to be or not. You would never see two competing shops side by side. Imagine navigating a monster Las Vegas casino. Then apply that to the parking lot in 3.0. They’ve made it hard for you to leave because they don’t want you to leave. But that, I believe, is true for all roads and such in Europe. Roundabouts galore. To be fair though, I got lost on two separate occasions in American parking lots last year. Labyrinthine curb arrangements coupled with family cars as big as Transformers made it difficult to understand that the roadway going in the general direction of the main street wouldn’t continue that way, and would instead guide you right back to the grand entrance.

Also in American malls, you would never ever see a grocery store. 3.0 has two! The new one is the long-awaited Rimi. Finally as big as a Tallinn Rimi, I have to say it’s, well, no different than the old Rimi in Tartu, except that it’s bigger—oh so much bigger—and it has what appears to be a deli restaurant in the back corner. The product selection is exactly the same, though. I would, however, like to mention what it does not have. It does not have chickpeas, standard fare in several traditional and popular Estonian recipes. What’s so hard about ordering chickpeas? And Cheerios. And Helen brand oatmeal, the number one oatmeal in the country. Tallinn Rimis and every other grocer in Tartu have all three of these products. The baguette mystery has offered yet another clue into the minds of Those Who Control Retail Sales in Tartu. You still can’t get a regular baguette in Tartu. You can only get one smothered in cheese. The bakers don’t know how to not sprinkle cheese on the dough before shoving it in the oven. But they did learn how to sprinkle it with sesame seeds. There is now a variety of “flavored” baguettes in Tartu, but like potato chips, you can’t just get the plain version. Odd…

And now for what they used to have. Rimi used to have Pagaripoisid products, the best bakery in Estonia. Dole salad in a bag, a healthy dinner for twenty kroons. Root beer. Cheddar cheese. When something is popular, you naturally want to stop selling it. That’s why I still shop at Selver. At least they have Cheddar.

What I really like about 3.0 is how it is organized. Except for a couple dead-end hallways, it’s circular. There are even two connecting entrances to 2.0. One of these has two moving sidewalks instead of escalators. Only one was turned on though. After three days of being open, I think it broke. Kind of like when the new Kaubamaja opened, the escalators all broke the first week. I took the stairs, and got that really cool vertigo feeling that only happens when you know you won’t fall, but you also know you shouldn’t be walking where you are. Shouldn’t be because it seems to violate the laws of physics. I think it would be extra cool too if I were, like, a little bit taller and stuff and then walked up these stairs. My center of gravity would be higher than the handrails. Fortunately, Mrs. Mingus found the hidden, unmarked elevator off to the side. She said she could barely fit in there because of the baby stroller.

So at the top of the stairs is a book shop, some sort of shop that was closed but had a remote-controlled car racetrack visible through the window (how fun would that be?!) and the Nobel Café. I personally would have switched the places of the bookshop and café. The bookshop is surrounded by windows, and the café is shoved into a corner with no natural light. It looks cozy, if not a tad claustrophobic. We sat at one of the two tables that offered a view of the ice rink. Next to the automatic piano.

video

The piano is entertaining. One kid’s dad told him there was an invisible man playing. The little boy waved his hand over the empty bench just to be sure. The music selection is not entertaining. First it played the happy birthday song. Then a popular children’s lullaby, next an unknown song, followed by the Wedding March and Auld Lang Syne. I so desperately wanted the piano to complete the cycle of life with Amazing Grace, but techno from the ice rink suddenly drowned it out.

I went to order at the café’s bar. The sign showed a twenty-minute wait for the food, which I found a bit long but still acceptable. We were hungry. I ordered coffee, a pastry, and scrambled eggs for the kids. “You know, the wait will be about forty minutes,” Kristiina the waitress said.
“Why?” I replied. “There’s no one else here.”
“That’s just how long it will take.”
“What about bruschetta?”
“The same.” There was a semblance of Monty Python in her tone when she said that.
“Why? Just toast some bread and plop on a spoonful of pesto.”
“I’m sorry,” she frowned. “Forty minutes.”
She clearly didn’t want us to eat anything.
“Nevermind then. Two cranberry juices for my kids, please.”
“We’re out of cranberry juice,” she stated matter-of-factly.
There were only four juices on the menu, and they’d only been open for three days. I could see where this was going, so I gave up and asked what they did have. “Multinectar.”
“Nothing else?”
“No.”
“Could I have two multinectars, please?”
“Here you go.”
“And two straws, too.” The straws were not on the counter, but far away, by the flavored syrups.
“Two what?”
“Straws.”
She seemed confused that I would need straws for young children to drink juice with, but she exhaled loudly and gave me two straws.
“OK, and can I get that free small Father’s Day muffin you offer with an order of coffee?” I’d seen some truly small muffins in a basket, chocolate I suspected.
“Oh right, here it is.” She pulled out a different basket with even smaller muffins. Seriously, this thing was the size of my thumb. I didn’t know there were muffin tins that miniature. It looked like a chanterelle. I tried to take a photo but the children had wolfed it down before I could bring the rest of our order to the table (it’s a semi-self-serve café). I forgot to add milk to Mrs. Mingus’s coffee, so I went back to the counter yet again. Another customer had since taken the little milk jug to her own table, forgetting to return it. I asked Kristiina for milk. She pointed to the table and said, “Just go get it from her.” She was too busy counting muffins for her inventory.

* * *

In the parking lot, I counted eight handicapped spaces in a row. In the farthest row from the door.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Moka

Back in the nineties, there were four main places to get pizza. Taverna, Pizza Opera, Pizza Pronto and Reinu. Unfortunately, Reinu does not have a restaurant, as far as I know, so I will never be able to write about how thoroughly disgusting I find their pizza. Who uses Whiskas® as a topping? In fact, the only good thing that I can remember about that company was that they could deliver cases of beer at four in the morning to your apartment doorstep.

Pizza Pronto, on the other hand, had a pizza dough machine. It looked like a candy dispenser. It was thin crust—I’m a deep-dish man myself—and thick with taste. Forty kroons for a daily special wasn’t bad, so long as you didn’t actually order the daily special. I did once, without looking on the chalkboard by the register, and was surprised to get egg, pickle, onion and corn on a pizza.



Two remakes and ten years later, Moka occupies the same premises, kitty-corner from the university’s main building (next to Volga). They still have the same pizza machine, popping out the same pizzas, and I would imagine the owner is still the same as well. The restaurant has, however, changed dramatically. The bar resembles a pâtisserie, and the menu looks like something that should be in an upscale Manhattan diner instead of this rather unassuming eatery. The only thing that gives it away is the prices. They’re dirt cheap for what you get.

After growing tired of the pizzas, I was completely unaware of the changes on the inside. A friend said the chef had repeatedly prepared what he called the best Chicken Kiev he’d ever had, and what’s more—if the same chef was at work when you went, and they weren’t packed, he was absolutely willing to prepare anything you wanted, from the menu or not. This hints at a chef in Tartu who enjoys his job. I know from inside accounts and personal experience that this isn’t a common thing. But my friend, whom I’ll refer to as Jaan, always says everything is the best he’s ever had. That’s why I waited a couple years before trying Moka.

A couple weekends ago, we had some visitors—the same who experienced Suudlevad Tudengid (Kissing Students) with us for my review. We visited Moka on a gloomy October Sunday afternoon. To our surprise, Moka was celebrating the cuisines of different countries each weekend. That weekend was American cuisine. I just wanted a salad, but I couldn’t resist the steak and brownies.

Other upcoming weekends on the menu were Belgium, Ukraine and Switzerland—not exactly places known for their food. That wasn’t what caught my attention on the menu though. First of all, the Estonian says, “National Cuisine Weekends.” The English below it says, “Multi-Cuisine Weekends.” What multi are you? I’m American. And what do you do? I’m a chef fe cuisine.

Dee and eff may be companions on the qwerty—an understandable typo—but if you’re going to print out an attractive menu like this, especially as it’s just an insert and not the whole thing, wouldn’t you at least look at it once before sending it to the publishers? This is like if I wrote my name as Toomas Hendrik Lives (I am, after all, the one true Present of Estonia). Fortunately, as I found out when the food arrived, the chef de cuisine, Andrus Vaht, pays much more attention to what he sends out of the kitchen. And if it wasn’t the head chef working at one on a Sunday, that says even more about him as the leader of his kitchen. Rumor has it he even converses with customers. The waitress did happen to point him out as he was walking by…he looked at our baby carriage and smiled. When does that ever happen in Tartu?!

The presentation of the food was something deserving of at least a couple Michelins, probably all three due to the price. It was almost absurd, to be perfectly honest. I felt guilty about eating my entrecôte, whatever that is. Usually in Estonia it’s something similar to a rib-eye, but not this one. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed every bite—but it was far from the best steak I’ve ever had. It was full of tendons, or something else, as I couldn’t be sure what cut it was. I’d also specifically asked for it medium-rare, and Kristiina—our waitress—even repeated it too me. I think the chef got the message too, but as I was evidently served a budget cut it just wasn’t possible to do anything bloodier than very well done.

The mashed yams, or sweet potatoes, were the best I’ve ever had in my life. To add weight to that statement, I hate yams. I think they’re disgusting. I rank them right up there with green eggs. To clarify that statement, I really did love the yams. I could eat them here or there, I could eat them anywhere! I don’t know what the chef did, but it was simply delish! It’s a true pity that it was a one-off menu item. I would go there every month if he brought it back. I hope you’re reading this, Andrus. You are one Estonian chef who could teach a thing or two to American chefs. At least about yams.

Now for the rest of the food items, they were very good. I cannot say they were better than very good. It wasn’t quite on par with the presentation. But for the price, I would never complain, and I would recommend it to others. I already have, in fact, and I guess I am with this review. Keep in mind though, they do have stuff in the twenty-dollar range as well.



I got the American dessert—the brownies, as mentioned. It was a bit dry and full of nuts. I think a lot of Estonian desserts are a bit dry for the Yankee palate, but that’s not a bad thing, I think we could all agree. The four kids who were with us shared a single dish of ice cream. They ate their fill and we finished off the rest. Think about that: four children couldn’t eat all the ice cream in one helping.

Too bad I didn’t discover Moka during the summer. Küütri Street was redone a year or two ago, and it’s a very attractive outdoor setting. On a side note, why is there a blanked-out space on Küütri if you zoom in via Google Maps?

Mrs. Mingus-in-law tends to be rather picky and is prone to routine. And that’s fine and dandy. She’s over …-ty years old. She lunches in Moka at least once a week. That may or may not be a compliment to Moka, but I intend it as such. If only more people took pride in their jobs. Passion, I dare say.