Thursday, April 23, 2009

Alvi Kebob

Foreign cuisine and its availability leave an unmistakable imprint on a visitor’s mind. If you walk into the downtown area and smell whiffs of a dozen different national scents—the food kind—you feel you are in an international, modern environment. If you smell only varying degrees of oil being deep-fried, or a dozen different ways to serve potatoes, you’re very unlikely to be looking forward to mealtime.

Tartu, in its own way, is becoming more international. Slowly maybe, but it is happening. A decade ago, there were a handful of restaurants and kiosks. The restaurants more or less all served pork with some sort of blue cheese and pineapple-flavored side dishes, and the kiosks all offered hamburgers with more ketchup and mayonnaise than mystery meat and bread. These places are still around and thriving, but you have a lot more variety if you don’t like gourmet ketchup sauces.

My absolute favorite thing about Western Europe is the food. And I don’t really care for Western European food that much. It’s the kiosk culture of immigrant food. It’s cheap, it’s everywhere, and it’s fantastic! Middle Eastern cuisine is very much a large part of this, and now we have a taste of it in Tartu. Alvi Kebab. Slices of real meat off a real döner kebob-style vertical spit. The kind where you can never be too sure of the meat’s age.

I say “meat” because I’m not sure what kind they serve here. It tastes like chicken! But I suspect it’s some other meat because inside the trailer slash kitchen you can see an industrial-size bottle of Santa Maria’s chicken spice. And these kebobs do qualify as immigrant food, even though there’s nothing Turkish or Middle Eastern about the owner. He’s a German-German married to an Estonian-Estonian, and speaks Estonian too. He brought a kebob kiosk wagon trailer thingy all the way from Almanya (Turkish for Germany) and the prices are still visible auf Deutsch in euros.

Not to be confused with authentic Turkish food, we must understand that the döner kebob was in fact invented by a Turkish immigrant to Germany in the seventies to suit the local tastes. And the döner kebob offered at Alvi’s has been modified yet again to fit the Estonian market and tastes. I would call this more of a fusion kebob, because it’s wrapped in Poco Loco-brand Mexican tortillas, not stuffed into pita because, according to the chef working when I asked—Kristiina—they can’t get pita. In Estonia or just in Tartu, I don’t know, but I don’t doubt it. And it has lots of Polish-grown cabbage for a filler. And if you order the works (including lots of Santa Maria chili peppers), it causes an atomic reaction in your bowels, if you’re a true Estonian. That’s not meant to be offensive—it’s just my experience that anything that is even slightly stronger than black pepper greatly offends locals’ taste buds and bellies.

The problem is, these kebobs are hard to get. There are no hours posted, and I have seen no pattern to when they’re open. Often closed for lunch, it’s a very unreliable place to plan to go to. You just have to be lucky, but have a Plan B. Luckily it’s close to everything. Go to the parking lot behind the Old Kaubamaja department store.

But if it is open, you’re in for somewhat of an experience. Set at the edge of a Soviet-era parking lot and grassy knoll that was paved on top of Dubya Dubya Two ruins, you can smell the glasnost while you stand on cigarette butts looking at the modern glass structures across the street, trying not to spill sauce on your shoes or eat tin foil. It just makes sense to take it home. It’s messy. But it’s usually cold by the time I get inside. I thought it would be better to eat there, not give it a chance to cool off, but it made no difference. The fillings aren’t heated apparently.

The staff have been nothing but extremely polite and eager to explain this new advance in food preparation technology, although I’m still not clear on what the difference is between the kebob, kebob wrap and kebob maxi wrap, which I’m not enthusiastic to try. Why is everything in Estonia maxi? Would you like a pizza, or a maxi pizza? Should we go to the hypermarket or Maximarket or Maxima? Kas soovite juustu maxi einele?

These fusion kebobs fill you up but you want more, they’re so good. Don’t eat those last bites, no matter how much of a shame it is to waste those last bites. It’s delicious, but the last bites are there only to hold up the next-to-last bites. If you try to get them, you’ll smell like döner the rest of the day.

I guess the toilet’s broken.

The small building behind it was Tartu’s first video rental. All of it was pirated. But the patrons still like to come here. You get all manner of Tartite here. Drunken teenagers, inebriated Finns and hung-over office rats. I don’t know if they’re open at four in the morning—club time—but I would assume that, like in the West, that’s when they do most of their business. Honestly, it’s about time that there was competition for immigrant hot dogs at the gas station on your way home from the bars. (I'm referring to Statoil, a Norwegian gas station chain.)

It would be cool if the city set up an indoor space akin to the market in the form of a food court. You could sit there in winter after choosing from kebobs, stir-fried rice, langoshes, burritos and meat burgers. Somehow though I still suspect the meat burger would come out on top, and that’s no insult to the other foods mentioned.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Café Truffe

While there’s not a single place in Tartu where you can go and see just coffee on the menu (these sorts of cafés are endless in the West), there are many local cafés that more than make up for it. What I find funny about a lot of eateries in Estonia is that they try too hard to be nice—on paper. The interior décor is way over the top in snootiness, you can’t find a single food item on the menu that isn’t served with some sort of special marinade or sprig of spice that ultimately makes no difference, and in terms of coffee—no one serves it. You find espressos, lattes, cappuccinos, and the ubiquitous Lavazza, which really is just a coffee company that imports and blends beans from around the world. Imagine if all the cafés in New York sold Folgers, and advertized the fact. The Estonians unfortunately have come to think that Lavazza is a type of coffee. Would you like a latte or a Lavazza?

And so if all the cafés in Tartu sell Lavazza, all made from the same Lavazza machines and served in the same Lavazza-brand mugs, how in the world can you choose the best place to go? Simple—you judge a café by its latte. And Café Truffe has the best. By far. Even the mugs are unique.

And how do you judge a good latte? My criteria are as follows: can you hold the thing without burning your hands? Can you sit the thing down without worrying about it falling over? Can you put sugar on the foam and watch it slowly sink over the course of several minutes? And is care taken of finishing touches? Yes, yes, yes and yes in Truffe. Come on, they put cinnamon on it! They’d better—twenty-eight kroons.

On Town Hall Square, this kohvik is one of the few snootless yet upscale cafés around. It’s also one of the small number who make use of their windows. While other businesses choose to drape their windowsills in colorful tapestries and radiators, here you are the decoration. And I like people-watching. It’s no surprise that you often have to wait to get a window seat. Luckily they expanded last year and added a window.

The owner opened the place when he was twenty-two. And since then—four years ago—he’s opened two other places and bought another two, including a fast-food gourmet kiosk across the river. Cheers to him!

And the food is good too, yet a bit pricey for the portion. My inner Yankee is hungry and stingy. I ordered the creamy beef-and-mushroom pasta because it’s my favorite. Something about the flavor of the beef in combination with the other ingredients, although on this particular day the beef was tough. The bread, while not made in the kitchen, is a vast improvement on the normal stale slices of white and rye you get everywhere else.

I asked our waitress, Kristiina, if it was possible to substitute an item for something more to our liking. No problem. And the kids’ menu (they call them brats here, but I think that’s not a bad thing) offers more than just hot dogs and fries. They also offer hot dogs and fries. We did wait half an hour for the food though.

I’ve had their full-priced dinners before too. Not bad, but not filling and ultimately a bit forgettable. You’re better off sticking with the cheaper items, as they’re better anyway. But you’re always guaranteed a clean menu. They reprint them about twice a year, every time they raise prices.

Now time to wash my hands. A unisex toilet. OK, I can handle this. I think it’s a good idea anyhow. If you have one jaan that can accommodate one person at a time, it really brings out the nastiness in people. And having men’s and women’s rooms doesn’t really make much of a difference, except for the stereotypical lines in the latter. But if you’re in business right next to your neighbor, even if the stalls are floor-to-ceiling separated, you’re on your best behavior, because you know you’ll be washing your hands next to the fairer sex in just a moment. If you can wash your hands—the sinks are big enough for one thumb at a time.

Mrs. Mingus remembered a toilet in a Paris café. It was unisex, but to get to the women’s stall you had to walk by the men’s urinal trough. She joked that it would be easier to go ahead and pee there, as she’d already seen everything at that point on her trip to the jean. We’re still trying to figure out what the floor-to-knee mirrors were for in each stall.

I remember watching a man approach Town Hall Square one time who was so drunk he could only take a few steps at a time, just trying to make it from one street light to another, using them for support. Poor guy, down and out on his luck. Had I been sitting in the neighboring café I would have felt a twinge of guilt. Not in Truffe. You get the university airheads everywhere downtown, but you don’t feel unnecessarily elevated in status when sitting here. The people are mainly grad students and white collar workers who aren’t afraid of gardening.

Summer in Truffe is always nice. Far enough from the Town Hall bells from hell, I am anxious to see what sort of terrace they erect this season. They had what I thought was a nice one, but a high-heeled city hall official said she didn’t like how it looked from her office window. Some sort of woodshed analogy, even though Truffe had all the right paperwork and permits. They were still forced to change it.

And the best days of summer at Truffe are when the waitresses are forced to wear short yet flowing skirts. And ladies, the guys are fairly well-dressed as well, rugged features and all that. Last year our waiter, Kristjan, gave us free Champagne in the morning because it happened to be the café’s anniversary and we were frequent fliers. No one in Tartu has ever given away anything free. Generosity pays. This is also the only place where I regularly leave (and expect to leave) tips. Ten percent, mind you.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


For the inaugural review, I lunched with my family at a place called Café Truffe this past Saturday. The next day, Mrs. Mingus and our elder daughter went to the movies, and when I picked them up they were grabbing a quick bite at a local Italian place right there in the Tasku mall. Elements of this experience were so strange that Pastal has now gained this inaugural honor.

Pastal is a pun on a traditional Estonian moccasin, called a pastel. We’ve eaten here probably on four occasions since it opened last year. Generally a bit salty, it’s relatively cheap and filling and the kids like it too. Plus there’s a giant play kitchen so we’re free to people-watch while the kids play. See, Tasku is the failing fashion mall in Tartu. It was supposed to be so elite that they had a Mac store and only elite people would go there. In reality, three shops have now closed, not including the one that never even opened, and the mall has rented out space for a casino and nightclub. That is, there’s a casino, and there’s a nightclub. A casino and a nightclub in a mall. Only in Eastern Europe. And I shouldn’t forget the bus station in the mall.

Mrs. Mingus had already ordered her food when I arrived in Tasku. While I was coming up from the parking garage she called me to say that right after her food had arrived, she had had to run to the jaan (john) with our girl, and that it would be funny if I sat down at her table and started eating. So I did. The waitress looked at me with an expression that wanted to say, “Who the hell are you?” But she ended up saying nothing.

It took Mrs. Mingus a long time to go to the jaan with our girl. That’s because it’s either up on the second floor, through a bookshop and past the parking garage, or it’s again on the second floor, through a sporting goods store and inside a ten-foot egg in another restaurant, or it’s on the third floor behind doors simply marked with Batman and Catwoman. Either way, there was no soap or toilet paper, including in the handicapped jaan. I didn’t share my bread with Mrs. Mingus, but I did wonder what superhero they would put on the handicapped jaan.

So I ordered beef in red wine and tomato sauce served over tagliatelle (like fettuccine). It was served in a couple minutes, leading me to believe it was premade and heated up somehow. I assume microwaved. It’s generally good, but it has that restaurant chain flavor to it. More like a mildly artificial taste, instead of fresh basil and onion. Canned! That describes it. It was canned. And there was a pile of canned and grated Parmesan in the middle. The pasta was a bit mushy and the beef was the opposite. I assume they used the standard beef you can buy at the market—hind quarters, which is too marbled to serve unless it’s been roasting for several hours. And I use the term “hind quarters” because the Estonian chart of beef cuts is very different from that of the US or UK, and so you can’t be absolutely certain of the English word for what you’re getting. But it was hot, it cost sixty-five kroons, and it has been pretty decent in the past, especially considering the price. Either way, I couldn’t chew the beef this time.

You’ll notice that if there’s any beef on the menu, I’ll order it. I’m from a steak state. I like beef. And until recently in Estonia, it was very difficult to find anything but hind quarters. Estonians make wonderful dairy products. Really, the yoghurts, milks, kefirs, and other stuff that just doesn’t translate are truly fantastic—except for the cheeses. There must be at least thirty different kinds of cheese, and they all taste the same. Kind of rubbery, very mild. Rumor has it they’re all made in the same machine. Maybe that’s it. But regardless of this wonderful dairy industry, Estonians are truly bovinophobic. Y’all ‘re in pork country, ye hear?

When I ordered, I didn’t want to pay a ton of money for some fancy bottled water. I asked for tap water. The waitress, Kristiina, started smirking with the creased forehead that denotes derision. Being very familiar with this sort of person, I asked her, “Is there something strange about drinking tap water?” –No. You drink what you want. “Then why are you smirking?” Hesitantly, she replied, “The tap water here isn’t very good. But you drink what you want.” I shared my wife’s already opened bottle of water instead.

But the other reason I didn’t share my bread with Mrs. Mingus was because there wasn’t any left. Kristiina hadn’t brought me any, even though the bread basket was empty. I went to the counter again. “Do you have any bread?” Loud sigh, then she held out the basket so I could grab my own buns. “Thank you.” –Cough.

Kristiina is a typical Tartu waitress in many ways. Logic would suggest she’s not the owner, but then again even the owners are quite apathetic regarding the success of their own business. I say this because there was a couple at a table who had no food or drink. Kristiina hadn’t told them they had to order from the counter. She probably had a pittance of a salary, and was angry because she didn’t make any tips. Then again, she probably didn’t make any tips because she seemed so angry. That and Estonians don’t tip.

Pastal itself is right at the front entrance of the mall. It has three stories of windows, which is pretty unique and especially nice at night in the winter if you don’t mind being visible to the largest intersection in the city. It certainly doesn’t bother me. It’s just a matter of time though before kids start throwing stuff at the patrons from the escalators and upper floors.

But the décor is a bit cheesy. There are things hanging from the ceiling that look like giant salt balls, and there are some other repetitive balls that have moustaches. I kid you not. I do like the plates imbedded in the counter though.

The furniture is cool. I mean, it’s nice for sitting back and sipping a coffee or beer, but if you have to eat the spherical chairs easily tip over. Be careful with that. We were watching our kids making food in the play kitchen. Mrs. Mingus remarked that there seemed to be only a fraction of the toys that there used to be. Apparently someone had stolen the plastic radio, the plastic cell phone, the plastic pots. Times are difficult, after all. But we decided to suddenly leave when a family entered next to us. The mother and child walked in and stopped in front of us, next to our table, while the father stood behind us. They had a loud argument and we were literally stuck in the middle. I swear I think they were arguing about a car, but I hope not because the guy seemed pretty drunk.

I’ll go back again, but not if Kristiina’s there. I really enjoyed the bruschetta.

City of Good Food

Choosing a good place to eat in Tartu can quite often be like debating evolution with a Southern Baptist. No matter how much proof you present that the food served is crap, people are still pigheaded in their belief that yes—this is quality food, it’s the only way food can be prepared, and all other cuisines are damned. Yet they still eat pork and bacon and meet gristly deaths at shockingly young ages.

While evolution is a fact, the theory of “survival of the fittest” is not. How else can you explain the continued existence and success of restaurants like Olive Garden and Hessburger? Yet like morality and logic, so too is taste relative. Through education and enlightenment, entire societies can come to the common conclusion that capital punishment is wrong, even though from a more barbaric point of view, it may not be.

Our goal here, at Tartu – City of Good Food, is to offer perspective from a specific point on the spectrum of taste discrimination. Dining out should be an enjoyable experience—for your tongue, nose, ears, heart and bum. And wallet. Let’s not forget that one. The wallet is a surprisingly important tool in restaurant reviewing. Why? Because it is direct evidence of a restauranteur’s passion for the job. If you truly love what you’re cooking, you want it to be available to everyone. If you’re out for cash only, prices are high and the food is of secondary importance.

If you have the possibility to go out only very seldom—like parents of young children—every bit of the experience of dining out is golden. At least it should be. What good is your steak if the waitress can’t be bothered to serve it while it’s still hot? How can you eat a sandwich if there is no soap in the toilet? And why in the world would you pay for condiments?

Like an old stinker smothered in cheap perfume, it is possible to smother bad food with salt and cheap spice mixes. We will attempt to taste beyond that.

I, Mingus, hereby promise to try to eat out once a week in Tartu and tell you all about it. I’ll tell you if you can wash your hands. I’ll tell you if the food is edible. I’ll tell you where the waitresses are hot and polite. I’ll tell you if the clientele chew with their mouths open. And of course I’ll tell you if I plan to go back for more.