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.


Anonymous said...

I love Truffe. But I do only go there for cofee. It's very nice and peacful there in the mornings to read a book, sip your latte and watch people rushing by to go to work or school. Tartu needs more places with windows.

Márton Barki said...

Kellele ei meeldiks Truffe;)?

Yes, Molinari uses a better and bit more expensive sort of coffee beans, than LAVAZZA. Otherwise they both belong to the very same company.
It's an ugly and boring commonplace, that really great coffe you can have only in Italy, I remember all of our trips, when we stoped with my twinbrother and enjoyed the first great espresso even at an Autofrill gas station... and funny that in Dolce Vita they cannot maake it out from Illy. I tried not once. Truffe does it better.

Anonymous said...

I have never been to Italy unfortunately and my last good coffee experience comes from Starbucks witch I really like. :)
Based on that I really like coffee in Truffe.

Kristopher said...

28 kroons would be a good price for a latte in Tallinn. Coffee is 25 kroons and latte is at least 30.

The problem with espresso in Estonia is you never know what you're getting. Some of these places I swear just give you a smaller amount of the same machine coffee for the same price. If the cup cost 13-16 kroons as it does in Italy (and there is such a thing as less than perfect espresso in Italy) I wouldn't complain that much.

Flasher T said...

You want good coffee in Estonia, you don't go to Truffe (or any fancy coffeeshop in Tallinn). You go to Kükita Grill.

soundwhiz said...

I went there today, May 26, and we ordered two premade items. A soup for my partner and a Creme Brulée for myself. We waited half an hour. After that we got up and walked out. They weren't even at a quarter capacity. It was such a display of brilliant incompentence, inattentiveness and inhospitality that I honestly don't know where to take my parents to eat when they come next time. The problem with the restaurants in Tartu is that they are staffed by kids who would rather be doing something else. There is no pride, no craftmanship and not a care in the world for the consequences of their (in)actions.