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.


Kristiina said...

I am first! :)
I actually laughed a couple of times.
I am glad you are back so now I do not have to check every day for nothing.

Márton Barki said...

I was the first :)
clicked every day as well.
Dear Mingus, you should ask money from the city government to pay your restaurant bills :) cuz you do such filter-work. I hope that service will be better not only during the "hea teeninduse kuu"... I do not even know that when it is.

Anonymous said...

I don't like that place. It's too open and wanna-be-modern, horrible interior design. the cloud like things are old and dusty and look like turds. And what are those big balls everywhere? You can either sit on round weird cairs, buckets or clunky plastic chairs. The servise is usually shit - like everywhere. The pasta is overcooked and oversalted.
It's funny that the "upper class" mall can't do better than Pastal and Rehepapp. Coockbook is the only proper place for food and drinks but then again it's overpriced like everything that belongs to this owner.
Mingus! Please keep the reviews coming. It's great to read what people who have experience in food think of Tartu. I think being born utside Estonia gives you enough experience to do this! Great!

Kristopher said...

"I’m from a steak state"

Now wait a second, as far as I'm concerned you guys invented the brat and even your processed cheese rules, but I don't know about "steaking" a claim to beef. :)

I'd add that restaurants do use sizzle pans and blanch their pasta, so food isn't necessarily nuked even in cheap joints.

Mingus said...

This is Tartu. If the food's ready before the bell on the register stops echoing, it's nuked. And by 'steak state' I mean we eat a lot of it.
The processed cheese is for export only. Then again, Président in the US is all from WI.