Friday, May 22, 2009


What country is always in a hurry to eat? Russia. What country eats the scales, skeleton and everything else of a fish? Finland. These horrible nationalistic puns could continue, but I don’t want to scare away any of my readers. On with the review.

My Dutch friend who visited last weekend decided we both wanted to eat while out walking through Tartu’s Old Town. We were very Hungary, with a craving for Chile, but we didn’t want too much Greece, so we opted for Turkey. He asked if I’d ever had a Turkish pizza, and when I answered no, he insisted we grab a quick bite at Istanbul, on Rüütli Street. It was a good choice.

The downtown area was fairly crowded for a Sunday afternoon, and most of the tables on Town Hall Square reeked of Finnish breath. Yet Istanbul was empty. We were the only two customers. I got the distinct impression we were the first people to eat there all day. Hell, maybe even that week! And I think I know why.

Estonians seem to be largely afraid of Middle Eastern cultures. They love to go there on package tours because it’s warm and they’re suddenly rich, instead of counting their senti in Stockholm, but otherwise they want to stick to fatty pork and boiled potatoes. And if a couple of Estonians do happen to walk in to Istanbul, the interior décor might be a bit off-putting. It’s wall-to-wall pink. Estonians don’t want to feel like they’re eating in their bedrooms.

The other problem is the owner. According to our waitress—Kristiina—he is Turkish, but lived in Georgia for several years. That’s why I heard him conversing with some would-be customers in fluent Russian. But the problem is his skin color. He’s too dark for Tartu.

I remember about six years ago when La Dolce Vita opened up (a local pizzeria), the review given in the Postimees newspaper made a big deal about "dark-skinned" people cooking and serving food. They were talking about Italians. Another, recent article in the same paper made a big deal about "dark-skinned" doctors (from India it turned out) treating patients in the local hospital. I can only imagine the phobia of this guy at Istanbul. And he stands by the door, visible through the window from the street. From my point of view, if a restauranteur in Estonia is not pasty white, he probably knows what he’s doing in the kitchen. But an Estonian in Estonia judges not by his taste buds but by what is least offensive to what he considers normal.

There are also some Estonians who walk around the city claiming to want something “fresh” or “real,” whatever that might mean. They’re eager to try new things because it is cool to be seen trying new things. I didn’t see those people in Istanbul.

Anyhow, we both ordered Turkish pizzas. Basically kebab-style meat with sauce and veggies rolled up, it was only sixty-five kroons or so. Not entirely filling, but completely satisfying. I’d eat it again. But for just thirty kroons, I wanted to try one of their appetizers.

I don’t remember what it was called because I was so hungry I forgot to take a lot of photos (I ate most of my pizza before I remembered to take a photo), but it was essentially a tomato sauce with herbs and garlic and so on, served with bread. We asked Kristiina if it was big enough for two, and she said yes. In reality, while delicious, it was a plate of sauce with two tiny pieces of Turkish bread (I assume it was homemade and Turkish, because I’ve not seen it in local shops on sale—keep in mind I know nothing about Turkish cuisine). After we’d both been careful not to exceed the bread-to-sauce ratio, over half the sauce was left after the bread was gone.

We asked for more bread if possible, but Kristiina said she’d have to ask the owner, and I suddenly felt like the slovenly Yankee who wanted a free refill for his liter a cola.

Kristiina was suspiciously nice. She was also rather voluptuous. Not two minutes went by between her visits to the table. She would exude a broad, genuine smile—not the faked up American mask—and it was all I could do to not look down her shirt. And I didn’t—not a single time. But my Hollandish friend claimed to be able to see her thingies. See, she was tall, and had to bend way down and over the table to place our orders before us.

For all her extreme and authentic courtesy, it still took her almost ten minutes to open a bottle of water and pour it into a glass. The appetizer also arrived thirty seconds before the Turkish pizza. That’s somewhat of a problem here in Estonia. Whether you call it an appetizer, starter or hors d’œuvres, the idea is that you get it fast and before your main dish, so you can enjoy both separately. Estonians don’t seem to understand this concept. It’s more of a side dish here. I’ve even had appetizers delivered after having paid the bill. Why is that?

I also ate here on my birthday last year. I think it must have just opened, because a week before I hadn’t noticed it while walking by. It’s a very good restaurant. Certainly healthy. It goes far beyond grilled meat and red bell peppers sliced up and branded Armenian or Georgian. I think they had some good vodkas at the bar, too, but I can’t remember.

Just don’t expect something amazing like what you’d see on the Travel Channel. You can’t get those kinds of ingredients in Tartu anyhow. Maybe in Pärnu, Tallinn, Võru or Viljandi, but not Tartu. Tartu for some reason seems to be the furthest behind in Estonia in many ways. It’s surprising, I thought. “Usually the people who claim to be the most open-minded and progressive are in fact the least so, because they think they already are, and so stop trying,” Dutch told me when walking out. And that’s not surprising, I think.


Alex said...

I see a similarity everywhere you eat and it's Kristiina.

soundwhiz said...

Good food, but cold. Don't get it with the soft sofas. Not just in Istanbul, but in other places too. I don't want to sink so low in my seat that my chin is just above the table. Owner is very nice. Bit pushy, but nice. Have enjoyed Turkish food in Izmir and Istanbul and they do a fair job emulating some of it with the ingredients on hand. Would go back only for the ok prices.

Anonymous said...

“Usually the people who claim to be the most open-minded and progressive are in fact the least so, because they think they already are, and so stop trying,”

Sounds like a good description of the guy who whines and dines with his family in Estonia.

külliki said...

well, now when you are on Rüütli street: looking forward to your review of "Gruusia Saatkond"!!! important: SKIP the "main courses". order the table full of light cold and warm dishes and then the grilled.
GS and UK (Ungari köök) are the only places in Tartu we dare to bring our guests to...

Tart Lane said...

Hey Mrs. Anonymous!
I was just thinking what your comment says about you. I remember last you commented about a year ago. I know this because your comments are very alike. So if you so obviously dislike Mingus's blog or his personality then why the fuck do you keep reading it? And also what kind of a coward doesn't sign their name?

Giustino said...

The portions were a bit small for my American appetite, but it is a welcome departure from grabbing another saiake from the local kohvik.

Kristopher said...

Not as off-putting as the red interior of one joint. (Was it Rasputin? I'm confused - I also remember eating Chinese food in a place in Tartu that was all red and dark like a boudoir.)

I'm confused by tables with soft seats on one side and hard chairs on the other. If you're on a date, the two (or three) of you obviously sit on the sofa but what if there's four people. Who gets the hard seats?

What's off-putting is the restaurant sign -- looks like a package tour company.

"Well, now when you are on Rüütli street: looking forward to your review of "Gruusia Saatkond"!!! "

I second it, but seems a place needs to be slightly sketchy in order to be covered in this blog.

Mingus said...

Mostly I'm going about trying places that I just happen to end up eating at. There's no schedule, so I have no idea what I'm doing next. I used to eat at the Georgian Embassy pretty often, but that was before the price of my favorite dish went from 80 EEK to 195 EEK in the course of 2 months. Mrs. Mingus used to eat the Chakapuli for 65 EEK. Now it's 170 EEK, and to my knowledge the portions haven't got any larger. While they're delicious, they're fairly small.

Maybe someone would care to contribute some cash to read a review of our Georgian friends' place? No I'm just kidding!

And Ms. Lane, thank you for your comment, but you really should watch your language. Petty insults should stay in Smallville.

Anonymous said...

Do you have a photo of Kristiina and her thingies? :)

PS - I'm not the same anonymous who commented earlier.

Mingus said...

I know you're not the same one. It is our policy here at City of Good Food to not publish photos of employees or their genitalia. And anyhow, I did not see them personally, as I stated.

manchurian chef said...

If you have no idea what you are doing next, how can you promise to eat out once a week? Or are you being controlled by forces beyond your, um, control?