Sunday, May 17, 2009

Kissing Students

Most town hall squares in Europe have a statue or fountain dedicated to a military leader or the ensuing victory and peace achieved by said military leader. Tartu has a statue of two kids making out. It’s called Kissing Students, and a bar on the square decided to call itself the same thing. It’s actually a double bar. The one next to it used to be called Tax Office. It didn’t take too long for them to change the name. But they both share the same kitchen, and if you want to take your baby carriage to the other bar, you have to go through Kissing Students (Suudlevad Tudengid in Estonian) and use the hidden corridor beyond the bar.

Some friends had been telling me for months that this place served the best steak they’d ever had. Of course I went. There are two steaks on the menu. Choose the cheaper one, as apparently the costlier cut doesn’t cut it. The danger, however, is the attitude with which you enter, now that you’ve read the “best steak” claim. If you expect that, you’ll be disappointed. If you just walk in and haphazardly decide to order the steak—a risky endeavor in Tartu—you’ll be very pleasantly, um, pleased.

We entered Kissing Students with some weekend guests. Four adults and four children. After a bit of trouble organizing the seating arrangements, we decided to get some menus for ourselves. Ten minutes later, a waitress finally showed up—Kristiina—and started taking our orders. She was in a terrible rush to leave for some reason, so as we hadn’t quickly and systematically expressed our wishes in a manner befitting her logic, she offered to come back later when we’d decided. The thing is, we all ordered carbonated water and steak, all medium-rare and served with fries. We asked if they had anything for kids, as half the table was under the age of four, and she only just then thought it might be a good idea to supply us with kids’ menus, and only one of them at that. The kids were fighting over it.

A moment after ordering, we decided to change one of the tyke’s orders. Kristiina said it wasn’t possible because she’d already entered it in their computer. Apparently it was a Mac because it didn't have a Delete key. But we persuaded her to physically go to the kitchen a couple meters away and tell the cook to ignore the computer.

After we ordered, Kristiina for some reason forgot to take away the menus. Four menus, four drinks lists and a kids’ menu. They took up a lot of space, so I expressed my architectural candor by building a house out of them. Kristiina didn’t like that. She didn’t like us either I think. Especially after I cut out the kids’ menu along the lines, like I thought was the intention.

A funny thing was that we received a bread basket—also containing salt, pepper and so forth—and there were exactly eight tiny rolls.

A short twelve minutes later, two of us received our beef. Eight minutes later, the rest of the table got theirs. By this time, our waitress had decided to abandon us, sending another waitress our way, also named Kristiina. I found that a bit odd, but whatever. The woman at the bar was named Õpilane. That’s a pretty name.

The steak was a color that I’d never seen for beef. It was topped with onions and sea salt, with a dish of red wine sauce. Incredibly tender, simply delicious. Well worth the money, and it was pretty big too. Not the “best steak” but the best in Estonia so far (I’ve heard good stuff about the Romanian chef at Illegaard, a bar I want to eat at soon). The only problem was that like most beef in Estonia, it was cut incorrectly.

That’s the thing about Estonian beef. They have their own chart for beef cuts. So does the US and so does the UK. The Estonians call this cut an external filet. In the US or UK this part would be any one of a number of cuts, all prized specialties. An external filet could be anything from a T-bone steak to a porterhouse.

Who’s right? Well, I personally am not at all familiar with the British system, but the US and UK have a strong culture of beef consumption, and Estonia does not. A large number of Estonians in fact think that a good hamburger is made of ground poultry or pork. The first time I made a hamburger here, the Estonians watching were shocked that I didn’t pack bread and garlic into the patty. Now, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about, because most Americans don’t know the first thing about couscous, which is very common in large swathes of the planet, but then again you don’t see Americans telling Algerians how to prepare it. And at least Algerians cut their meat in the right direction with regard to the texture of the muscle.

Pickled mushrooms were served as a side. A lot of pickled mushrooms. The first one was good, but not the second or third. They tasted like they’d come out of a can, not fresh as one would expect with steak of this quality.

One of the children ordered what I believe was referred to as a meat pie on the menu. It had more in common with quiche, but it was pretty good, and filling. No one walked away hungry.

The jaans are easy to find, one on each floor, and have a healthy mixture of uncleanliness and fashion. You won’t want to sit on the seat, but you’ll look cool squatting over it!

I’ve been here at night before a couple times as well. Once I waited twenty minutes for the guy in front of me to get his drink, standing at the bar to order. He just wanted a coffee. The only reason I didn’t leave was because my friends were already there.

Another time, Father Mingus was in Estonia for a visit, and we were having drinks with another American. He had filled out an application for the client card, which does offer good discounts, and when I asked if I could use the pen to write something down, he said the waitress had given it to him, so sure. So Father Mingus and I decided to play a joke when he wasn’t looking. We modified it to where it would fire a small projectile (essentially reversing the spring and one other inner mechanism). But then we couldn’t put it back together. At that moment, the waitress returned to ask for her pen back, the several disassembled pieces of which our poor friend was holding in his hand. We left a moment later after paying. We didn’t tell him we’d also added a questionable image on the back of his application. I don’t know if they granted him a card or not.

Let’s keep in mind that this is a bar though, not a restaurant. In that sense, this meal was great. But food served depends on various things. Quality ingredients, recipes and the chef. You can’t have the same chef at work all the time. I think this time we had the good chef. The other chef supposedly isn’t very good, and neither is his steak. As I said, dining in Tartu is a risky endeavor.


Alex said...

The woman at the bar was named Õpilane. That’s a pretty name.That was funny! Good post. I don't know about the UK, never been there, but the Germans don't know what to do with a cow either.

vulturesign said...

The Kissing Student steak is hit or miss. When it's good it's very good, when it's bad, it's still pretty good unless it's really beer or sex. Posting the following again in case you missed it. Like how you used a once popular, but now abandoned, restaurant in your banner. Unlike New York, London or Paris I am afraid you will soon run out of restaurants to review. Perhaps you could become a general Critic at Large of Everything? Art, architecture, politics, movies, etc. Tartu, City of Good [fill in the blank]!

Anonymous said...

The hamburger at Suudlevad is decent. I'll have to try the steak next time I'm there.

My latest steak habit is to eat it at Rehepapp. It's something like 70kr and freshly-grilled, so not a bad deal. Tomi Grill (in Mäo) is much better but not worth a trip unless you're driving past it anyway.

Flasher T said...

I'm fairly sure the best steak in Tartu is at the Crepp meatery. Noir was also supposed to have good food, but woeful service.

Mingus said...

I've been to the Crepp place twice, and they've been out of beef both times.

Kristopher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristopher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Flasher T said...

I've been to the Crepp place twice, and they've been out of beef both times.Take it as an endorsement.

Flasher T said...

Also; the best steak I've had in Europe was in Stockholm, at a restaurant in Kungsholmen called Salt - it's in most guidebooks. The plank steak in bernaise sauce (served on an actual wooden plank!) was outstanding, and at 99 SEK, not unreasonably priced.

Kristopher said...

I deleted my comments because I suspected I was rambling, but dammit, I'm still going to make this point.

"An external filet could be anything from a T-bone steak to a porterhouse."

It's external fillet because there's no bone. In my experience, not even much marbling. Also, a T-bone is by definition part "internal fillet". IMO, if presented with a T-bone, a restaurant in Estonia would lop off that expensive piece of internal fillet and sell it separately.

The #1 problem with steak in Estonia is that beef is often not aged. If you buy "external fillet" from a market or store, you may have to tenderize it and manipulate it in various ways.

There is a ribeye-type cut that is probably aged and ready to slap on the grill and get a decent steak. Called antrekoot.