Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is interpreted and understood by many to mean that if you travel in Earth orbit at light speed for a year, down on the planet four years will have passed. I guess you won’t be looking up your ex when you get back. Yet regardless of the popular mythology surrounding Albert’s field equations, it does seem to find supporting evidence in an unexpected place—Võru. This small town in Southern Estonia relies on leftovers from Tartu, which in turn feeds on the leftovers of Tallinn, scraping up the scraps from Helsinki.

You could make another physics analogy. Inside the universe, galaxy clusters resemble galaxies themselves in structure. And star systems have a similar build. Central core, orbiting bodies on a plane. The planets are the same—moons in motion. And atoms of course with their nuclei and electrons. And this is relative to Võru and restaurant reviews how? I shall now present my proof for the Theory of Ketchup.

Mrs. Mingus and I take the kids fairly often to our summer cabin near Võru. Every once in a while we just can’t take another bite of anything prepared on a grill, so we retreat to the “city” (as the locals call it) in search of sustenance. The “city” as a whole is deserving of a review, but nothing individual in it. Remember, this is the home of the Kubija Restaurant, whose menu at one time offered “fresh fish froth” (värske kalavaht) on their menu.

We begin our culinary equation at Õlle 17 (Beer 17), on Jüri Street—Võru’s main drag. It used to be the most Western-style bar in Estonia in terms of décor, but they made the mistake of doubling its size and using office furniture and floors. Stick to the left when you go in, and you’ll be fine. But whatever you do, don’t eat there.

A couple years ago I ordered a burger and onion rings. You know, onion rings—deep fried, can’t go wrong. They asked me if I wanted them on my burger. Thirty kroons a serving for the onion rings, and do I want them on my burger? No, on the side was fine. My burger, nothing more than edible, was served with sautéed (fried apparently in the Võro dialect) onion rings on the plate. Not battered and deep-fried. I guess they had only read about them, never actually tried them.

So this time I asked if the onion rings were proper. And they were. They were very good in fact, but at fifty kroons for a plate of eight, it’s not worth it. I asked if the pizza advertised on the wall was made in-house. “Yes, of course,” answered the waitress—Kristiina—with an air of superiority. In reality it was on a premade and heated crust, served with bologna and ketchup. Come on, ketchup? I thought those days were over in the former Soviet Union. There’s been a lot of debate lately about whether Estonia is Eastern European or not. It most definitely is. If you serve ketchup on pasta or pizza, you’re not Western. Sorry.

Neither of us could finish the second bite of our food. When the kids woke up in the car and came inside to eat, our older one asked, “What’s that?” while pointing at the plates. She knows what food is, too. She still had to ask. And their main courses are well over a hundred kroons. Way, way more expensive than Tartu.

So the next outing in Võru was at a small mall called Kagu Keskus, home of Southern Estonia’s only escalator. I’ve written about two eateries here in City of Good Thoughts—both of which have closed. The burrito place, pretty good in my opinion, went out of business. It’s been replaced with a kiosk that serves the traditional Estonian fare—meat burgers, sour cream and ketchup. The place was packed when we went! For reasons unknown it’s called CityCoffee.

It’s dirt cheap, but then so are the ingredients. There’s no actual cooking there, apart from the microwave and deep-fryer. The kids got a slab of meat and fries. They wouldn’t eat it. I asked the proprietor—Kristel—what kind of meat it was. She didn’t know. “We just heat it up.”

Restaurants are a very good indicator of what the local people are like. Tartu serves wannabe gourmet food and people wear scarves when they eat it. Võru serves ketchup and people lap it up. Võru doesn’t appear to be that different from the rest of Estonia.

Last year we tried a place called Spring Cafe. Not Café but Cafe. Like the owner was wearing wet underwear and began to cafe. On the shores of Lake Tamula, it’s a nice place, no doubt. The interior downstairs is a bit stiff, and the second floor is a bit stifling, but the terrace is what it should be—breezy, lake smell, lake view and all that. When we went last year, we found it by accident. All the roads in Võru were closed for repairs, except Petseri Street—loaded with pitfalls and potholes. But we left when, after ordering and waiting half an hour for food, I had to ask when the food was coming. Krista, the only freckled Estonian I’ve ever seen—our waitress—answered, “Oh, forty-five minutes more? Not too long.” The place was empty.

We gave it another try this week. I ordered a Caesar salad. It was pretty good to be honest, although it was covered in powdered, processed cheese or something or other. Mrs. Mingus ordered the risotto and liked it. The kids however wouldn’t eat their pasta. I tasted it and I think the chicken had gone bad. That, and the pool of butter filling up half the bowl. They liked my salad though, so I went hungry. Again.

It’s a well-known secret, this place. Sitting on the terrace next to us was Tartu’s only black man, Tanoka Beard, an American basketballer currently playing for Tartu Rock.

The prices here are a bit high but nothing too scary. They don’t compare to a “workers’ diner” just outside of the downtown area though. Kohvik Võrusoo (Võrusoo Café) on Kreutzwaldi Street, just before the railroad crossing, consistently offers Soviet-style dining—which ain’t that bad—in an unlit room that resembles an elementary school cafeteria. You can get the biggest plate they offer for just forty kroons. The Cokes are room temperature though. Better hurry to this place, it closes at four, and is only open on weekdays. After driving across the greater metropolitan area of Võru (population fifteen thousand), the roads, which were supposedly resurfaced last summer—but you’d never know—did unseen damage to our older girl. We walked in, hungry for a quick, cheap lunch, and our daughter walked up to the counter and vomited.

No problem! The woman at the counter—Kristin—handed me a wad of napkins so it would be easier for me to clean up the mess. Thing is, this is a truly Soviet-era place. They still cut the napkins here! What does that mean, you might ask? To save money, napkins were cut into smaller pieces so they would last longer, less expense. But the Võrusoo Café goes to extremes. Instead of the normally cut napkin, consisting of one ply of paper, they cut their napkins into individual plies and then cut those into quarters. At one point, the floor looked like a mucous mosaic.

We do come to this place regularly though. I feel like I’m at camp again, only the food is better, you can’t see the old cafeteria ladies with the hairnets, and there was no beer served at my school.

There are other places to eat at in Võru. Ränduri, again on Jüri Street, is pretty good too, but again way overpriced. The coffee is good. Served in a stone cup and prepared by a guy with whom I wouldn’t want to be alone in a dark room, it’s usually full of Finns in the summer, drinking vodka all day as soon as it opens. It’s nothing special, but it’s not bad enough to write about.

So the Theory of Ketchup is postulated as follows: if you travel at the Speed of Estonia for one hour in any direction, from one city to another, you go back in time to…when? You can never be certain. No one at any point in history has ever served ketchup on bread and called it pizza. But you will return with less mass than when you left.


Kristopher said...

Napkin-cutting -- ah, yes. Strange but true. These things are beginning to be forgotten, including by me.

Are you sure there is only one black man in Tartu, with the university there? There are actually very many in Tallinn, exchange students of course, Arab-speaking businessmen...

Tartu doesn't have a escalator, or Tartu is not in S. Estonia by your definition?

Mingus said...

I've seen another black guy around but I think he lives in Tallinn because I see him on TV sometimes too. Otherwise I don't know.

As for escalators, Tartu has two escalatored malls. But no, I don't really consider Tartu as a city to be Southern Estonian. That's more for Põlva, Võru and Valga Counties. They're noticeably different from Tartu County. Southern Estonia has consistently had higher rankings in the various CCCP indices (Countywide Catsup Consumption Percentage).

Alex said...

I agree with Mingus. Tartu is not Southern Estonia, in any way.

valgar said...

I recently took a trip to Valga and when I got back my wife claimed I had been gone for four days and the house smelled of strange cologne. Could I really have been waiting so long for my food?

Anonymous said...

Your posts make me reminisce my feelings about this forgotten country. The absence of beef in any supermarket! The crappy ice cream! A mall called kaubamaja, the lack of city life in a university town, not to speak of V6ru, P6lva and the like! Just the overall meagerness. When I had friends from civilization visiting me there I felt shame. Now it's pity. Still, I can't believe that I'll have to return to live there for at least some months. Please tell me that Tallinn is less sleepy than Tartu.