Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Big Ben Pub

Sunday brunch is a popular tradition among many North Americans. It is somewhat associated with grandparents for many—I have lots of childhood memories of sitting through an agonizingly long church sermon and then being further bored in a hotel restaurant, watching Grandfather Mingus extending his tongue to meet the approaching food on the fork. I also recall playing with lava stones used as mulch below plastic seventies-style plants while a guy in a tux tapped away on a piano on the patio.

Not that I’m old enough for my turn in this pseudo-stereotype, but Mrs. Mingus and I decided to go for a Sunday brunch last weekend, minus the church bit of course. We searched on line for a place to go—hotels are always a sure thing—and we found that Eesti Restoran (Estonian Restaurant, a uniquely named eatery in the Barclay Hotel) offered an all-you-can-eat buffet for just a hundred kroons or so, and it was available to the public until eleven. We arrived an hour and a half before that, and it was already over.

So we footed it to Entri, under the Hotell London (Hotel London, in English). The food looked alright, but it was a hundred and twenty a head, and they wanted fifty for each of our two kids as well. They might eat a piece of ham, spit part of it out, and then that would be their meal. No price reduction either. We moved on.

Another hotel had a promising spread but the doorman firmly suggested that it was typically reserved for their hotel guest, who apparently wasn’t awake yet. The dining room was empty and they were turning away customers, in this economic climate. None of the other restaurants were open yet, except for Suudlevad Tudengid, which I’ve reviewed before. Their breakfast menu consisted of a plate for forty kroons that—according to the menu—had an egg, a pickle, beans (I saw a customer who’d ordered it, and they were just raw, cold kidney beans, not the normal baked beans you’d expect) and a piece of dry toast.

—A side note on Suudlevad Tudengid, if you will (Kissing Students). Their chef must have changed. Mrs. Mingus has eaten a couple of their lunch specials, which used to be very good. Last week they served her a fish tail and a pile of mayonnaise. She gave it the benefit of the doubt and tried it again the next day. Another fish tail. We’ll not eat there again.—

Eventually, on the way home, we saw that Big Ben Pub on Riia Street, in the Hotell Pallas (Hotel Pallas, in English), offered a buffet, at half-past ten. They charged a hundred kroons about, and I asked how much it would be for the kids. Nothing! The waitress, whose worn name tag said, “Kri tiina,” told us not to worry about it.

Now I wouldn’t expect the overly developed, sumptuous selection of a large, American hotel, but I also wouldn’t settle for the boxed and processed products at a small American motel, either. Big Ben boasted a healthy combination of both. Scrambled eggs with ham mixed in, fried potatoes with ham mixed in, crêpes rolled up with some ham mixed in, and crêpes rolled up with some tuna mixed in. Small sandwich choice, cereals, coffee and juice, wieners and frozen meatballs for kids, and ketchup.

It wasn’t the best I’d had, but it was far from the other end of the spectrum. Just the fact that they didn’t charge for the kids makes me think very positively about it. But the food was relatively good, despite the abundance of pork. There was also a lot of fish, not just the tuna crêpes. That’s pretty typical of Estonia, just to prepare any bacon-hunting Canadians or Americans.

I like the place itself—the décor, I mean. It’s a theme pub, fashioned after London. I guess the owner’s not simply some fat guy called Ben. But there are leather seats, highly ornate wallpaper true to British interior fashion, lots of wood, and the toilets even have hot and cold taps! The men’s jaan also has an extra feature.

After washing my hands, I couldn’t help but notice the thickly padded leather cushions mounted on the wall over the urinals. Right at head level. Makes you just want to lean against the wall while you’re there. Then I noticed what it was for, on the opposite wall. The decorator apparently visited some vintage porn shops in Camden. I asked Mrs. Mingus if there was anything unusual in the ladies’ jaan. “Like what?” she asked. I told her nevermind. Too difficult to explain.

This wasn’t the first time I’d eaten in Big Ben. No, that was a few months ago. I got the hamburger because that is what we Yankees eat. That’s all we eat. I did ask if the burger was real beef. The waitress had to ask the kitchen, but yes, it was real beef. And it was surprisingly the best burger I’ve had in Tartu, if not Estonia. Now still, that doesn’t say much, but it had thinly-sliced red onion, a great sauce and even lettuce. I don’t think it was made from scratch in the kitchen though. The patty I mean. Most likely bought pre-sliced and frozen.

A distinctive feature of Big Ben is its patio, or veranda, or rotunda, or whatever you call the large, protruding glassed-in deck suspended over a single load-bearing steel post. It’s pretty cool, but I think it’s been de facto reduced to the largest smoking room in the country. They keep most of the windows closed, so even though it’s outside, it still stinks of cigarette butts. While checking it out, I also got my daily fix of Michael Jackson.

I went back to the table and called the bar to order a drink. Literally. Picked up the phone on the table and placed my order. I could see Kri tiina talking to me, receiver in hand. I left a tip, even though it was a self-serve buffet. This place has gimmicks, and they work.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Opera Pizza

Not many restaurants from the nineties are still around in Tartu. Most of them have either gone out of business or been demolished. Not because they were that bad, mind you, but progress is a powerful incentive for demolition. A place barely squeaks by, and when the shack is knocked down for, say, the newish Kaubamaja department store, it’s not worth the trouble to relocate. (I’m thinking of Toidu Torn, of course—Food Tower—the place that served the typical Estonian “meat” burger and dished out ketchup-and-mayo sauce from an open vat on the floor.) But there are two shining relics still on the scene, ironically both pizzerias. One is Taverna; the other is Opera Pizza. Or is it Pizza Opera? I’m not really sure.

When I first got here back in the late nineties, I asked repeatedly where I could get a good pizza. And I would always get three answers. The third was Pronto Pizza. Or was it Pizza Pronto? I’m not really sure. After having a daily special though, with egg and corn, I decided there were only two places to go for pizza, not three.

I’ve had pizzas all over Europe, and each country of course has its preferences for what is popular. French pizzas are surprisingly good, usually with one or four (not three or five) olives strategically placed at the center or the four axes. Italian pizzas for my tastes are a bit thin on the toppings. And obviously I am a big fan of American pizzas. Deep dish is one of my favorites, something the Estonians quite often offer but fail to accomplish (the secret is corn meal, guys!). And the best topping is sausage. I don’t mean the sliced sausage links, more akin to hot dogs, that are popular here, but what is for some reason called Italian sausage, and broken up into shapeless chunks. It has fennel in it. Ah, fennel. The best spice in the world. The Estonian name, pharmacy dill, probably causes people to think it's just something that helps old people pee. I can just imagine an Estonian ad for fennel tablets (herbal remedies are very popular here, and the ads are often amateurish): An old woman struggling to look at the camera, smiling with her off-colored dentures, saying, “Thanks to Fennelex Tablets, I don’t have to leave the room as often when I have guests. And when I was a young mother back before the war, I tripled my breast milk and my baby Tiit got over his colic.” (Whereas colic has no known cause or cure.) Whatever, but it’s a sadly missed ingredient in European pizzas.

Opera Pizza, on Vanemuine Street, has always produced consistently good pies. They have something close to a deep dish as well, called a maxi pizza. I’ll refrain from stating the obvious. And their signature pizza is the best, in my book. The only mistake they’ve ever made is changing the original salami topping to the Tuhat ja Tuline sausage. The name of this is a pun, in fact. It’s an expression used along the lines of “Holy moly” but literally it means Thousand and Spicy. The staff are usually more than happy to make the necessary changes though. I order the pizza with no olives, and substitute the Holy Moly with the old-school salami.But then of course I’m entitled to an extra topping. Extra cheese. It can still be fairly spicy, however, and when ordering you would do well to watch the oven—make sure they don’t leave it in too long. That’s a frequent mistake here—forgetting your pizza for an extra thirty seconds. That oven’s hot, and no one likes a burned crust.

Mrs. Mingus usually gets the Frutti di mare (seafood) pizza, and you can be certain they use the freshest seafood a can can provide. Another good one is the Romana, yet sometimes it can be a bit heavy on the blue cheese.

There are always people in here. Usually students and foreigners. Why? Because it’s good, it’s cheap, it’s fast, and I’d like to think it’s because Opera Pizza is owned by a Finn. He knows how to keep the place in shape, giving it facelifts every three or four years, but without committing Estonians’ usual bar and restaurant faux pas: sterility. It’s not overly modern, yet it is run down in a very comfortable way. And the pizza is great for hangovers! No oilier than its Yankee counterpart.

Back in the days when you had to put your dishes on a table by the kitchen, I wanted to use the jaan once. The cashier—Kristiina—seemed scared. She told me to go out the back door into the hallway, to the right, down the stairs, to the left, and then it was either the third or fourth blue door on one of the sides, she couldn’t remember. The whole building is used for various enterprises, as they say here. An art gallery, maybe some sort of school, people might even live there (artists who never go home). It was an unrenovated Soviet-era jaan, and I got lost on the way back to the pizzeria. I ended up exiting the other side of the building and walking in through the front door again. Kristiina saw me and gave me a polite and apologetic smile that said sorry, but it’s your fault for not eating our pizza with a fork and knife and then wanting to wash your hands.

That’s one thing that gets me in Europe. The lack of finger food. Maybe we North Americans are just cavemen, but certain foods require the use of fingers. French fries, pizza, buffalo wings. Maybe the habit developed because these are all mostly bar foods and it’s probably better to keep sharp, pointed metal utensils out of drunk people’s hands (and Americans are way over the top in safety, due to our culture of lawsuits). But I kid you not, I see people forking their fries all the time, and I’m sure there’s some scarfed woman somewhere in Tartu who cuts her chewing gum before nibbling on it for lunch.

So for this review, of course I went to the jaan, marked WC, for waterless closet. They had just remodeled in the past year, I believe, and the sink I guess had already been vandalized? There was a pipe sticking out of the wall. Two stalls though, one occupied, so I went in the other and almost tripped on the mop and bucket and stack of napkins in boxes. Incidentally they don’t cut their napkins here—anymore. I guess business is going well.

This place has the slowest card payment terminal I’ve ever seen in Europe. It takes at least a minute for it to go through. But at least you can pay by card now. For years it was the only restaurant where you couldn’t. That, and the fact that they don’t deliver home, are the only negative things about Opera Pizza. Honestly I don’t understand how places like Hagari Pitsakohvik (Hagar Pizzacafé) can stay in business. Wouldn’t word have got out now that the ante has been upped? Indeed was upped more than a decade ago? Expectations are just too low in Tartu.