Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Black Pepper Grill

Having joined the ranks of people with back problems, the day came when it was time to replace our old mattress that we got in January with an expensive plank of wood. Off to Tartu Mööblimaja, or Tartu Furniture House, on Sõbra Street. Actually you turn off Sõbra and go down the road a bit...apparently the new road doesn't have a name of its own yet. In an old Soviet-era warehouse or factory building—can’t tell which—that was fixed up last year, there are several home decorating shops that more or less sell the same things with astonishing price differences due to how close they are to the door. (Two blocks away is another home decorating “mall” called E-Kaubamaja, or E-Department Store, again selling the same stuff.)

In the first shop you can enter, there is a chair that is also for sale in the last shop, at the very back of the building. The price difference is over a thousand kroons. The second shop you see is home to a small table I photographed for City of Good Thoughts that cost almost three thousand kroons (the exact same table was on sale in Ikea for somewhere around five percent of the Tartu price). That shop is now roped off, closed to business, although all the goods are still on display, complete with an old man who was playing solitaire on the store’s computer.

Mrs. Mingus was better at navigating the rows upon rows of seemingly identical mattresses, so I perused the selection in Expert, the home electronics store. It seems kind of small to be honest, and I remember comparing all such stores to the maxi mega monster Circuit City’s and Best Buys of the States, but last year when I paid more attention, the selection—while a bit better—wasn’t that much better. Prices of course were fractions of what they are here, and the goods were slightly more modern (as in six months, not more), but the main difference between Tartu Mööblimaja and the equivalent in the States is the choice of food. Usually, on the Western edge of the Atlantic, there is a Subway and maybe a teriyaki grill (I’m not talking about malls with food courts). Here, there’s usually nothing. And if there is, it’s a söökla, or cafeteria, primarily for the employees. At the furniture place, there’s the Black Pepper Grill, or grill „Black Pepper“, as the sign implies (or even Pepper Grill, as the website implies).

The name conjures up images of an American-style family restaurant with a kids’ menu, a selection of honey-glazed baby back ribs and a Wurlitzer in the corner. While it’s not quite that, the name—and cafeteria itself—are a step above your typical joint called Tiina or Linda, which simply advertise that they serve “hot food” and offer a broad selection of potatoes smothered in potato seasoning.

One thing that really irks me about these cafeterias is that they weigh everything, and that takes time. You generally pay by hundred-gram increments, so if you have salad, sides and soup, the cashier takes an identical plate, weighs it, takes the plate off the scale, takes your plate with the same hands that handle cash and places it on the scale, subtracts the weight of the empty plate, enters it in the computer, then hands the plate back to you instead of putting it back on your tray. They never seem to remember how much their dishes weigh. The process is repeated for the sides and soup. I’ve even been to places that have a fixed weight for the food—you tell the cafeteria worker what you want, they serve it for you, weigh an empty plate, weigh your plate, skim off a couple grains of rice, weigh it again, skim off another grain of rice, weigh it again, and then serve it to you.

Not the Black Pepper Grill. You pay by the plate, and you can put as much or as little as you want, all for the same price. They even advertise it, too, because they know this is unusual for Tartu. You can’t do this with the meat of course, but still. I was in and out of that line in record time. And there was not a single Santa Maria label to be seen anywhere—my potatoes had real rosemary, and they took extra time to garnish them with—can you guess? The potatoes weren’t peeled, either.

The dished named after the restaurant—the Black Pepper skewer—was not a spicy hot chunk of beef that only the strong of tongue, the man of the family, can handle. It was just a regular pork shish kebob, slightly blackened. It was decent, as was the price—but at Kalevi Köök (Kalev’s Kitchen, a pretty good hole in the wall that I will try to review soon) you get almost three times as much meat for just a little more money. The only food I didn’t care for much was the over-steamed frozen veggies. Mrs. Mingus took the “over-baked” pork with cheese. It tasted just like the Caribica pizza at Taverna, on Town Hall Square (that’s a good thing).

When I reached for the skewer, I had no idea that the heating lamp was so low. In fact I just assumed that the food was kept warm from underneath, given that the plates were also pre-warmed—a one-of-a-kind service in a Tartu cafeteria. I burned my forearm a bit, and the cashier—probably named Kristiina, I don’t know—just continued to stare at me as if nothing had happened. She didn’t even raise an eyebrow, much less ask if I was fine. She wasn’t heartless though, because immediately when we sat down, she joined her young son at another table and helped him color a picture.

Our kids were with us as well, and our almost-two-year-old of course made a mess of her face. We decided it was easier to clean her up at home rather than walk the couple hundred meters to the jaans, at the far back corner of the shopping center. But on the way out, I noticed something odd: the parking lot was almost completely empty, but the street curbs were packed with cars. It probably seemed easier to parallel park in an unmarked area than use a real parking lot and walk an extra twenty seconds. The parking lot is unregulated. It’s free and no one will care if you leave your car there overnight.

In general I like the whole area. Old, broken asphalt and dirt roads, asbestos-lined sheet metal sheds and grassy fields littered with refuse and trodden paths for homeless people to access the river for food—this is what it was. Now there’s a grocery store, a delicious Hungarian place, a normal parking lot or two (one is even multi-level), a shiny, black glass building that doesn’t look absolutely ridiculous like the apartment blocks across the street (it’s pretty nice actually), and a lot more room left around it for development, especially out towards the river. The only thing on these banks of the Emajõgi River is a failed realty project, something that slightly resembles a Rubik’s Cube. The project originally included five identical buildings. One was finished, with just a few flats sold. I wonder how the rest of the area will be developed when the economy recovers.

And while the Black Pepper Grill is, as I said, a step up from Tiina or Linda, it’s just not quite enough to induce me to revisit this part of the city. Maybe I’ll go back if I need a new mattress for my back? Maybe I can find something else in the grocery store parking lot?

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