Tuesday, September 15, 2009


A long time ago, in the decades between the Wars, a small cabin was built deep in the woods of Võru County, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Latvian border. It was built of logs, it was built by hand, it was built to last. At the beginning of the Soviet occupation, a man named Aksel Kikas wrote his name and the current date in pencil on an interior wall. He died less than two weeks later, a victim of Soviet persecutions. I suspect he was an Estonian partisan—a “Forest Brother.”

Throughout the following decades, the cabin—originally a farm, complete with a barn, feed barn and sauna—was later used as a ranger station until the Soviet Union fell apart, when it was acquired by a local who wanted to sell it for profit.

Then it was abandoned. For ten years it was left to rot, exposed to the elements. Anything with metal was harvested by locals to be melted down for cash. The front door was stolen. The barn and sauna collapsed. Yet the cabin itself remained, determined to survive. That’s when we found it. We hired a guy from Setu country to do some work on the buildings. He said he could do it and spoke very convincingly. He built us a new floor, repaired the feed barn and built a new sauna.

The little cabin in the woods survived nearly nine decades of occupation, war, Soviet occupation, neglect and weather, but it did not survive Ahto Raudoja. After failing to allow proper ventilation under the new floor, and then using sand as a filler and untreated logs, it started to rot. The rot ate up the floor from underneath, and spread to the foundational logs. We discovered it just before it was too late. All we wanted to do was get a new façade. Instead we had to practically build a new house. Correcting this man’s mistake cost us our summer, a very large sum of money, a few years of our lives in terms of stress, and a great many new restaurant reviews.

Summer’s over, and Mingus is back to tell you how Tartu’s restaurants treat their customers.


Mrs. Mingus and I have been married for nine years. On our anniversary, in late July, we found a couple hours to hit the town. Basically we just had dinner in Volga, Tartu’s most expensive restaurant. It’s not that expensive really if you’re on a Western budget. We’re on an Eastern budget, but nine years is something to celebrate, especially in this day and age, so I did not flinch at the bill. About a hundred euros for apéritifs, hors d’œuvres, wine, steaks, desserts and digestifs.

Volga is part of the Ateena theater (or is it Athena? I think it’s both), built around the sixteenth century. It most recently housed a movie theater and a Soviet-era restaurant also called Volga. In the nineties it went out of business and, like our cabin, was left to rot. Just across the street from the main building of Tartu University, it occupies a choice cut of real estate. Through the land privatization debacle of the last decade, it came to rest in the hands of a disinterested Aussie, I believe, who was neither interested in fixing it up nor selling it for huge profits. For a long time it stuck out as a sore thumb in Tartu’s tiny Old Town, emitting fungal odors to the street from its broken windows. Eventually it was somehow wrested from its owner and beautifully restored in its nineteenth century fashion.

And now there’s the new Volga, where Estonians dress up to the nines to be seen eating steak and T-shirt-wearing tourists drop in for a cheap meal.

The interior is stunningly gorgeous, if not perhaps a bit too overdone. Snooty, but comfortably so. Costs were not spared. Except for the fire alarm next to our table, which was crooked by about ten degrees, and for such a large place we only found one cramped jaan for each gender, with no toilet paper or soap and the light bulbs were burned out. The smoking room even had sofas and lounge chairs, not to mention the DJ’s headquarters—unguarded. I’m sure the tourists would get a kick out of it if I snuck in and spun a few Phil Collins tunes, to fit in with the other eateries in Tartu. But I was satisfied listening to Glenn Miller, non-stop, for the entire evening.

There was even a hostess to seat us. The two times I can recall having a hostess in Estonia were very positive. Unlike in the US, the hostess will let you choose your table. But why is it that when a woman wears a nametag, it’s always at the tip of her chest—exactly where you’re not supposed to stare—and it’s usually covered up by a vest or something else? Her name started with a K, and it’s only important to me because I wanted to be courteous and thank her by name. Usually, if visible, I simply say, “Thank you, Õpilane,” which as I’ve mentioned before seems to be a very popular name for Estonian wait staff (though not as common as some others), and while making eye contact—eye contact signifies that you’re a foreigner.

Modern, politically correct English dictates the title “server” for people who serve you in a restaurant, but I still prefer to call Tartu servers “waiters” because, well, they make you wait. We became intimate with the intricacies of the woodwork. And it is well done! Like my tuna steak, which I ordered rare (it was rare in fact, but the outside was seared a bit too much for what I’ve always had as “rare”). Our waiter—Kristjan—was very polite indeed, but he seemed a tad flustered. He was left alone to wait on three tables. When I was his age—around twenty I believe—I waited tables for a summer in the States. A typical evening for me would have a turnover of eight tables an hour per server/waiter, and American diners are very demanding. Not in a bad way, but they know what to expect and tip accordingly. It’s the opposite in Estonia.

Eventually we got our drinks, and Kristjan failed to leave my water in the bottle as I had specifically requested. I wanted to pour the water to dilute my liquor a bit, as is my custom on anniversaries (I just love Ricard’s pastis de Marseille), and I made a bit of a mess pouring it from one glass to another. Not to worry though—the wet spots were camouflaged with drops of red wine. Kristjan hadn’t learned to twist the bottle after pouring.

Now, I don’t give a dadgummit about the finer points of a waiter’s finesse. But this is Volga after all, and I thought I should just mention it.

The salad was fantastic. My tuna was fantastic, and Mrs. Mingus thoroughly enjoyed her chateaubriand—and while the menu claimed it was Estonian-grown beef, not even the chef knew precisely where it had come from (we asked out of curiosity). We also enjoyed the two helpings of rolls we were offered. The portions were very small, considering we’d been doing hard, physical labor all summer and worked up quite an appetite waiting at the table. As we finished our meal, a slightly sweaty Kristjan ran back to our table and poured some more wine on the tablecloth for us.

I liked the guy, and felt bad that he wasn’t having more fun while we celebrated the last anniversary before I have to cough up some sort of rock to put on a ring for Mrs. Mingus. I ten-percented him, but for some reason I couldn’t write the tip into the bill, like you can at every other place in Tartu. I certainly wasn’t going to stiff him after his trials, so I had to abandon the wife and run to a cash machine, two blocks away. No one carries cash in Estonia these days.

We will definitely go back to Volga in the future, though most likely only to show guests from abroad that not everywhere uses potato seasoning in its food. Overall, I liked it. A dangerous new trend in Estonian cuisine, however, is that chefs are beginning to think that less is better, while forgetting that that “less” had better be mouth-wateringly delicious to make up for quantity. A parallel could be drawn to fighting the country’s recent weight gain, which is odd considering that ketchup has suffered greatly from inflation, but I think it has more to do with la présentation.

*This last image is from Volga’s own website. I like how the bill is visible, next to the dessert. Just to remind you.


Kristopher said...

Welcome back, Mingus. Thought of you (your reviews) as I had a mediocre lunch with my wife at Golden Dragon in Tallinn today (which had been reviewed positively by Tallinn In Your Pocket, the bastards). I longed to be at any other Asian resto in Tartu, even in the baby-talk ones (Yam Yam or Zhen Zhen).

Márton Barki said...

it was kinda wainting for this very last post, like for a fav band's new realise. Critics say sometimes, that: "is it really what we have been longing for soooo long" and then I buy it, with this bitter taste in advance, and when "I spin the black circe", i just wonder and feel good, cuz I was right that I chose them to be may fav band...
Unfortunately on working days I do work, so no chance to try their daily buffet for 9o EEK... Actually you are like a tourist in China nowadays: last time you can see the past before they build the whole country over. Volga has new managment, new (Russian) menu, cheaper... hm. We will giwe a try though.
And a new Georgian restaurant opens soon close to Ristiisa pubi (former casino). And some others will close too...