Sunday, October 18, 2009


Back in the nineties, there were four main places to get pizza. Taverna, Pizza Opera, Pizza Pronto and Reinu. Unfortunately, Reinu does not have a restaurant, as far as I know, so I will never be able to write about how thoroughly disgusting I find their pizza. Who uses Whiskas® as a topping? In fact, the only good thing that I can remember about that company was that they could deliver cases of beer at four in the morning to your apartment doorstep.

Pizza Pronto, on the other hand, had a pizza dough machine. It looked like a candy dispenser. It was thin crust—I’m a deep-dish man myself—and thick with taste. Forty kroons for a daily special wasn’t bad, so long as you didn’t actually order the daily special. I did once, without looking on the chalkboard by the register, and was surprised to get egg, pickle, onion and corn on a pizza.

Two remakes and ten years later, Moka occupies the same premises, kitty-corner from the university’s main building (next to Volga). They still have the same pizza machine, popping out the same pizzas, and I would imagine the owner is still the same as well. The restaurant has, however, changed dramatically. The bar resembles a pâtisserie, and the menu looks like something that should be in an upscale Manhattan diner instead of this rather unassuming eatery. The only thing that gives it away is the prices. They’re dirt cheap for what you get.

After growing tired of the pizzas, I was completely unaware of the changes on the inside. A friend said the chef had repeatedly prepared what he called the best Chicken Kiev he’d ever had, and what’s more—if the same chef was at work when you went, and they weren’t packed, he was absolutely willing to prepare anything you wanted, from the menu or not. This hints at a chef in Tartu who enjoys his job. I know from inside accounts and personal experience that this isn’t a common thing. But my friend, whom I’ll refer to as Jaan, always says everything is the best he’s ever had. That’s why I waited a couple years before trying Moka.

A couple weekends ago, we had some visitors—the same who experienced Suudlevad Tudengid (Kissing Students) with us for my review. We visited Moka on a gloomy October Sunday afternoon. To our surprise, Moka was celebrating the cuisines of different countries each weekend. That weekend was American cuisine. I just wanted a salad, but I couldn’t resist the steak and brownies.

Other upcoming weekends on the menu were Belgium, Ukraine and Switzerland—not exactly places known for their food. That wasn’t what caught my attention on the menu though. First of all, the Estonian says, “National Cuisine Weekends.” The English below it says, “Multi-Cuisine Weekends.” What multi are you? I’m American. And what do you do? I’m a chef fe cuisine.

Dee and eff may be companions on the qwerty—an understandable typo—but if you’re going to print out an attractive menu like this, especially as it’s just an insert and not the whole thing, wouldn’t you at least look at it once before sending it to the publishers? This is like if I wrote my name as Toomas Hendrik Lives (I am, after all, the one true Present of Estonia). Fortunately, as I found out when the food arrived, the chef de cuisine, Andrus Vaht, pays much more attention to what he sends out of the kitchen. And if it wasn’t the head chef working at one on a Sunday, that says even more about him as the leader of his kitchen. Rumor has it he even converses with customers. The waitress did happen to point him out as he was walking by…he looked at our baby carriage and smiled. When does that ever happen in Tartu?!

The presentation of the food was something deserving of at least a couple Michelins, probably all three due to the price. It was almost absurd, to be perfectly honest. I felt guilty about eating my entrecôte, whatever that is. Usually in Estonia it’s something similar to a rib-eye, but not this one. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed every bite—but it was far from the best steak I’ve ever had. It was full of tendons, or something else, as I couldn’t be sure what cut it was. I’d also specifically asked for it medium-rare, and Kristiina—our waitress—even repeated it too me. I think the chef got the message too, but as I was evidently served a budget cut it just wasn’t possible to do anything bloodier than very well done.

The mashed yams, or sweet potatoes, were the best I’ve ever had in my life. To add weight to that statement, I hate yams. I think they’re disgusting. I rank them right up there with green eggs. To clarify that statement, I really did love the yams. I could eat them here or there, I could eat them anywhere! I don’t know what the chef did, but it was simply delish! It’s a true pity that it was a one-off menu item. I would go there every month if he brought it back. I hope you’re reading this, Andrus. You are one Estonian chef who could teach a thing or two to American chefs. At least about yams.

Now for the rest of the food items, they were very good. I cannot say they were better than very good. It wasn’t quite on par with the presentation. But for the price, I would never complain, and I would recommend it to others. I already have, in fact, and I guess I am with this review. Keep in mind though, they do have stuff in the twenty-dollar range as well.

I got the American dessert—the brownies, as mentioned. It was a bit dry and full of nuts. I think a lot of Estonian desserts are a bit dry for the Yankee palate, but that’s not a bad thing, I think we could all agree. The four kids who were with us shared a single dish of ice cream. They ate their fill and we finished off the rest. Think about that: four children couldn’t eat all the ice cream in one helping.

Too bad I didn’t discover Moka during the summer. Küütri Street was redone a year or two ago, and it’s a very attractive outdoor setting. On a side note, why is there a blanked-out space on Küütri if you zoom in via Google Maps?

Mrs. Mingus-in-law tends to be rather picky and is prone to routine. And that’s fine and dandy. She’s over …-ty years old. She lunches in Moka at least once a week. That may or may not be a compliment to Moka, but I intend it as such. If only more people took pride in their jobs. Passion, I dare say.