Monday, November 16, 2009


A week ago last Sunday was Father’s Day in Scandinavia. It has different dates around the world, but Estonia celebrates it with Scandinavia. Because Estonia is in Scandinavia. Estonia is also one of the Baltic States. By that logic, so are Germany, Poland, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and—technically—Russia. But Latvia and Lithuania, which are no more a part of Scandinavia than Estonia, didn’t celebrate Father’s Day last Sunday. Neither did Denmark, which is odd, seeing as Denmark is actually part of Scandinavia. Even stranger is that the countries themselves decide when to celebrate it.

Regardless, the Mingus family had two and a half members of the Father’s Day Club this year: I am one, Vanaisa (grandfather) Mingus is the other, and Mr. Mingus-in-Law (if you drop the “in-law” part) is the half, as Ms. Mingus-in-Law is expecting. Marriage is waning in popularity in the Baltics. At least in Estonia. The pattern is frequently that a couple, if they decide to get married at all (there is more of a decision made than a proposal), do so when they’re expecting. In the States we call this a “shotgun wedding,” but not because we like guns so insanely, although I’m sure one of the McCoys was rushed to the alter with a muzzle in his back because of certain indiscretions with one of them Hatfield girls. You could hardly describe the Estonian pattern this way, however, because these marriages are usually consummated when they’re expecting their second child. The first one was a trial run, to see if the relationship would work. Perhaps these could be dubbed “miks mitte” marriages (“why not”)?

But I digress.

We went bowling at a mall called Eeden (Eden). It was a lot of fun, teaching my older girl to bowl. The lanes were equipped with rails, so she didn’t get a gutter every time. The funniest thing I noticed was a list of high scores on the wall.

There were at least eight people who had bowled perfect games, with one guy having even bowled more than ten three-hundreds. That’s a big change from when this place opened the better part of a decade ago. Whenever I went bowling back then (maybe once a year), I was always the winner, simply because I had gone bowling before. I’m not good at it. This time I scored lower than almost every other person there, and the lanes were all occupied. No one was smiling though, and not even the teenagers appeared to be having fun. But unlike joggers and cyclists in Estonia, no one was wearing the official uniform. We were still the only ones drinking beer. And the only employee who was smiling, for reasons I don’t wish to fathom, was the shoe guy.

After bowling we had quite an appetite, so we decided to eat some Georgian food together. We’d all been to Gruusia Saatkond (Georgian Embassy) more times than we could remember, and had heard mixed reviews about the new place—Tbilisi—on Küüni Street, in a windowless room on the lowest level of the failed shopping center known as Kaubahall. It almost felt like it was in a former corner casino. In fact, I think it is.

Based on what I’d heard, the cons were that some of the dishes on the menu were rumored to be fresh from a frozen bag. The pros were that the food was alright. Much too often, getting a favorable opinion from Estonians is like herding cats. “Did you like it?” Response either: “No, it was very bad,” or “Yes, it’s very normal.”
“Well then, did you enjoy it?”
“Yes, I would go there again.”
“Right, but was the food good?”
“It was normal.”
“Did it have a good taste?”
“It tasted like Georgian food.”
“But is that a good thing?”
“Yes, it’s quite normal, I think.”
“Did you like being there? Was it fun?!”
“We had dinner there.”

What was a very surprising turn of events was that the proprietor (I think) came to chat with us, assuring us that anything on the menu could be made in pint-sized portions for the children. Anything you want, come tell Uncle Ivan. I wasn’t sure of his ethnicity, but he spoke Estonian, didn’t look Georgian, but wasn’t quite Russian either. He had a gray ponytail, was very reassuring, and we felt safe. If there had to be a knife fight in the kitchen, you’d want Uncle Ivan on your side.

He told us lots of things that we didn’t need to worry about, as we were in his capable hands. But he wasn’t overbearing, and we didn’t feel uncomfortable. Uncle Ivan was very polite. The service was quick, and Kristjan the waiter smiled and informatively answered any questions we knew to ask. And if he didn’t know (he was new), Uncle Ivan made another appearance.

We didn’t know to ask about sides though, and this bit of rather important information was not volunteered. There are absolutely no side dishes included in the price of a main dish, apart from garnishes. Sides are available for an extra charge, but you have to know to ask.

None of us at the table discussed what we wanted to order, so we ended up with several portions of pork shish-ka-bobs. With no sides. But here’s my opinion: this was the best Georgian shish-ka-bob I’ve ever had. Keep in mind that I’ve eaten Georgian now in only three or four different restaurants, but this was hands-down the best in terms of flavor. We didn’t care much for the desserts, and had no opinion on the sides. The hinkali, a large form of pelmeni, or meat dumpling (also known as Russian ravioli), may have come from a frozen bag, but it was very normal.

The appetizer we collectively ordered, a cheburek (deep-fried mystery meat pastry), was delicious. And on top of that, it was delivered far enough in advance that we could all enjoy it without being distracted by our entrées (as I’ve mentioned before, appetizers in Tartu are frequently delivered with or after the entrée).

The price per ounce though was not particularly cheap for Tartu. Our party had to foot a rather massive bill, and we left not hungry, but not comfortably full either. We were kind of drunk, from the one beer, glass of wine and mug of something I can’t pronounce that we each drank. I wish I’d ordered a side dish.

That mug of unpronounceable liquid was cleared from the table before I’d finished it, while I was in the squeaky clean jaan washing my hands. No problem. Kristjan gave me a full, fresh mug at no charge, plus an apology. An apology in Tartu. Inconceivable! In return I gave him a fat tip that more than compensated for the free refill.

The restaurant itself was brand new, although the interior décor was not very Georgian, at least not compared to its other Tartu competitor. The owners are Georgian and Greek, according to the newspaper, although their web domain ends with .ru for Russia. Maybe Uncle Ivan was one of the owners, and not the manager? But it was clean, everything on the menu was stocked (which is rare), and you had no clue what time it was until you left, due to the lack of windows. Uncle Ivan sat at a nearby table discussing “beezness” with a man whose face was cast in shadow. I suspect they still had slot machines hidden in the kitchen.

I will certainly go to Tbilisi again, armed with my new knowledge of side dishes. And if anyone asks what I thought of it, I will show them two thumbs and say it’s quite normal.

Editing is important. Look through the greenery to see the lamb strangled by a vine, and the spicy chicken served with old tomatoes?

1 comment:

Ragne said...

Me and my husband went there as soon as it opened. The first visit didn't go all that smoothly. The place was half full, we gave our order to some noticeably shaking novice waiter, and continued chatting waiting for our food. 15 minutes passed, another couple came to sit at the table next to us, 30 minutes had passed, the couple at the next table received their food, 45 minutes, the couple at the other table got deserts, after an hour had passed the couple at the next table paid their bill and left. All this time i tried to make eye contact with our waiter to ask about our order. Finally i went to look for him and he told me any moment now. 15 minutes later i went to look for him again and he gave me song and dance about the queue and all dishes go out in the sequence they were ordered. When i pointed out about the other couple, he just rolled his eye and probably thought "omg, how fucking annoying costumer!". Finally after waiting for an hour for few soups and a hinkalis (dumplings), we told the waiter that in 5 minutes we will be getting up and leaving their lovely restaurant, so in 3,5 minutes our soups materialized and soon after also hinkalis. Chef had added an extra 3 hinkalis for free for the discomfort :). At that time it was an annoying experience, because we were so hungry. Looking back, it was mostly funny and we have returned for few times more. Decent place, though with a really weird interior design - like somebody's living room, except this somebody has a pretty bad taste when it comes to interior decorating.