Monday, December 7, 2009

Dorpat

Recently one of the Mingus clan experienced another birthday. A unanimous decision was made to dine in the Hotell Dorpat (not Hotel), but only because I was excluded from the voting process. The building looks nice, definitely a good locale overlooking the Emajõgi River, but the restaurant itself is just kind of…boring. The dining room is fully lit at night, making it difficult to see out the floor-to-ceiling windows to watch the drunks feeding the ducks in the dark behind the Tasku mall.

For almost a year now I’ve been picking up favorable chatter about Dorpat’s lunch buffet. Now that they’ve lowered prices from near a hundred kroons to forty kroons for the soup buffet, business is apparently booming in this place, bearing Tartu’s former, German name. And while my review of their entrées is going to be less than ecstatic, I do hope they can stay in business. It would be a shame if they went bust and the premises were occupied by yet another grocery store. At least it would be the Dorpat Hotel, Spa and Supermarket instead of a Mall Rimi.

We’d had reservations for almost a month, to ensure we got a window table for ten. The place was utterly empty upon our arrival. Two more parties of two did arrive before we left, and there was a long dining table reserved, and I hope that was why they had four wait and bar staff on duty for our one table.

For simplicity’s sake we had pre-ordered the package dinners, giving us a choice of grilled salmon, chicken and pork. I chose the salmon. The only side dish offered was mashed carrot and potato. It wasn’t my favorite thing, but I might have also been influenced by the fact that the purée was riddled with shrimp, not described in the menu. Carrot, potato and shrimp purée. Not what I would consider the best idea I’ve ever seen from a peakokk (head chef, not peacock). Unfortunately, the salmon was also a bit, er, boring? Essentially I was not impressed, and I can’t say that I would recommend it to visiting friends. I did try the chicken and pork others in our party had chosen, and it tasted surprisingly like chicken or pork.

The menu itself wished me pleasant taste experiences. As I’ve said before, I find these types of phrases off-putting. Almost like a warning. Not “Enjoy your meal!” but rather,
“We made something really special here
It might in fact go well with tongue of deer
We wish you a pleasant taste experience
And a happy Saku beer!”

I’m really sorry for that. I do apologize.

The kids’ menu was rather extensive, and offered real food as opposed to wieners and fries. My girls wolfed down broccoli and other veggies, but didn’t like the processed, frozen meatballs too much. So I ate them, because I wasn’t full at all.

The one redeeming experience here was the wait staff. Because we had three of them serving us, we didn’t have to wait long for anything. They were pleasant, as the menu hinted at, professional and they even smiled! Wow! Our main waitress, Krista, went so far as to chuckle and offer a reassuring “It’s fine, don’t worry about it,” when our toddler smashed a peppershaker all over the tablecloth. In the Olden Days (six or seven years ago), we would have been charged for the damages.

I approached the bar just after we got there to secretly order a round of vodka shots. There was some confusion. Here’s a transcript of the conversation.
“Hi, could I have four shots of vodka for our table?”
Kristiina the bartender: What?
“Four shots of vodka, please.”
—Four what?
“Four shots. Of vodka.”
—What’s that?
“Vodka?”
—No, four what of vodka?
“Shots?”
—What’s that?
“A small glass. For drinking alcohol.”
—Why do you want that?
“Because we want to drink some vodka.”
—Alright, and how should I serve it?
“In shot glasses.”
—What are those?
“How about this—I would like four times four centiliters of vodka.”
—In one glass?
“No, four centiliters of vodka in one glass, then four centiliters of vodka in another glass, and so on. Four shots.”
—Four what?
At this point, I just went through the motions of doing a shot. She understood, and asked once again how many I wanted. I counted one, two, three, four on my fingers, and then pointed at our table. And I swear this is exactly how it happened. It’s not made up for humor’s sake.

A moment later when the shots arrived, she placed two of them in front of Mrs. Mingus-in-law right off the bat. I don’t know why, because I’d never even indicated her in any way. I said, “Actually, just one for her,” and I pointed to whom the other shots were intended. She picked up the two shots she’d already served, put them back on her tray and started to walk off.

“Excuse me, you’re right, please come back. My mistake!” I uttered.

She was visibly angry at me for the confusion. We allowed her to give my mother-in-law the two shots and whomever else she felt deserved a shot. I thanked her, she left, and we redistributed the glasses.

Now I know I have an accent in Estonian, and that it’s frequently the first time an Estonian has ever heard a foreigner (at least non-Russian) speak Estonian, but she shouldn’t have had that much of a problem understanding me. She was also in her early twenties and should have known the word “shot” in English, as she’s a bartender in a hotel full of foreigners.

A couple days later I recounted this harrowing tale of futility to a friend, who explained that the word “shot” doesn’t exist in Estonian. That was the source of the misunderstanding. I should have used a different word for it. Fair enough, except for two points: I’ve used the word “shot” for eleven years, and this was the first misunderstanding; and what I wanted should have been more than obvious to any bartender who can tie their shoes. Kristiina would make a good contestant for that upcoming reality game show called Dancing with Darwin.

But I did like the crème brûlée. The cranberries were an excellent choice of garnish.

The cute part of the evening was our older daughter begging us to dance to the elevator Muzak under the giant disco ball. Luckily there were no other customers.

***

This wasn’t the first strange thing to happen to me at Dorpat. Earlier this year, Mrs. Mingus discovered the spa part of the hotel was offering discounted massages from student masseuses. She went one morning, then demanded that I go that afternoon.

“Was she hot?” I asked.

Mrs. Mingus said she wasn’t bad looking, but not cute enough to be worried about her having her hands all over my body, in a professional setting.

“Good. Sign me up.”

I walked in for a forty-five minute, full-body massage. I was told what room to enter, and as I opened the door I saw some old guy standing there, looking down on me. I’m not an especially tall man, but I’m well above the official average height of Estonians. This guy towered over me. “Are you my masseur?” I asked politely. He nodded. I was sure Mrs. Mingus had played a joke on me. He told me to change. Mrs. Mingus said she’d worn a swimsuit, so I brought my swimming trunks. I’m American, so I cannot go out in public wearing a bikini. Make all the “Americans are prudes” jokes you want, but they don’t apply to me. I just won’t say why.

My masseur said my trunks were unacceptable, and proceeded to pull a tiny, flat plastic bag out of a drawer. Inside was something truly miniscule, something worse than a bikini. It was a disposable male thong. Made of paper. One size fits all. But at least I was man enough not to walk out. He was extremely professional, and I didn’t feel uncomfortable even during the full bum rub I received.

Yet as this was my first professional massage of any type, I had no clue what to expect. When he was finished, he merely quietly slipped out of the room, not saying a word. I assumed I was supposed to get dressed and leave. I couldn’t find anything to dry away the massage oil with, so I got dressed. Then he walked back in, and was visibly shocked to see me fully clothed. It turns out I was supposed to lay back and relax for a few minutes, and he’d brought me a towel for before dressing.

I chatted him up a bit. He was an ex-construction worker. Unemployed from the recession. He really liked working with people and his hands, he explained, so the transition to masseur made perfect sense. A very nice guy overall, and strong construction hands made for a promising new career for him. I would have talked more, but my clothes were all sticking to my skin. I was starting to feel claustrophobic from it, so I thanked him and left.

Later I found out Dorpat’s policy is to mix genders. Meaning no woman should massage a woman, or a man a man. They were oh for two that day.

***

Our clan generally seemed a bit disappointed overall, and I was the only one eating in Dorpat for the first time. They said it was just an off night for the kitchen, and still had positive things to say about their previous pleasant taste experiences. Maybe I’ll give it another try.

3 comments:

Márton Barki said...

I just can add the same again: you should write... as an author. I mean publishing.

John said...

The Vodka shot routine was hilarious. Worthy of Abott & Costello!

Ragne said...

Specially for you they are fixing up downstairs of Tasku right now and guess what shop is coming there? - Rimi :)