Thursday, December 31, 2009

Where Are They Now?

Over the past eight months, we at Tartu – City of Good Food have reviewed nineteen eateries in Tartu. Some people have expressed concern that we will quickly run out of places to go, places to review, but a quick glance at Tartu’s official homepage reveals that there are upwards of seventy establishments. And while the number may be finite, it is also in flux. Many will close their doors, some will move, some will reinvent themselves, and a great many will open their doors for business for the very first time. Of the nineteen we’ve visited, where are they now?

Café Truffe still serves the best latte in town. I haven’t eaten there recently, but I’ve heard mixed reviews. They seem to be out of menu items quite frequently.

Alvi Kebob alas is no longer there. They’ve moved three meters. Their new location is the old porno rental shack behind the now-absent trailer kiosk. There was a time when I ate there a couple times a month. But as we all know, the quality of a meal depends on who prepares it. There was a tall, lanky blond guy—very polite in fact—who just couldn’t make a good kebob. The tortillas he served were consistently over-grilled and crunchy, making a messy meal even messier. I scoped them out once to see if he was there. Someone else was working at the window, so I ordered a couple kebobs for Mrs. Mingus and myself. Then he appeared from around the corner, in the seating section (you can eat inside now, but if you do, everyone will know you ate there, because the scent of kebob clings to your hair and clothes for at least a couple days—make sure you don’t go in wearing a nice coat). The kebobs were crunchy, not too enjoyable. A shame really. If he quits I’ll go back, but the only way to see if he’s there is to go inside, which I don’t want to do.

Kissing Students is still doing well, but the rumors of amazing steak have been silenced. I don’t know why.

Istanbul is rumored to have debts to the city, like a number of other places. Talk in the newspaper hints at preferential treatment. Better to lower the rent than risk being rentless. This has angered other restaurant proprietors, who shout out “unfair competition!” But I’ll talk about that later.

Opera Pizza is still the exact same as ten years ago. Good pizza on a good night, salty and greasy on a bad night. They seem to be struggling to understand special orders. “Hold the pepperoni, please” often results in extra pepperoni.

YamYam has expanded to Solaris in Tallinn. Solaris is the new downtown Tallinn mall that has recently opened with some controversy. Namely that it was rushed and almost crushed a theater full of people when the ceiling collapsed. Luckily people weren’t due to enter for another ten minutes. A day or two later, a friend was walking by on the street and a large piece of roofing material was blown from the structure and landed on the sidewalk in front of him. Oddly enough, I haven’t been back to the YamYam in Tartu, so I can’t confirm it’s still there. The webpage doesn’t open either. In fact, the Solaris franchise is called "YamYam To Go", apparently an international chain. Did the Tartu guy copy someone?

Volga—Tartu’s most expensive dining establishment—changed owners. It’s still pricey for Tartu, but now serves Russian cuisine. I haven’t tried it yet.

The Black Pepper Grill, it seems, has moved and changed its name. It is now Musta Pipra Grill, which means Black Pepper Grill. A pizzeria called Hagar (the Horrible) justly went out of business, replaced by our grill (I still have a scar on my arm from eating there). Now in the Zeppilin mall on Turu tänav (Market Street), their webpage has a section labeled “Food and Drink”, leading you to believe there’s a diverse selection of cuisine. Click on it and you’ll see only our grill and a double-X grocery store.

Ungari Köök continues its successful run. They haven’t moved or expanded, yet. I get the distinct impression the owner would like to expand, open a new restaurant downtown somewhere, but he’s probably being hampered by the city’s relentless bureaucracy. He has, however, started offering “something different” on Saturdays. I’ve only had the opportunity to try it once, but if this is the type of food he would offer on a daily basis in any expansion in the future, I can fully understand why the city would want to stop him. He’d put everyone else out of business.

Moka is on what I will start calling “Restaurant Row”. On one stretch of an Old Town street, you’ll see Volga, Moka, Žen-Žen, Tsink Plekk Pang, Entri, a new Starbucks-styled café I haven’t visited yet, and I’m sure there’s another place there as well. At least half a dozen more just around the corner, whichever way you walk. One by one, the boutiques and businesses are emptying from the small Old Town and moving to malls. In their place are bars, cafés and restaurants. I think this is the natural evolution of any modern downtown area (complete with artificial dinosaur bones).

***

When you write about something, you tend to think about things, notice things, you otherwise wouldn’t. I have noticed three main trends in eating out in Tartu. The first is apathy. It’s not everywhere of course, but it is common enough to denote a trend. Many of the dialogues and stories I have quoted bare the insolent demeanor of the people who bring you food in Tartu. A simple question about what is on the menu is akin to pulling teeth.
“Do you have this?”
–No.
“What do you have?”
–What do you want?
“I want this.”
–We don’t have it.

There may be many causes for this, among them simply poor communication skills. Culture, family background, hangover—it doesn’t matter why. How can you change it? You as the customer have but one weapon at your disposal. The Tip. But Estonians don’t really tip. If you’re the only person who tips, how does that help dry up an ocean of tiplessness? Well, at the very least, it creates a good reputation for farners. Wait staff will expect a tip if they are polite. Reward them. After all, the waitress doesn’t care whether you’re satisfied with your meal if you’re not going to leave her cash for a drink. She makes the same hourly wage regardless of how busy the restaurant happens to be. So long as the place doesn’t close, she’s content with the status quo.

Apathy can be seen in the food itself, as well. There’s very little passion in Tartu’s food. The general idea is that you get your hunger satisfied. Taste is secondary. Show me a passionate chef and I’ll show my face in the restaurant.

The second trend is that overall, the food in Tartu restaurants just isn’t that good. No one says, “Come to Tartu—we have great food!” The city could advertise itself with “Come to Tartu—we have food!” but I think somehow that wouldn’t attract too many tourists, especially at a time when tourism is such an important contribution to the local economy.

Now I know what many of you are thinking—the food isn’t as bad as I just made it sound. And you’re right, it’s not that bad. There’s a lot of good stuff here, to be perfectly honest. A lot. But you will be disappointed if you’re expecting Little Italy. Estonian cuisine isn’t that diverse. There are some delicious, traditional recipes, but there aren’t that many “Estonian” restaurants. Unless it’s “ethnic cuisine” (which basically means it’s a foreign style) or what is considered an expensive restaurant (like Volga before its metamorphosis), most of the stuff is Soviet-era meat sauce and potatoes with degrees of freshness corresponding to price. The best restaurants employ farners in the kitchen. They seem to enjoy what they do.

And the third trend is poor stocking. The Chinese restaurant that runs out of rice. The coffeeless café. The beef restaurant that only serves chicken. “Then go to the shop and buy some rice!” Wait just a minute—it’s not that simple, I’ve recently learned. Restaurants can’t just go to the shop and buy rice. The rice has to come from a certified and approved wholesaler. As far as I know, there’s only one in Tartu—Aardla Hulgimüük (Aardla Wholesale). It’s a wholesaler that allows you to buy individual items from a gross—hardly wholesale. And the prices aren’t wholesale either. It’s quite often more expensive than a regular shop, gram for gram. This is essentially a state-sponsored monopoly in the world’s thirteenth-freest economy. Pure nonsense. (On a side note, before the Great Recession, Estonia was pretty much dead last in Europe in terms of labor freedom. This is both good and bad in that it creates job security but makes it difficult for an employer to get rid of a lazy worker. You could say that the state supported bad attitudes. This has changed somewhat now. Companies may now fire at will.)

This might explain the amazing similarities between the foods offered in Tartu restaurants. I’m not sure, but I would imagine that chefs in France aren’t forced to buy their veggies from Carrefour or Monoprix. That’s not a fair analogy actually—those aren’t wholesalers. But to paraphrase what one Tartu restaurateur recently said, “I would love to shop for my restaurant at a regular grocery store. The limes are green.”

However, this shopping farce still doesn’t explain why restaurants allow themselves to run out of a particular product. If it’s popular, stock up on it. Think ahead. Buy in advance.

So on the eve of the Year We Make Contact, allow an alien to make five suggestions:

Customers: tip for good service.
Estonian customers: be more demanding.
Chefs: put down the knife if you are not passionate about your job.
The Powers That Be: relax your laws just a bit. It’ll taste better.
Waiters and Waitresses: open your mouths and communicate.

***

Dish of the Year: Moka. Thanks for making me love yams!
Steak of the Year: not applicable.
Drink of the Year: Illegaard. Captain Morgan Spiced Rum and Coke (only fifty kroons!).
Salad of the Year: Volga.
Pizza of the Year: House of Mingus. Deep-dish with sausage and fennel.
Soup of the Year: Ungari Köök. They know how to use pumpkins.
Crap of the Year: Õlle 17. But that doesn’t really count because it’s in Võru.

Goodbye, Kristiina, and good luck wherever life may take you!

Happy New Year!

5 comments:

Lauri Oz said...

Enjoy reading this, big up!

But this Aardla Hulgimüük nonsense and certified food whatever just can't be true? I know about half a dozen eatery owners in Tartu that shop at Turuhoone, Rimi or heck, even Kaubamaja for their places. Or maybe they just are being rogue?

Mingus said...

Straight from the mouth of an owner. It's so dumb it's wholly believable. And thanks!

Kristopher said...

What about tip baskets and jars? I can't stand this. It's like everyone has adopted this practice all of a sudden.

If you bring food to my table or deliver food to my house, I will tip you. Not so sure about counter staff unless it's really a bang-up job.

Kristopher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ragne said...

YamYam in Tartu and YamYam To GO in Tallinn Solaris really are completely different places and to my knowledge, also serve not at all the same type food. And i think that YamYam in Tartu lost the name war, because it changed it's name to JamJam, website respectively: www.jamjam.ee