Thursday, December 17, 2009


Eating in a restaurant encompasses not only the food you consume, but the service, environment and everything else that is involved in the process of making your belly bulge. There must be a why, a where, a how and a consequence. While eating may be the whole reason for this grand ordeal, it is perhaps one of the shortest steps, and definitely not more important than the other steps. If you don’t order, you don’t eat. If you don’t decide where to go, you don’t eat. If you don’t wash your hands before eating, there’s a chance that very soon you won’t eat for a couple days. Restaurants need quality and well-equipped jaans.

This review of Žen-Žen (pronounced "ZHEN zhen") will attempt to paint a picture of the overall dining experience, beginning with the why and ending with the consequences. A slice of life, as it were.

The reason we ate food from Žen-Žen last night was the result of events which occurred over the weekend, which in turn were resultant from Thanksgiving, and which were ultimately consequences of some bishop or priest—essentially an aggressively dogmatic missionary—who decided to make the date of Christmas coincide with the pagan rituals of the winter solstice in order to attract more followers (that’s why Christmas is exactly six months from Midsummer). No one knows for certain when a Certain Someone was born—I’ve always heard April is a good candidate—but it certainly wasn’t on Christmas. I mean, it would be absurd to believe that this omnipotent being would choose to share a birthday with Ricky Martin or Jimmy Buffet (depending on what time zone you’re in).

Our home and my meager culinary talents can only accommodate so many people at a time. So after Thanksgiving and before Christmas, we usually have a White Elephant dinner party for homeless Americans (Yankees in Estonia who don’t have families here as well). White Elephant means you bring a funny gift that you do not buy. A regifting party. Everyone brings one, assigns a number to it, and lots are drawn to divvy them up. Examples would range from an old Whitney Houston record to used slippers, or last year’s half a cabbage wrapped in nice paper to this year’s Matryoshka bag (we had at least a hundred plastic bags in our collection and desperately wanted to rid ourselves of them, so I wrapped them all inside each other, one after another). Anyhow, I spent nearly twelve hours in the kitchen on Saturday, and come Wednesday I still refused to cook. And as I'm the preparer of food for my family, this meant ordering out. This is the why.

We were very hungry, and slightly tired, so bundling up the kids in this late yet welcome winter weather seemed less than appetizing. It’s almost zero on the Fahrenheit scale, and last night we had flurries. Beautiful, romantic Christmas weather. I opened Žen-Žen’s webpage and wrote out an order to call in. They also deliver, but I had to go to the shop anyhow, in the same neighborhood. This explains the where. Delivery in Estonia is a funny thing sometimes. While there are very few places that allow you to pay by card at your own front door (but how fantastic is that?!), there are more than enough places that do deliver. And they make you pay for it, too. You’d think capitalism and competition would have eliminated that, but alas no! There are, after all, still cafés that charge you for sugar and milk.

Some restaurants, among them a place I despise called Tsink Plekk Pang (at least years ago it was a nasty “Asian” restaurant in Tartu, reminiscent of American commercials advertising a specific product as “European”), used to offer e-takeout. You could place your order on their on-line form and even pay on line. We tried this once, years ago, and two hours later called to find out where our food was. “Oh, we didn’t check our email.”

I climbed into my motorized sleigh and set off across the snow-blown roads of Tartu, destination Selver (a local grocery chain). They were out of milk. Two guys in line behind me were each buying a six-pack of Saku, Tallinn’s beer that tastes like lake water (it is brewed using lake water). They mumbled, “Kas võtame viina ka vä?” (“Should we get some vodka too?”) Outside in the parking lot, one of them pressed one nostril and blew something out of the other. Then spat.

I started driving to Žen-Žen, but got stuck at a train crossing. The lights were flashing, the gate was down, and no train. Three minutes later, it appeared—one of those long freight trains with at least sixty tankers of oil. Ten minutes later it was finally gone. Another two minutes and the gates lifted, the lights stopped flashing, and I could be on my merry way.

Žen-Žen is on Näituse Street, a very beautiful Tartu street with modern, Estonian and Stalinist architecture alike, with a direct outlet into Toomemägi Park. There’s no parking though, so you have to pull up on the sidewalk across the street. The restaurant itself is fairly small, just a few tables, and has all the feel of an authentic North American Chinese restaurant, traditional yet digital clock and everything. I’ve been a frequent customer of Žen-Žen for years now. Why? Because it’s good. Not only does it serve the best Chinese in Tartu, but I believe it could maybe even hold its own with San Francisco’s finest. The owner is, after all, from China.

He also runs the Hiina Keskus (Chinese Center) on Riia Street. Chinese goods on sale and a massage parlor. I wish the guy success in his business affairs, as he’s a very pleasant man, at least the one time I talked to him.

The Estonian waitress gave me a warm, welcoming smile and told me my food was being packaged up, just a minute more. She then went into the kitchen and I heard her shout out something in Chinese. Cool! When she came back to the register so I could pay, I asked her where Kristiina, the usual waitress, was.
“Oh, she moved to Brussels.”
—Really? What’s she doing there?
“She’s some sort of EU official now.”
—Good for her! I didn’t even know she was qualified for it.
“She isn’t.”
—Then why is she there?
“Well, someone had to go from Estonia.”

That’s one major drawback about being from a country with three hundred million people. The competition for unique positions is three hundred times more difficult than in Estonia, a country of a million.

My food came out of the kitchen, and I crossed the gusty street and once again began to drive in my sleigh. Ever so slowly, because it was a perfect night for a nice, relaxing drive on mildly slippery streets, and also because I didn’t want the stacks of takeout boxes to tip over. Ever so slowly—the speed limit in fact—and I got passed twice on a two-way road with cars sporadically parked in each lane.

Home again, we served the food. The two rices I’d ordered seemed uncharacteristically small this evening. About half the normal amount, and it was dried up and crunchy. I would be willing to assume they’d just had an off night, as I’ve eaten in Žen-Žen probably twenty times over the years, but this was the second time in a row there’d been a problem with the rice.

As I said earlier, I wish Žen-Žen success. And they have indeed been successful, expanding to a buffet-style eatery across the street from that Stink Plaque Bong place, on Küütri Street, the Old Town (right next to Moka and Volga!). I went there for dinner with a visiting friend, trying to give him a good Tartu meal. We ordered something from the menu, as the buffet is more for lunch and was relatively empty that evening. We waited, and waited, and waited. Eventually, the waitress—Kristiina, before she left—announced to us that the restaurant was out of rice. You’re a Chinese restaurant! How can you be out of rice?! They even had rice on the Battlestar Galactica, for frak’s sake! But this seems to be a common problem with Tartu venues. I went to Café Noir one time and was told they were out of coffee. The biggest grocery store was out of potatoes last week, the most eaten food in the country. Tartu businesses seem to have dastardly stocking practices.

Whatever, we subbed for noodles and still ate a great meal. I particularly like their potato and chicken thingy, not an egg roll but more of a hockey puck in shape, available only in the buffet, and not in the other, original restaurant.

I habitually eat their Kung Po chicken (“Gong pao” on the menu). It just happened to be overly salty last night. Last year in Seattle I ordered it, and it wasn’t nearly as good. But when I said the name, heavily influenced by the Estonian phonetic spelling of it that I was used to, the Chinese waitress asked if I spoke Chinese. When I said no, she seemed surprised, and told me I had pronounced it absolutely perfectly. Hmm…

Everything else I’ve tried there has been pretty good as well. Ginger chicken for example, and there’s also something on the menu, not sure exactly, that is truly delicious. I think it’s the “Stewed pork with house sauce” but I can’t remember. Warning: only order this if you can afford it cholesterolly. If an Estonian waitress has to warn you about the fat content of something, you can bet your arteries she’s not kidding.

Žen-Žen is one of the few restaurants whose food our kids will wolf up. And definitely one of the very few spicy foods they’ll eat. Just check the rice before you pay for it. And oh yeah, you can comfortably wash your hands in their jaans.

However much I like this place though, Mrs. Mingus—who likes it too—is not quite as crazy about it as I am, and furthermore thinks I’m crazy to liken it to West Coast Chinese food. Just a matter of taste, I guess.


Pene said...

Did you notice the lack of the colur green in the photo of your take-out containers? We've liked the food whenever we've ordered food from Z-Z. Haven't tried the new place yet.

Kadri said...

Zen Zen has a serious competitor in Kung Fu (next to Illegard), which also boasts a Chinese chef. Try their spicy eggplant and kung pao vegetables. As good as anything you can get in NYC or SF for half the price! White rice at 18 kroons was plentiful and surprisingly good. Too bad great, Chinese (vegetarian) food is just arriving in Estonia as I am considering leaving!

Ragne said...

Yeah, Kung Fu is pretty decent, i love their "3 Mushroom Soup". They do have a bit of a problem with understand the phrase "No onions, please", because already three times i've ordered and repeated many times about the onions, i still get a dish with onions. Yes, they do exchange the dished if needed etc, but it gets annoying, all that extra waiting etc. If there's a big group of people and everybody is hungry, you really can't send everything back just because one person doesn't like onions. And waitress is every time also surprised and says: "But i clearly said the chef to hold the onions" :). I guess there's some miscommunication.