Friday, May 22, 2009


What country is always in a hurry to eat? Russia. What country eats the scales, skeleton and everything else of a fish? Finland. These horrible nationalistic puns could continue, but I don’t want to scare away any of my readers. On with the review.

My Dutch friend who visited last weekend decided we both wanted to eat while out walking through Tartu’s Old Town. We were very Hungary, with a craving for Chile, but we didn’t want too much Greece, so we opted for Turkey. He asked if I’d ever had a Turkish pizza, and when I answered no, he insisted we grab a quick bite at Istanbul, on Rüütli Street. It was a good choice.

The downtown area was fairly crowded for a Sunday afternoon, and most of the tables on Town Hall Square reeked of Finnish breath. Yet Istanbul was empty. We were the only two customers. I got the distinct impression we were the first people to eat there all day. Hell, maybe even that week! And I think I know why.

Estonians seem to be largely afraid of Middle Eastern cultures. They love to go there on package tours because it’s warm and they’re suddenly rich, instead of counting their senti in Stockholm, but otherwise they want to stick to fatty pork and boiled potatoes. And if a couple of Estonians do happen to walk in to Istanbul, the interior décor might be a bit off-putting. It’s wall-to-wall pink. Estonians don’t want to feel like they’re eating in their bedrooms.

The other problem is the owner. According to our waitress—Kristiina—he is Turkish, but lived in Georgia for several years. That’s why I heard him conversing with some would-be customers in fluent Russian. But the problem is his skin color. He’s too dark for Tartu.

I remember about six years ago when La Dolce Vita opened up (a local pizzeria), the review given in the Postimees newspaper made a big deal about "dark-skinned" people cooking and serving food. They were talking about Italians. Another, recent article in the same paper made a big deal about "dark-skinned" doctors (from India it turned out) treating patients in the local hospital. I can only imagine the phobia of this guy at Istanbul. And he stands by the door, visible through the window from the street. From my point of view, if a restauranteur in Estonia is not pasty white, he probably knows what he’s doing in the kitchen. But an Estonian in Estonia judges not by his taste buds but by what is least offensive to what he considers normal.

There are also some Estonians who walk around the city claiming to want something “fresh” or “real,” whatever that might mean. They’re eager to try new things because it is cool to be seen trying new things. I didn’t see those people in Istanbul.

Anyhow, we both ordered Turkish pizzas. Basically kebab-style meat with sauce and veggies rolled up, it was only sixty-five kroons or so. Not entirely filling, but completely satisfying. I’d eat it again. But for just thirty kroons, I wanted to try one of their appetizers.

I don’t remember what it was called because I was so hungry I forgot to take a lot of photos (I ate most of my pizza before I remembered to take a photo), but it was essentially a tomato sauce with herbs and garlic and so on, served with bread. We asked Kristiina if it was big enough for two, and she said yes. In reality, while delicious, it was a plate of sauce with two tiny pieces of Turkish bread (I assume it was homemade and Turkish, because I’ve not seen it in local shops on sale—keep in mind I know nothing about Turkish cuisine). After we’d both been careful not to exceed the bread-to-sauce ratio, over half the sauce was left after the bread was gone.

We asked for more bread if possible, but Kristiina said she’d have to ask the owner, and I suddenly felt like the slovenly Yankee who wanted a free refill for his liter a cola.

Kristiina was suspiciously nice. She was also rather voluptuous. Not two minutes went by between her visits to the table. She would exude a broad, genuine smile—not the faked up American mask—and it was all I could do to not look down her shirt. And I didn’t—not a single time. But my Hollandish friend claimed to be able to see her thingies. See, she was tall, and had to bend way down and over the table to place our orders before us.

For all her extreme and authentic courtesy, it still took her almost ten minutes to open a bottle of water and pour it into a glass. The appetizer also arrived thirty seconds before the Turkish pizza. That’s somewhat of a problem here in Estonia. Whether you call it an appetizer, starter or hors d’œuvres, the idea is that you get it fast and before your main dish, so you can enjoy both separately. Estonians don’t seem to understand this concept. It’s more of a side dish here. I’ve even had appetizers delivered after having paid the bill. Why is that?

I also ate here on my birthday last year. I think it must have just opened, because a week before I hadn’t noticed it while walking by. It’s a very good restaurant. Certainly healthy. It goes far beyond grilled meat and red bell peppers sliced up and branded Armenian or Georgian. I think they had some good vodkas at the bar, too, but I can’t remember.

Just don’t expect something amazing like what you’d see on the Travel Channel. You can’t get those kinds of ingredients in Tartu anyhow. Maybe in Pärnu, Tallinn, Võru or Viljandi, but not Tartu. Tartu for some reason seems to be the furthest behind in Estonia in many ways. It’s surprising, I thought. “Usually the people who claim to be the most open-minded and progressive are in fact the least so, because they think they already are, and so stop trying,” Dutch told me when walking out. And that’s not surprising, I think.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Kissing Students

Most town hall squares in Europe have a statue or fountain dedicated to a military leader or the ensuing victory and peace achieved by said military leader. Tartu has a statue of two kids making out. It’s called Kissing Students, and a bar on the square decided to call itself the same thing. It’s actually a double bar. The one next to it used to be called Tax Office. It didn’t take too long for them to change the name. But they both share the same kitchen, and if you want to take your baby carriage to the other bar, you have to go through Kissing Students (Suudlevad Tudengid in Estonian) and use the hidden corridor beyond the bar.

Some friends had been telling me for months that this place served the best steak they’d ever had. Of course I went. There are two steaks on the menu. Choose the cheaper one, as apparently the costlier cut doesn’t cut it. The danger, however, is the attitude with which you enter, now that you’ve read the “best steak” claim. If you expect that, you’ll be disappointed. If you just walk in and haphazardly decide to order the steak—a risky endeavor in Tartu—you’ll be very pleasantly, um, pleased.

We entered Kissing Students with some weekend guests. Four adults and four children. After a bit of trouble organizing the seating arrangements, we decided to get some menus for ourselves. Ten minutes later, a waitress finally showed up—Kristiina—and started taking our orders. She was in a terrible rush to leave for some reason, so as we hadn’t quickly and systematically expressed our wishes in a manner befitting her logic, she offered to come back later when we’d decided. The thing is, we all ordered carbonated water and steak, all medium-rare and served with fries. We asked if they had anything for kids, as half the table was under the age of four, and she only just then thought it might be a good idea to supply us with kids’ menus, and only one of them at that. The kids were fighting over it.

A moment after ordering, we decided to change one of the tyke’s orders. Kristiina said it wasn’t possible because she’d already entered it in their computer. Apparently it was a Mac because it didn't have a Delete key. But we persuaded her to physically go to the kitchen a couple meters away and tell the cook to ignore the computer.

After we ordered, Kristiina for some reason forgot to take away the menus. Four menus, four drinks lists and a kids’ menu. They took up a lot of space, so I expressed my architectural candor by building a house out of them. Kristiina didn’t like that. She didn’t like us either I think. Especially after I cut out the kids’ menu along the lines, like I thought was the intention.

A funny thing was that we received a bread basket—also containing salt, pepper and so forth—and there were exactly eight tiny rolls.

A short twelve minutes later, two of us received our beef. Eight minutes later, the rest of the table got theirs. By this time, our waitress had decided to abandon us, sending another waitress our way, also named Kristiina. I found that a bit odd, but whatever. The woman at the bar was named Õpilane. That’s a pretty name.

The steak was a color that I’d never seen for beef. It was topped with onions and sea salt, with a dish of red wine sauce. Incredibly tender, simply delicious. Well worth the money, and it was pretty big too. Not the “best steak” but the best in Estonia so far (I’ve heard good stuff about the Romanian chef at Illegaard, a bar I want to eat at soon). The only problem was that like most beef in Estonia, it was cut incorrectly.

That’s the thing about Estonian beef. They have their own chart for beef cuts. So does the US and so does the UK. The Estonians call this cut an external filet. In the US or UK this part would be any one of a number of cuts, all prized specialties. An external filet could be anything from a T-bone steak to a porterhouse.

Who’s right? Well, I personally am not at all familiar with the British system, but the US and UK have a strong culture of beef consumption, and Estonia does not. A large number of Estonians in fact think that a good hamburger is made of ground poultry or pork. The first time I made a hamburger here, the Estonians watching were shocked that I didn’t pack bread and garlic into the patty. Now, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about, because most Americans don’t know the first thing about couscous, which is very common in large swathes of the planet, but then again you don’t see Americans telling Algerians how to prepare it. And at least Algerians cut their meat in the right direction with regard to the texture of the muscle.

Pickled mushrooms were served as a side. A lot of pickled mushrooms. The first one was good, but not the second or third. They tasted like they’d come out of a can, not fresh as one would expect with steak of this quality.

One of the children ordered what I believe was referred to as a meat pie on the menu. It had more in common with quiche, but it was pretty good, and filling. No one walked away hungry.

The jaans are easy to find, one on each floor, and have a healthy mixture of uncleanliness and fashion. You won’t want to sit on the seat, but you’ll look cool squatting over it!

I’ve been here at night before a couple times as well. Once I waited twenty minutes for the guy in front of me to get his drink, standing at the bar to order. He just wanted a coffee. The only reason I didn’t leave was because my friends were already there.

Another time, Father Mingus was in Estonia for a visit, and we were having drinks with another American. He had filled out an application for the client card, which does offer good discounts, and when I asked if I could use the pen to write something down, he said the waitress had given it to him, so sure. So Father Mingus and I decided to play a joke when he wasn’t looking. We modified it to where it would fire a small projectile (essentially reversing the spring and one other inner mechanism). But then we couldn’t put it back together. At that moment, the waitress returned to ask for her pen back, the several disassembled pieces of which our poor friend was holding in his hand. We left a moment later after paying. We didn’t tell him we’d also added a questionable image on the back of his application. I don’t know if they granted him a card or not.

Let’s keep in mind that this is a bar though, not a restaurant. In that sense, this meal was great. But food served depends on various things. Quality ingredients, recipes and the chef. You can’t have the same chef at work all the time. I think this time we had the good chef. The other chef supposedly isn’t very good, and neither is his steak. As I said, dining in Tartu is a risky endeavor.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is interpreted and understood by many to mean that if you travel in Earth orbit at light speed for a year, down on the planet four years will have passed. I guess you won’t be looking up your ex when you get back. Yet regardless of the popular mythology surrounding Albert’s field equations, it does seem to find supporting evidence in an unexpected place—Võru. This small town in Southern Estonia relies on leftovers from Tartu, which in turn feeds on the leftovers of Tallinn, scraping up the scraps from Helsinki.

You could make another physics analogy. Inside the universe, galaxy clusters resemble galaxies themselves in structure. And star systems have a similar build. Central core, orbiting bodies on a plane. The planets are the same—moons in motion. And atoms of course with their nuclei and electrons. And this is relative to Võru and restaurant reviews how? I shall now present my proof for the Theory of Ketchup.

Mrs. Mingus and I take the kids fairly often to our summer cabin near Võru. Every once in a while we just can’t take another bite of anything prepared on a grill, so we retreat to the “city” (as the locals call it) in search of sustenance. The “city” as a whole is deserving of a review, but nothing individual in it. Remember, this is the home of the Kubija Restaurant, whose menu at one time offered “fresh fish froth” (värske kalavaht) on their menu.

We begin our culinary equation at Õlle 17 (Beer 17), on Jüri Street—Võru’s main drag. It used to be the most Western-style bar in Estonia in terms of décor, but they made the mistake of doubling its size and using office furniture and floors. Stick to the left when you go in, and you’ll be fine. But whatever you do, don’t eat there.

A couple years ago I ordered a burger and onion rings. You know, onion rings—deep fried, can’t go wrong. They asked me if I wanted them on my burger. Thirty kroons a serving for the onion rings, and do I want them on my burger? No, on the side was fine. My burger, nothing more than edible, was served with sautéed (fried apparently in the Võro dialect) onion rings on the plate. Not battered and deep-fried. I guess they had only read about them, never actually tried them.

So this time I asked if the onion rings were proper. And they were. They were very good in fact, but at fifty kroons for a plate of eight, it’s not worth it. I asked if the pizza advertised on the wall was made in-house. “Yes, of course,” answered the waitress—Kristiina—with an air of superiority. In reality it was on a premade and heated crust, served with bologna and ketchup. Come on, ketchup? I thought those days were over in the former Soviet Union. There’s been a lot of debate lately about whether Estonia is Eastern European or not. It most definitely is. If you serve ketchup on pasta or pizza, you’re not Western. Sorry.

Neither of us could finish the second bite of our food. When the kids woke up in the car and came inside to eat, our older one asked, “What’s that?” while pointing at the plates. She knows what food is, too. She still had to ask. And their main courses are well over a hundred kroons. Way, way more expensive than Tartu.

So the next outing in Võru was at a small mall called Kagu Keskus, home of Southern Estonia’s only escalator. I’ve written about two eateries here in City of Good Thoughts—both of which have closed. The burrito place, pretty good in my opinion, went out of business. It’s been replaced with a kiosk that serves the traditional Estonian fare—meat burgers, sour cream and ketchup. The place was packed when we went! For reasons unknown it’s called CityCoffee.

It’s dirt cheap, but then so are the ingredients. There’s no actual cooking there, apart from the microwave and deep-fryer. The kids got a slab of meat and fries. They wouldn’t eat it. I asked the proprietor—Kristel—what kind of meat it was. She didn’t know. “We just heat it up.”

Restaurants are a very good indicator of what the local people are like. Tartu serves wannabe gourmet food and people wear scarves when they eat it. Võru serves ketchup and people lap it up. Võru doesn’t appear to be that different from the rest of Estonia.

Last year we tried a place called Spring Cafe. Not Café but Cafe. Like the owner was wearing wet underwear and began to cafe. On the shores of Lake Tamula, it’s a nice place, no doubt. The interior downstairs is a bit stiff, and the second floor is a bit stifling, but the terrace is what it should be—breezy, lake smell, lake view and all that. When we went last year, we found it by accident. All the roads in Võru were closed for repairs, except Petseri Street—loaded with pitfalls and potholes. But we left when, after ordering and waiting half an hour for food, I had to ask when the food was coming. Krista, the only freckled Estonian I’ve ever seen—our waitress—answered, “Oh, forty-five minutes more? Not too long.” The place was empty.

We gave it another try this week. I ordered a Caesar salad. It was pretty good to be honest, although it was covered in powdered, processed cheese or something or other. Mrs. Mingus ordered the risotto and liked it. The kids however wouldn’t eat their pasta. I tasted it and I think the chicken had gone bad. That, and the pool of butter filling up half the bowl. They liked my salad though, so I went hungry. Again.

It’s a well-known secret, this place. Sitting on the terrace next to us was Tartu’s only black man, Tanoka Beard, an American basketballer currently playing for Tartu Rock.

The prices here are a bit high but nothing too scary. They don’t compare to a “workers’ diner” just outside of the downtown area though. Kohvik Võrusoo (Võrusoo Café) on Kreutzwaldi Street, just before the railroad crossing, consistently offers Soviet-style dining—which ain’t that bad—in an unlit room that resembles an elementary school cafeteria. You can get the biggest plate they offer for just forty kroons. The Cokes are room temperature though. Better hurry to this place, it closes at four, and is only open on weekdays. After driving across the greater metropolitan area of Võru (population fifteen thousand), the roads, which were supposedly resurfaced last summer—but you’d never know—did unseen damage to our older girl. We walked in, hungry for a quick, cheap lunch, and our daughter walked up to the counter and vomited.

No problem! The woman at the counter—Kristin—handed me a wad of napkins so it would be easier for me to clean up the mess. Thing is, this is a truly Soviet-era place. They still cut the napkins here! What does that mean, you might ask? To save money, napkins were cut into smaller pieces so they would last longer, less expense. But the Võrusoo Café goes to extremes. Instead of the normally cut napkin, consisting of one ply of paper, they cut their napkins into individual plies and then cut those into quarters. At one point, the floor looked like a mucous mosaic.

We do come to this place regularly though. I feel like I’m at camp again, only the food is better, you can’t see the old cafeteria ladies with the hairnets, and there was no beer served at my school.

There are other places to eat at in Võru. Ränduri, again on Jüri Street, is pretty good too, but again way overpriced. The coffee is good. Served in a stone cup and prepared by a guy with whom I wouldn’t want to be alone in a dark room, it’s usually full of Finns in the summer, drinking vodka all day as soon as it opens. It’s nothing special, but it’s not bad enough to write about.

So the Theory of Ketchup is postulated as follows: if you travel at the Speed of Estonia for one hour in any direction, from one city to another, you go back in time to…when? You can never be certain. No one at any point in history has ever served ketchup on bread and called it pizza. But you will return with less mass than when you left.