Monday, September 28, 2009

Ungari Köök

At eleven o’clock on a Monday morning, in a Selver grocery store parking lot a couple kilometers from downtown Tartu on Sõbra Street, a metal security door raises and reveals a cozy enclave that specializes in two things: soups, and lángos. A lán—what? The closest thing to a lángos in the States is an elephant ear at the state fair: a deep-fried nightmare for your arteries. But this thing, this thing is a masterful concoction of deep-fried goodness and healthy toppings to counteract the trans fats of fried Hungarian flat bread. The eggplant and beef with mushrooms are my favorites.

video

There are other, slightly simpler toppings as well, that are sure to surprise you. The owner and chef can do wonders with a basic spread of sour cream and Estonia’s ill-named Athlete’s Cheese. Actually he uses an imported German cheese now. He says it’s cheaper, better and easier to grate. Rumor has it that for all of Estonia’s cheeses and cheese “producers,” they’re all made in the same cheese machine. I’ve heard the same about potato chips in the States.

When Ungari Köök opened a couple years ago, only this lángos was offered. A Hungarian specialty. The Hungarian owner is happy to chat about it with you in Estonian or English. People kept asking him why he didn’t sell meat burgers and fries, not masking their disappointment upon learning that they would either have to try something new—heaven forbid!—or rudely walk out. It turns out the customers did in fact like it, so he quickly expanded to soups. I remember the beginning of that change—one soup, sold out within minutes. Now there are three soup containers or boilers or vats or whatever they’re called (the thing in the photo) every day, with the daily special printed on the front door. There are customers who eat there every day, all year. He also makes his own bread quite often.

I went in five minutes before opening today so I could ask questions about his story, but within four minutes of the metal door going up, there was already a line of three people. Between customers he was able to give me a sentence or two, so I think I’ve been able to piece together the story of the Hungarian Kitchen. It makes me a little angry.

See, there are only two things I don’t like about Ungari Köök. One is the location, and the other is the selection of food. It’s not enough! This is good cuisine, and the guy has proven his culinary abilities. I want more.

As a newcomer to Estonia, there are few options available for work (I’m not talking about students). Something involving language teaching, and food. That’s usually it. The owner of Ungari Köök for example has a degree in art history. What’s he doing making soup? He was able to rent a few parking spots at the grocery store, build a small structure that is up to code for the health inspectors, and sell the food that he knows best—his national cuisine. He loves doing this, as he says, “I don’t want to get rich, I just want to be happy and make good food. That’s why I don’t raise prices.”

The soups are sold out by two at the latest, every day. It’s that good, it’s that popular. And what’s funny is that people can tell the difference between the soups he makes and those of his staff. He wants to expand now, but is having serious troubles. Expansion involves a larger kitchen obviously, which in turn requires a new location—downtown. That’s fantastic for people who aren’t able to drive to the current place. It also opens up the tourist market. Let’s face it—tourists in Tartu all eat foreign cuisine. There’s only one real “Estonian” restaurant (aptly called “Estonian Restaurant”) and the rest is Italian, Georgian, Turkish and Chinese. I’m just talking about the authentic stuff. Everything else is themed.

The Hungarian doesn’t want a traditional “restaurant” though. From what I understand, he wants to be sort of a cross between a restauranteur and a street vendor. There just isn’t that much of a selection downtown that would meet those criteria. He’s considered building again. The City Government is more or less doing anything they can to prevent it. One location, on the “wrong” side of the river and by the Narva Street dorms, doesn’t have anything there. It’s a park in fact, that in its current form exists mainly to frighten lone women walking by at night. “We don’t want anything built there,” says one city official. An official who works for a city that is hell-bent on telling everyone how much it was wronged in the past century, but that would never do anything to fix the situation. Looking at old photos of that same park, you can see tons of buildings, cafés and restaurants. A center of life in Tartu. And this is just one of the hurdles and tripping stones the Tartu City Government lines its streets with.

The owner of Alvi Kebob has a similar story. He wanted to buy an old putka (not the Bulgarian vulgarian meaning, but a food kiosk) to open up a kebob place. Before paying, he talked to the city government, who promptly gave a resounding “No!” because they “don’t want a putka culture in Viljandi.” Well then, what kind of culture do they want?

Viljandi is the self-described cultural capital of Estonia. That would mean they just want Estonian culture then, right? The only food I’ve ever been able to find in Viljandi is from Soviet söökla culture. Shredded cabbage and carrot salads, fried pork in thick, white flour sauce that they call Béchamel, and two-kroon condiments. That means you have to pay more if you want ketchup on your fries or sugar in your coffee. Modern culture, around the world, is a healthy blend of different national cuisines. I think what’s really needed is for people to look toward the future, not try to recreate a past that no one can agree on in the first place.

Or maybe this argument would work: Tallinn has a putka culture, and right across the street from the Old Town, at Balti Jaam (Baltic Train Station). Why not you? There was interest in Tartu putkas banding together to build a putka house—a single structure, like a mall food court, in one of the empty downtown parks. Then some ridiculous rules appeared, something like, “only if you paint it pink.” Basically it just wasn’t going to be allowed. Despite Estonia being a free market economy on paper, there are still strong elements of a planned economy.

The way I see it, if you’re shy then there’s no better way to say you don’t want foreigners than to hide behind the guise of health and cultural protection. So many people have tried to open restaurants (foreigners and Estonians alike, I’ll admit). There are so many restrictions and requirements from the Health Inspectorate that it’s often impossible. And let’s be honest—the Health Inspectorate serves the same function as the Consumer Protection Board. It’s consumer protection. Only consumer protection doesn’t exist in Estonia. Look at the laws: if it’s broken or defective, you can’t get your money back. The shop just has to repair or replace it. I know from several, several first-hand experiences that even that isn’t enforced. The city governments just don’t want to move forward, and they’re counting on their constituents—who just might in fact want to move forward—to demand not a thing. A city’s cuisine is a direct reflection of the city itself.

I’d like to see a list of grandfather clauses in force for Tartu’s restaurants. There are some real holes that would not be allowed to open today. Like how old Moskvitches are still allowed to drive, despite today’s stricter emissions laws. I think there are no grandfather clauses in the food industry. Just some pasty white guy behind a brand-new flat-screen computer monitor trying to make everyone else suffer for his lack of vision.

Here’s the cheesy part of this review: I consider myself a Tartu patriot (I could never live in Tallinn, for example), and what I want is for a tolerant, multicultural Tartu. Multicultural only in that if you want some variety from time to time, you can get it. I just want a choice—I don’t want to force people to live among people they are too scared of. So I choose to eat goulash and lángos and kebobs and sushi and I probably single-handedly support the import of Mexican food products in Tartu’s grocery stores (meaning just Santa Maria tortillas and chilies). And I think I’m not alone. I’m sure delicious food isn’t the only reason all these people are starting to eat at Ungari Köök.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Black Pepper Grill

Having joined the ranks of people with back problems, the day came when it was time to replace our old mattress that we got in January with an expensive plank of wood. Off to Tartu Mööblimaja, or Tartu Furniture House, on Sõbra Street. Actually you turn off Sõbra and go down the road a bit...apparently the new road doesn't have a name of its own yet. In an old Soviet-era warehouse or factory building—can’t tell which—that was fixed up last year, there are several home decorating shops that more or less sell the same things with astonishing price differences due to how close they are to the door. (Two blocks away is another home decorating “mall” called E-Kaubamaja, or E-Department Store, again selling the same stuff.)

In the first shop you can enter, there is a chair that is also for sale in the last shop, at the very back of the building. The price difference is over a thousand kroons. The second shop you see is home to a small table I photographed for City of Good Thoughts that cost almost three thousand kroons (the exact same table was on sale in Ikea for somewhere around five percent of the Tartu price). That shop is now roped off, closed to business, although all the goods are still on display, complete with an old man who was playing solitaire on the store’s computer.

Mrs. Mingus was better at navigating the rows upon rows of seemingly identical mattresses, so I perused the selection in Expert, the home electronics store. It seems kind of small to be honest, and I remember comparing all such stores to the maxi mega monster Circuit City’s and Best Buys of the States, but last year when I paid more attention, the selection—while a bit better—wasn’t that much better. Prices of course were fractions of what they are here, and the goods were slightly more modern (as in six months, not more), but the main difference between Tartu Mööblimaja and the equivalent in the States is the choice of food. Usually, on the Western edge of the Atlantic, there is a Subway and maybe a teriyaki grill (I’m not talking about malls with food courts). Here, there’s usually nothing. And if there is, it’s a söökla, or cafeteria, primarily for the employees. At the furniture place, there’s the Black Pepper Grill, or grill „Black Pepper“, as the sign implies (or even Pepper Grill, as the website implies).

The name conjures up images of an American-style family restaurant with a kids’ menu, a selection of honey-glazed baby back ribs and a Wurlitzer in the corner. While it’s not quite that, the name—and cafeteria itself—are a step above your typical joint called Tiina or Linda, which simply advertise that they serve “hot food” and offer a broad selection of potatoes smothered in potato seasoning.

One thing that really irks me about these cafeterias is that they weigh everything, and that takes time. You generally pay by hundred-gram increments, so if you have salad, sides and soup, the cashier takes an identical plate, weighs it, takes the plate off the scale, takes your plate with the same hands that handle cash and places it on the scale, subtracts the weight of the empty plate, enters it in the computer, then hands the plate back to you instead of putting it back on your tray. They never seem to remember how much their dishes weigh. The process is repeated for the sides and soup. I’ve even been to places that have a fixed weight for the food—you tell the cafeteria worker what you want, they serve it for you, weigh an empty plate, weigh your plate, skim off a couple grains of rice, weigh it again, skim off another grain of rice, weigh it again, and then serve it to you.

Not the Black Pepper Grill. You pay by the plate, and you can put as much or as little as you want, all for the same price. They even advertise it, too, because they know this is unusual for Tartu. You can’t do this with the meat of course, but still. I was in and out of that line in record time. And there was not a single Santa Maria label to be seen anywhere—my potatoes had real rosemary, and they took extra time to garnish them with—can you guess? The potatoes weren’t peeled, either.

The dished named after the restaurant—the Black Pepper skewer—was not a spicy hot chunk of beef that only the strong of tongue, the man of the family, can handle. It was just a regular pork shish kebob, slightly blackened. It was decent, as was the price—but at Kalevi Köök (Kalev’s Kitchen, a pretty good hole in the wall that I will try to review soon) you get almost three times as much meat for just a little more money. The only food I didn’t care for much was the over-steamed frozen veggies. Mrs. Mingus took the “over-baked” pork with cheese. It tasted just like the Caribica pizza at Taverna, on Town Hall Square (that’s a good thing).

When I reached for the skewer, I had no idea that the heating lamp was so low. In fact I just assumed that the food was kept warm from underneath, given that the plates were also pre-warmed—a one-of-a-kind service in a Tartu cafeteria. I burned my forearm a bit, and the cashier—probably named Kristiina, I don’t know—just continued to stare at me as if nothing had happened. She didn’t even raise an eyebrow, much less ask if I was fine. She wasn’t heartless though, because immediately when we sat down, she joined her young son at another table and helped him color a picture.

Our kids were with us as well, and our almost-two-year-old of course made a mess of her face. We decided it was easier to clean her up at home rather than walk the couple hundred meters to the jaans, at the far back corner of the shopping center. But on the way out, I noticed something odd: the parking lot was almost completely empty, but the street curbs were packed with cars. It probably seemed easier to parallel park in an unmarked area than use a real parking lot and walk an extra twenty seconds. The parking lot is unregulated. It’s free and no one will care if you leave your car there overnight.

In general I like the whole area. Old, broken asphalt and dirt roads, asbestos-lined sheet metal sheds and grassy fields littered with refuse and trodden paths for homeless people to access the river for food—this is what it was. Now there’s a grocery store, a delicious Hungarian place, a normal parking lot or two (one is even multi-level), a shiny, black glass building that doesn’t look absolutely ridiculous like the apartment blocks across the street (it’s pretty nice actually), and a lot more room left around it for development, especially out towards the river. The only thing on these banks of the Emajõgi River is a failed realty project, something that slightly resembles a Rubik’s Cube. The project originally included five identical buildings. One was finished, with just a few flats sold. I wonder how the rest of the area will be developed when the economy recovers.

And while the Black Pepper Grill is, as I said, a step up from Tiina or Linda, it’s just not quite enough to induce me to revisit this part of the city. Maybe I’ll go back if I need a new mattress for my back? Maybe I can find something else in the grocery store parking lot?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Volga

A long time ago, in the decades between the Wars, a small cabin was built deep in the woods of Võru County, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Latvian border. It was built of logs, it was built by hand, it was built to last. At the beginning of the Soviet occupation, a man named Aksel Kikas wrote his name and the current date in pencil on an interior wall. He died less than two weeks later, a victim of Soviet persecutions. I suspect he was an Estonian partisan—a “Forest Brother.”

Throughout the following decades, the cabin—originally a farm, complete with a barn, feed barn and sauna—was later used as a ranger station until the Soviet Union fell apart, when it was acquired by a local who wanted to sell it for profit.

Then it was abandoned. For ten years it was left to rot, exposed to the elements. Anything with metal was harvested by locals to be melted down for cash. The front door was stolen. The barn and sauna collapsed. Yet the cabin itself remained, determined to survive. That’s when we found it. We hired a guy from Setu country to do some work on the buildings. He said he could do it and spoke very convincingly. He built us a new floor, repaired the feed barn and built a new sauna.

The little cabin in the woods survived nearly nine decades of occupation, war, Soviet occupation, neglect and weather, but it did not survive Ahto Raudoja. After failing to allow proper ventilation under the new floor, and then using sand as a filler and untreated logs, it started to rot. The rot ate up the floor from underneath, and spread to the foundational logs. We discovered it just before it was too late. All we wanted to do was get a new façade. Instead we had to practically build a new house. Correcting this man’s mistake cost us our summer, a very large sum of money, a few years of our lives in terms of stress, and a great many new restaurant reviews.



Summer’s over, and Mingus is back to tell you how Tartu’s restaurants treat their customers.

***

Mrs. Mingus and I have been married for nine years. On our anniversary, in late July, we found a couple hours to hit the town. Basically we just had dinner in Volga, Tartu’s most expensive restaurant. It’s not that expensive really if you’re on a Western budget. We’re on an Eastern budget, but nine years is something to celebrate, especially in this day and age, so I did not flinch at the bill. About a hundred euros for apéritifs, hors d’œuvres, wine, steaks, desserts and digestifs.

Volga is part of the Ateena theater (or is it Athena? I think it’s both), built around the sixteenth century. It most recently housed a movie theater and a Soviet-era restaurant also called Volga. In the nineties it went out of business and, like our cabin, was left to rot. Just across the street from the main building of Tartu University, it occupies a choice cut of real estate. Through the land privatization debacle of the last decade, it came to rest in the hands of a disinterested Aussie, I believe, who was neither interested in fixing it up nor selling it for huge profits. For a long time it stuck out as a sore thumb in Tartu’s tiny Old Town, emitting fungal odors to the street from its broken windows. Eventually it was somehow wrested from its owner and beautifully restored in its nineteenth century fashion.

And now there’s the new Volga, where Estonians dress up to the nines to be seen eating steak and T-shirt-wearing tourists drop in for a cheap meal.

The interior is stunningly gorgeous, if not perhaps a bit too overdone. Snooty, but comfortably so. Costs were not spared. Except for the fire alarm next to our table, which was crooked by about ten degrees, and for such a large place we only found one cramped jaan for each gender, with no toilet paper or soap and the light bulbs were burned out. The smoking room even had sofas and lounge chairs, not to mention the DJ’s headquarters—unguarded. I’m sure the tourists would get a kick out of it if I snuck in and spun a few Phil Collins tunes, to fit in with the other eateries in Tartu. But I was satisfied listening to Glenn Miller, non-stop, for the entire evening.



There was even a hostess to seat us. The two times I can recall having a hostess in Estonia were very positive. Unlike in the US, the hostess will let you choose your table. But why is it that when a woman wears a nametag, it’s always at the tip of her chest—exactly where you’re not supposed to stare—and it’s usually covered up by a vest or something else? Her name started with a K, and it’s only important to me because I wanted to be courteous and thank her by name. Usually, if visible, I simply say, “Thank you, Õpilane,” which as I’ve mentioned before seems to be a very popular name for Estonian wait staff (though not as common as some others), and while making eye contact—eye contact signifies that you’re a foreigner.

Modern, politically correct English dictates the title “server” for people who serve you in a restaurant, but I still prefer to call Tartu servers “waiters” because, well, they make you wait. We became intimate with the intricacies of the woodwork. And it is well done! Like my tuna steak, which I ordered rare (it was rare in fact, but the outside was seared a bit too much for what I’ve always had as “rare”). Our waiter—Kristjan—was very polite indeed, but he seemed a tad flustered. He was left alone to wait on three tables. When I was his age—around twenty I believe—I waited tables for a summer in the States. A typical evening for me would have a turnover of eight tables an hour per server/waiter, and American diners are very demanding. Not in a bad way, but they know what to expect and tip accordingly. It’s the opposite in Estonia.

Eventually we got our drinks, and Kristjan failed to leave my water in the bottle as I had specifically requested. I wanted to pour the water to dilute my liquor a bit, as is my custom on anniversaries (I just love Ricard’s pastis de Marseille), and I made a bit of a mess pouring it from one glass to another. Not to worry though—the wet spots were camouflaged with drops of red wine. Kristjan hadn’t learned to twist the bottle after pouring.

Now, I don’t give a dadgummit about the finer points of a waiter’s finesse. But this is Volga after all, and I thought I should just mention it.

The salad was fantastic. My tuna was fantastic, and Mrs. Mingus thoroughly enjoyed her chateaubriand—and while the menu claimed it was Estonian-grown beef, not even the chef knew precisely where it had come from (we asked out of curiosity). We also enjoyed the two helpings of rolls we were offered. The portions were very small, considering we’d been doing hard, physical labor all summer and worked up quite an appetite waiting at the table. As we finished our meal, a slightly sweaty Kristjan ran back to our table and poured some more wine on the tablecloth for us.

I liked the guy, and felt bad that he wasn’t having more fun while we celebrated the last anniversary before I have to cough up some sort of rock to put on a ring for Mrs. Mingus. I ten-percented him, but for some reason I couldn’t write the tip into the bill, like you can at every other place in Tartu. I certainly wasn’t going to stiff him after his trials, so I had to abandon the wife and run to a cash machine, two blocks away. No one carries cash in Estonia these days.

We will definitely go back to Volga in the future, though most likely only to show guests from abroad that not everywhere uses potato seasoning in its food. Overall, I liked it. A dangerous new trend in Estonian cuisine, however, is that chefs are beginning to think that less is better, while forgetting that that “less” had better be mouth-wateringly delicious to make up for quantity. A parallel could be drawn to fighting the country’s recent weight gain, which is odd considering that ketchup has suffered greatly from inflation, but I think it has more to do with la présentation.



*This last image is from Volga’s own website. I like how the bill is visible, next to the dessert. Just to remind you.