Sunday, November 29, 2009

McDonald's

Trying to enjoy the company of your family and traditional food at least once a year is a common practice throughout the world. How, why and when this is done are specific to where you are. Most of these family reunion feasts are religious in nature, like Christmas dinner in Estonia—a country full of atheists. In America—a country full of believers—Thanksgiving is a secular and federal holiday.

History offers somewhat foggy versions of how Thanksgiving began in the States. Most agree that the Pilgrims held a big banquet with Native Americans to thank them for teaching them to grow corn and catch eel. Basically, for teaching them how to survive in the New World—a decision I’m sure many of the guests sitting on the ground and not at the table later came to regret. The painting here depicts the first Thanksgiving, revealing an unsettling pattern some of you may recognize. Oddly enough, this work of art is less than a century old.

President Lincoln reestablished the dead tradition of Thanksgiving during the Civil War, but it wasn’t until the Great Depression that it became a federal holiday. This is another pattern—war, economic turmoil and martyrdom seem to be the common denominators under modern holidays. As the decade Time magazine refers to as the “Decade from Hell” draws to a close, can we expect a new federal holiday to appear? National We’re Still a Country Day? And as everything has to be bigger and better than before, will home appliance manufacturers experience a boom in sales of maxi-sized ovens so people can cook whole stuffed ostriches?

Well at least eel is no longer the main dish. Turkey is. A food that most Americans openly admit to disliking. That’s probably why not nearly as many people as you’d think still serve the same recipes they did in the twentieth century. A stuffed turkey is often replaced with turkey curry, and mashed potatoes make way for something Tex-Mex. This is based on what hundreds of American friends on the Internet have said they ate this year.

As a foreigner in Estonia, I follow the Thanksgiving tradition to the letter. Our family places great importance on practicing both of our cultures. Some traditions may be odd and old-fashioned, but our children can make up their own minds about which ones to keep when the day comes.

So how is it to prepare a full Thanksgiving meal in Estonia? I don’t know, because I have nothing to compare it to. I didn’t start cooking turkey, pumpkin pie, stuffing and those other tasty delights until I came here. But it tastes authentic, so I must be doing it right. Finding a turkey though is somewhat of a challenge. The largest bird on sale in Tartu is just under eight pounds (three and a half kilos). In North America they average twenty-plus pounds (ten kilos). Another pattern.

Incidentally, turkeys are considered really dumb birds. It’s said they will look up during the rain until they drown, and are really clumsy. There is some truth to this, but it’s most likely just because the birds weren’t supposed to be this monstrously huge when Mother Nature first laid a turkey egg. Or did She make a turkey first?

Of course my highly protected Thanksgiving practices have incorporated some new traditions from Estonia. My mother-in-law brought a bottle of vodka this year, and we did a couple shots while eating and drinking wine. But my favorite newbie is that you cannot buy canned pumpkin purée in Estonia. You have to make it from scratch. And also celebrating Halloween—perhaps even making a bigger deal out of it than is done in the States—means we need a lot of pumpkins. Every year now we go as a family to a local pumpkin farm and buy more than ten of these orange squash. I’m sure I could find a live Gigantor turkey in Estonia too, but I wouldn’t want to make too much of a mess in the bathtub while defeathering it.

Back to talking about practicing both cultures. I instantly fell in love with Christmas dinner in Estonia. It’s important in America as well, and many families do eat turkey again, but there are no real rules about what to eat. Here you eat a pork roast stuffed with garlic, a side of sauerkraut, and my favorite—blood sausage.

The name is not entirely inaccurate, either, but variations in other countries go by different names. Black pudding and blood pudding (even worse name!) are a couple examples. Eaten with something similar to cranberry sauce, bacon and sometimes even sour cream, it’s simply an amazing dish. Luckily nowadays blood sausage is sold everywhere, and all you have to do is shove it in the oven, thus preventing me from cleaning up another red mess.

There’s another food on the table in Estonia, too. Head cheese. Not to be confused with Christmas Brie, it is not a cheese. You take all the meat from a pig that you normally wouldn’t eat—including head meat—and congeal it to form pork Jell-O. Eaten with vinegar and horseradish. Most foreigners won’t touch it, even though it’s delicious. It’s just a bit too foreign I guess. I personally don’t like it, either, but only due to the texture. Meat and jelly together aren’t my idea of a happy taste experience, as Estonian restaurants wish on their customers.

The only thing I can’t get too excited about with the Estonian holiday is the traditional Christmas mandarin. Yes, mandarins are found on almost every table on December twenty-fourth. Why is that, you might ask? Did they really grow citrus fruit in Estonia hundreds of years ago? No. It’s a Soviet thing. Flush all the old Soviet stuff away, including your Zhiguli cars (based in a city called Tolyatti), but let’s keep the mandarins. But that’s how traditions are started, right? Some weird thing happens, everyone forgets about why, but they keep doing it. That’s why people bring trees into their living rooms every year and a hulk of a rabbit hides a basket full of candy and grass in your house. And a winged midget steals your teeth.

What else is on the Estonian Christmas table? Oh yeah, vodka. I do cherish each Christmas meal with the Mingus-in-laws, and we always, always have a great time. Because of the vodka. At the beginning of this post, I mentioned “trying to enjoy the company of your family”. Millions of Americans fly from coast to coast to see people who stress them out. “I’m thankful Thanksgiving is over”, is a common sentence you’ll hear at the office on Monday morning. Guys, do a few shots of vodka at the dinner table! Before you go to bed, you’ll have business plans with your father-in-law. And your mother-in-law will admit that she actually does like the fact that you’re sleeping with her child.

And the now-traditional Christmas Day Hangover is begun with being frenetically shaken awake by possessed children who want to open their Red Ryder BB guns. All I can think of is getting to the coffee pot, but I’m forced to explain why Santa visits us twice on the same night. Like I said, we practice both cultures. Santa stops by after dinner and passes out presents, and then he breaks into your apartment after you go to bed. Presents from the American family, shipped overseas, are opened in the morning. Last year I told my daughter that Kris Kringle forgot his sunglasses, and that’s why he came back (Mrs. Mingus’s dad dresses up as St. Nick every year, but has to don some shades so he’s not recognized).

Now what in Tarnation, as my mother says, does this have to do with McDonald’s in Tartu? I will tell you.

I studied in France for a year in university. Some Americans got together, rented a room in a restaurant, and gave the chef Thanksgiving recipes and canned pumpkin purée for the pie. The chef decided that the idea of a pumpkin pie was unzeenkable, and instead served a zoroughly disgusting pumpkin-and-stinky-cheese casserole. The turkey hadn’t lost its head, either. And a month later an American friend and I ate Christmas dinner at McDonald’s, just to be able to say we’d done it.

But this blog is about restaurant reviews. McDonald’s in Tartu is much better than in America. And I swear to you they will have at least three Kristiinas on the clock at any given time.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tbilisi

A week ago last Sunday was Father’s Day in Scandinavia. It has different dates around the world, but Estonia celebrates it with Scandinavia. Because Estonia is in Scandinavia. Estonia is also one of the Baltic States. By that logic, so are Germany, Poland, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and—technically—Russia. But Latvia and Lithuania, which are no more a part of Scandinavia than Estonia, didn’t celebrate Father’s Day last Sunday. Neither did Denmark, which is odd, seeing as Denmark is actually part of Scandinavia. Even stranger is that the countries themselves decide when to celebrate it.

Regardless, the Mingus family had two and a half members of the Father’s Day Club this year: I am one, Vanaisa (grandfather) Mingus is the other, and Mr. Mingus-in-Law (if you drop the “in-law” part) is the half, as Ms. Mingus-in-Law is expecting. Marriage is waning in popularity in the Baltics. At least in Estonia. The pattern is frequently that a couple, if they decide to get married at all (there is more of a decision made than a proposal), do so when they’re expecting. In the States we call this a “shotgun wedding,” but not because we like guns so insanely, although I’m sure one of the McCoys was rushed to the alter with a muzzle in his back because of certain indiscretions with one of them Hatfield girls. You could hardly describe the Estonian pattern this way, however, because these marriages are usually consummated when they’re expecting their second child. The first one was a trial run, to see if the relationship would work. Perhaps these could be dubbed “miks mitte” marriages (“why not”)?

But I digress.

We went bowling at a mall called Eeden (Eden). It was a lot of fun, teaching my older girl to bowl. The lanes were equipped with rails, so she didn’t get a gutter every time. The funniest thing I noticed was a list of high scores on the wall.

There were at least eight people who had bowled perfect games, with one guy having even bowled more than ten three-hundreds. That’s a big change from when this place opened the better part of a decade ago. Whenever I went bowling back then (maybe once a year), I was always the winner, simply because I had gone bowling before. I’m not good at it. This time I scored lower than almost every other person there, and the lanes were all occupied. No one was smiling though, and not even the teenagers appeared to be having fun. But unlike joggers and cyclists in Estonia, no one was wearing the official uniform. We were still the only ones drinking beer. And the only employee who was smiling, for reasons I don’t wish to fathom, was the shoe guy.

After bowling we had quite an appetite, so we decided to eat some Georgian food together. We’d all been to Gruusia Saatkond (Georgian Embassy) more times than we could remember, and had heard mixed reviews about the new place—Tbilisi—on Küüni Street, in a windowless room on the lowest level of the failed shopping center known as Kaubahall. It almost felt like it was in a former corner casino. In fact, I think it is.

Based on what I’d heard, the cons were that some of the dishes on the menu were rumored to be fresh from a frozen bag. The pros were that the food was alright. Much too often, getting a favorable opinion from Estonians is like herding cats. “Did you like it?” Response either: “No, it was very bad,” or “Yes, it’s very normal.”
“Well then, did you enjoy it?”
“Yes, I would go there again.”
“Right, but was the food good?”
“It was normal.”
“Did it have a good taste?”
“It tasted like Georgian food.”
“But is that a good thing?”
“Yes, it’s quite normal, I think.”
“Did you like being there? Was it fun?!”
“We had dinner there.”
“Aaaaarghhhh!”

What was a very surprising turn of events was that the proprietor (I think) came to chat with us, assuring us that anything on the menu could be made in pint-sized portions for the children. Anything you want, come tell Uncle Ivan. I wasn’t sure of his ethnicity, but he spoke Estonian, didn’t look Georgian, but wasn’t quite Russian either. He had a gray ponytail, was very reassuring, and we felt safe. If there had to be a knife fight in the kitchen, you’d want Uncle Ivan on your side.

He told us lots of things that we didn’t need to worry about, as we were in his capable hands. But he wasn’t overbearing, and we didn’t feel uncomfortable. Uncle Ivan was very polite. The service was quick, and Kristjan the waiter smiled and informatively answered any questions we knew to ask. And if he didn’t know (he was new), Uncle Ivan made another appearance.

We didn’t know to ask about sides though, and this bit of rather important information was not volunteered. There are absolutely no side dishes included in the price of a main dish, apart from garnishes. Sides are available for an extra charge, but you have to know to ask.

None of us at the table discussed what we wanted to order, so we ended up with several portions of pork shish-ka-bobs. With no sides. But here’s my opinion: this was the best Georgian shish-ka-bob I’ve ever had. Keep in mind that I’ve eaten Georgian now in only three or four different restaurants, but this was hands-down the best in terms of flavor. We didn’t care much for the desserts, and had no opinion on the sides. The hinkali, a large form of pelmeni, or meat dumpling (also known as Russian ravioli), may have come from a frozen bag, but it was very normal.

The appetizer we collectively ordered, a cheburek (deep-fried mystery meat pastry), was delicious. And on top of that, it was delivered far enough in advance that we could all enjoy it without being distracted by our entrées (as I’ve mentioned before, appetizers in Tartu are frequently delivered with or after the entrée).

The price per ounce though was not particularly cheap for Tartu. Our party had to foot a rather massive bill, and we left not hungry, but not comfortably full either. We were kind of drunk, from the one beer, glass of wine and mug of something I can’t pronounce that we each drank. I wish I’d ordered a side dish.

That mug of unpronounceable liquid was cleared from the table before I’d finished it, while I was in the squeaky clean jaan washing my hands. No problem. Kristjan gave me a full, fresh mug at no charge, plus an apology. An apology in Tartu. Inconceivable! In return I gave him a fat tip that more than compensated for the free refill.

The restaurant itself was brand new, although the interior décor was not very Georgian, at least not compared to its other Tartu competitor. The owners are Georgian and Greek, according to the newspaper, although their web domain ends with .ru for Russia. Maybe Uncle Ivan was one of the owners, and not the manager? But it was clean, everything on the menu was stocked (which is rare), and you had no clue what time it was until you left, due to the lack of windows. Uncle Ivan sat at a nearby table discussing “beezness” with a man whose face was cast in shadow. I suspect they still had slot machines hidden in the kitchen.

I will certainly go to Tbilisi again, armed with my new knowledge of side dishes. And if anyone asks what I thought of it, I will show them two thumbs and say it’s quite normal.

Editing is important. Look through the greenery to see the lamb strangled by a vine, and the spicy chicken served with old tomatoes?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Nobel

After nearly a solid week of low-sleep nights and high-decibel-days due to one of our daughters being sick, the fever broke on Father’s Day morning and we went out to celebrate—at the new Lõunakeskus mall in Tartu. Father’s Day in Estonia is not on the same date as in the States, if you’re wondering.

In terms of mallness, it’s very mally. Which is a compliment, especially for Tartu malls. This is Lõunakeskus 3.0. And like the new Solaris in Tallinn, where P-Funk gave a concert in the cinema (no injuries luckily), I believe that Lõunakeskus 3.1, 3.2 and 3.3 will make their debuts within the next twelve months. Lõunakeskus 1.0 was basically a warehouse with flimsy cubicles set up on the floor, each cubicle being a shop. You could throw garments over the walls into the next shop, and then just walk out with it because the radio frequency for the security devices was different at the neighbors’ doors. Then 2.0 appeared, with an ice rink and casino in the basement. And a lawnmower shop. At a mall.

The new 3.0 is very Western, like Tallinn’s Ülemiste and Viru malls. Overall, I like it. It’s still not a two-floor mall. It is technically, but I think a bookshop as the second-floor doesn’t count. In the 2.0 part of Lõunakeskus, I entered the new 2.1 section, which I will call the Financial and Lingerie Department. There are three banks, two insurance branches, a currency exchange and a lingerie shop crammed into the same area. Let’s go to the mall and buy some insurance!

In 3.0, there are two electronics shops right smack next to each other. The security guards will probably give you a hard time if you buy something in one, and then continue shopping in the other. I’ve never understood why local malls group shops the way they do. In Tasku, for example, there are five shoe shops in a row. Americans are rather advanced in sales techniques. You’re exposed to everything whether you want to be or not. You would never see two competing shops side by side. Imagine navigating a monster Las Vegas casino. Then apply that to the parking lot in 3.0. They’ve made it hard for you to leave because they don’t want you to leave. But that, I believe, is true for all roads and such in Europe. Roundabouts galore. To be fair though, I got lost on two separate occasions in American parking lots last year. Labyrinthine curb arrangements coupled with family cars as big as Transformers made it difficult to understand that the roadway going in the general direction of the main street wouldn’t continue that way, and would instead guide you right back to the grand entrance.

Also in American malls, you would never ever see a grocery store. 3.0 has two! The new one is the long-awaited Rimi. Finally as big as a Tallinn Rimi, I have to say it’s, well, no different than the old Rimi in Tartu, except that it’s bigger—oh so much bigger—and it has what appears to be a deli restaurant in the back corner. The product selection is exactly the same, though. I would, however, like to mention what it does not have. It does not have chickpeas, standard fare in several traditional and popular Estonian recipes. What’s so hard about ordering chickpeas? And Cheerios. And Helen brand oatmeal, the number one oatmeal in the country. Tallinn Rimis and every other grocer in Tartu have all three of these products. The baguette mystery has offered yet another clue into the minds of Those Who Control Retail Sales in Tartu. You still can’t get a regular baguette in Tartu. You can only get one smothered in cheese. The bakers don’t know how to not sprinkle cheese on the dough before shoving it in the oven. But they did learn how to sprinkle it with sesame seeds. There is now a variety of “flavored” baguettes in Tartu, but like potato chips, you can’t just get the plain version. Odd…

And now for what they used to have. Rimi used to have Pagaripoisid products, the best bakery in Estonia. Dole salad in a bag, a healthy dinner for twenty kroons. Root beer. Cheddar cheese. When something is popular, you naturally want to stop selling it. That’s why I still shop at Selver. At least they have Cheddar.

What I really like about 3.0 is how it is organized. Except for a couple dead-end hallways, it’s circular. There are even two connecting entrances to 2.0. One of these has two moving sidewalks instead of escalators. Only one was turned on though. After three days of being open, I think it broke. Kind of like when the new Kaubamaja opened, the escalators all broke the first week. I took the stairs, and got that really cool vertigo feeling that only happens when you know you won’t fall, but you also know you shouldn’t be walking where you are. Shouldn’t be because it seems to violate the laws of physics. I think it would be extra cool too if I were, like, a little bit taller and stuff and then walked up these stairs. My center of gravity would be higher than the handrails. Fortunately, Mrs. Mingus found the hidden, unmarked elevator off to the side. She said she could barely fit in there because of the baby stroller.

So at the top of the stairs is a book shop, some sort of shop that was closed but had a remote-controlled car racetrack visible through the window (how fun would that be?!) and the Nobel Café. I personally would have switched the places of the bookshop and café. The bookshop is surrounded by windows, and the café is shoved into a corner with no natural light. It looks cozy, if not a tad claustrophobic. We sat at one of the two tables that offered a view of the ice rink. Next to the automatic piano.

video

The piano is entertaining. One kid’s dad told him there was an invisible man playing. The little boy waved his hand over the empty bench just to be sure. The music selection is not entertaining. First it played the happy birthday song. Then a popular children’s lullaby, next an unknown song, followed by the Wedding March and Auld Lang Syne. I so desperately wanted the piano to complete the cycle of life with Amazing Grace, but techno from the ice rink suddenly drowned it out.

I went to order at the café’s bar. The sign showed a twenty-minute wait for the food, which I found a bit long but still acceptable. We were hungry. I ordered coffee, a pastry, and scrambled eggs for the kids. “You know, the wait will be about forty minutes,” Kristiina the waitress said.
“Why?” I replied. “There’s no one else here.”
“That’s just how long it will take.”
“What about bruschetta?”
“The same.” There was a semblance of Monty Python in her tone when she said that.
“Why? Just toast some bread and plop on a spoonful of pesto.”
“I’m sorry,” she frowned. “Forty minutes.”
She clearly didn’t want us to eat anything.
“Nevermind then. Two cranberry juices for my kids, please.”
“We’re out of cranberry juice,” she stated matter-of-factly.
There were only four juices on the menu, and they’d only been open for three days. I could see where this was going, so I gave up and asked what they did have. “Multinectar.”
“Nothing else?”
“No.”
“Could I have two multinectars, please?”
“Here you go.”
“And two straws, too.” The straws were not on the counter, but far away, by the flavored syrups.
“Two what?”
“Straws.”
She seemed confused that I would need straws for young children to drink juice with, but she exhaled loudly and gave me two straws.
“OK, and can I get that free small Father’s Day muffin you offer with an order of coffee?” I’d seen some truly small muffins in a basket, chocolate I suspected.
“Oh right, here it is.” She pulled out a different basket with even smaller muffins. Seriously, this thing was the size of my thumb. I didn’t know there were muffin tins that miniature. It looked like a chanterelle. I tried to take a photo but the children had wolfed it down before I could bring the rest of our order to the table (it’s a semi-self-serve café). I forgot to add milk to Mrs. Mingus’s coffee, so I went back to the counter yet again. Another customer had since taken the little milk jug to her own table, forgetting to return it. I asked Kristiina for milk. She pointed to the table and said, “Just go get it from her.” She was too busy counting muffins for her inventory.

* * *

In the parking lot, I counted eight handicapped spaces in a row. In the farthest row from the door.