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?”
“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!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Trying to find food in Tartu after dark—nay, it’s dark at three right now. Trying to find food in Tartu after eleven at night can be a somewhat trying experience. Should you just walk the extra distance from the downtown bars to go to McDonald’s, Statoil, Rehepapp or Alvi Kebob in that little late-night grease-cluster? Or should you risk soaking up alcohol with items produced—nay, heated up—by an insomniac chef? Nay, not a chef, but a college student delirious from mind-numbing reading for college courses in front of a bar microwave who probably hasn’t had her tuberculosis X-ray taken this year. If you’re brave, reckless, hungry or just plain drunk, every bar in downtown Tartu will serve fried or boiled Russian ravioli (pelmeenid), fried garlic bread (really good, but gets tiring fast), or a bowl of beans with chunks of bacon. You’re probably better off eating where you are, not venturing out in the semi-cold on a fool’s errand.

And where was I this past weekend? A place called Illegaard on Ülikooli Street. It’s old. It’s in a basement. It’s been saved by the bell. It’s a sports bar. Kind of. The English owner (yeah, he’s an authentic English bloke) has taken the tattered remains of what once possessed Tartu’s dingiest jaan and turned it into the barriest bar in a university town which otherwise should be resplendent with barriness. I mean, apart from a few bars, which I’ll mention in just a second, there’s no place to go out really, unless you want to pretend you’re in some old woman’s late-life crisis-decorated living room with shiny wallpaper and doyleys under all the cups and mugs and glasses.

Or perhaps you want to feel like a big-shot and pay big-shot prices for big-shot drinks, like the Mojito, while sitting around a table on sofas so comfortable that you absolutely cannot have any sort of conversation with any of your party (mainly because you really like the Phil Collins song they keep playing—unless anyone else can think of why no one would talk). Or maybe the lights are too bright or too dim everywhere else.

There is Krooks, but the lines are horrible, the clientele all wear bomber jackets and it’s ridiculously hard to move around if all the tables are occupied. Zavood is definitely considered a cool place, but I just feel a bit old to go there. It makes Krooks seem spacious on a big night, it’s so crowded. Genialistide Klubi is like a high-school dance in a haunted house that plays really good music. And they don’t offer food anyhow. Or alcohol, I think. Wait, I did get a rum and cola in a Dixie cup once. So if you want to drink late, you want a more international crowd (with hair) and space to move around, go to Illegaard. It’s the kind of place your embassy warned you about (meaning, farners congregate there).

Now why would I write about a bar? This little site’s for restaurants. Technically, they do serve food. But this is a fun place to go after eating at a real restaurant. It’s part of the experience of eating out in Tartu. It qualifies for a review, I think. It’s also a good measure of the food you just ate. If it wasn’t good or there wasn’t a lot, you drink more (or less) when you hit the bars.

Illegaard and I go back a long way. Originally, before the days of Mingus in Tartu, it was essentially the first bar in Tartu. You had to have a membership card to get in. It was exclusive. It was elite. It was easy to sneak into, I heard. It was split into two rooms, the second room being opened only when the patrons in the first room began to feel like sardines. The first room had steel tables that could double for tanker anchors. The second room had furniture made of aluminum foil. The furniture’s all still the same today. Only the sofas have been replaced a bit or reupholstered. The barriness of this place stems from the sofas yet again needing reupholstering. Your interior doesn’t need to be spic ‘n’ span. Well, clean, yes, but not sterile.

A really rich guy married some woman. He died. She bought property. Including the Villa Margaretha on Tähe Street. A beautiful building, replete with doyleys, and absolutely no business. She still drives million-kroon cars to work. She also owned Illegaard, and gave it a facelift around the turn of the millennium. A dark, dank dungeon bar suddenly became what Zack, Screech and Slater probably would have considered their favorite hangout before going off to college. Don’t get me wrong, it was an improvement. It’s the jaan I want to talk about, before it was saved by the bell.

One tiny little stall, right by the front door. No ventilation, no drainage in the floor, and certainly not the first thing you want to smell when you enter. The bowl was there—one of those Soviet-era things with the poop shelf (so you could separate your waste?)—and it flushed, but there was a metal grate on the floor that was about five or six centimeters thick, along with an ever-present body of water. Sewage really. You could play Creation in it. It was disgusting. There were lines outside by the courtyard parking lot to relieve yourself because no one wanted to go inside.

So one night at a friend’s party (he lived upstairs, in the same building), I discovered an eel wrapped in plastic in his fridge. He said it was a gift, he didn’t know what to do with it, and I could have it. I thanked him, wrapped it around my waist, put my coat on and we all went downstairs to Illegaard. When no one was looking, I scampered off to the jaan, unwrapped the eel and laid it in the bowl. A few minutes later, a princessy type came floating down the stairs out of the stall, arms hanging down but hands up like airplane flaps, and shaking her head. An emo boy from her table went to investigate, immediately ran back out and announced to the whole bar, “It’s genius! It’s amazing! It’s a work of art! Only an art student could have done this!” Every single person stood up in one coordinated movement and flocked to the door to see this œuvre d’art. I can’t even draw a square. If only that guy had known it was one of them darned farners.

A few minutes later the bartender—Kristiina—was seen wrapping up the eel in newspaper, behind the bar. Now, you’d either throw it away, or you wouldn’t. Throwing it away would not require newspaper. She must have been taking it somewhere, and wanted to keep it clean. Mrs. Mingus, to this day, does not believe me. But the kind of person who would leave an expired eel in a public jaan is not the kind of person who would make up some harebrained story about a woman and her apparent dinner.

A year ago I ordered fried pelmeenid. An hour later I was served. They were burned. A couple weeks ago, a friend and I went for drinks and she got the munchies, ordering two plates of onion rings and a plate of salsa and tortilla chips (tor-TI-ya, people, tortija—not tor-TILL-a). The onion rings were good, all eight or so of them, as was the dip. We both got heartburn though. Maybe the third time ever in Europe that I’ve had heartburn. Thing is, you must keep in mind that this is bar food. It’s not restaurant food. It’s frozen and reheated. At least the selection is a little more Anglo-American than other places. This should be pretty popular with Anglo-American people, too. And yes, I try whenever possible to use the term Anglo-American. It makes me feel more upper class through association with, well, the upper class (okay, not really—I just use that term to take the piss out of people with Angles). But I would choose good tapas any day over Freedom fries.

Gone are the days of the Romanian chef from Ireland. When Wilde finally went bust, our Romanian needed a job. He found a temporary one in Illegaard. Now he’s back at the new Vilde (not Wilde, but Vilde), and fried fish and chips are back in Illegaard. Apparently the Romanian dude is so passionate about cooking that he’s willing to cook privately, if you cover the cost of the food and a small fee for him. I don’t want to advertise him for something I’m not sure about, but if a person loves his job so much, and the job produces food available to the public, I just have to try this.

Illegaard has one of the few Fußball tables in Tartu. Five kroons a game, buy your tokens at the bar. Don’t worry about losing them. The owner claims to go through hundreds a month, at the expense of the supplier. I guess the table is rented. I like playing against Estonians, because most of them aren’t that good. Yes, that was a challenge. I refuse to play against the French though. They have so many stupid rules it’s infuriating. You can’t score with the goalie, and if you do, you lose points? Putain de bordel de fessage, cems! I have a substantial collection of these tokens at home, because after a couple games, my opponents just quit, and go leave Christmas gifts on the jaan seats.

Illegaard has some nice graffiti in the stalls. Things seem to be going well for Denis. He is rule, after all.

The thing I don’t get about Illegaard is why more bars aren’t like this. Granted, not everyone likes the English bar style, but this is more of a cross between English and Estonian. English energy, I mean the kind you can only find in a pub. You don’t hear chavs oi-ing or the now-internationally-famous football hooligans making up lyrics as they mumble out toneless stadium tunes, but there’s an energy here. Not so much limited to the studentele, because the clientele is mixed with townies.

But seriously, take a good look at a lot of the other bars here in Tartu. They’re nice enough, but they’re all just kind of snooty. You need a scarf to enter, and if you order anything other than tea and brandy you’ll be sitting alone. And who’s making the money? Who’s successful? I don’t want to state that all bars in Tartu should serve only frozen and fried food, but a little modern rock couldn’t hurt. Other bars (and people, too!) could take themselves a little less seriously, and I think that really couldn’t hurt either.

And just to take the piss out of the owner, the Angled guy, I heard he’s offering a free round of drinks to anyone who can correctly identify all the languages posted on the front door. And a bowl of nachos on the house to the first person who can translate them. And what the hell does Illegaard mean, anyhow?


Father Mingus is visiting for the holidays. His flight was cancelled for some reason, causing him to spend the night in the airport. When he boarded, the Dutch decided that the carry-on he had—his only bag—was too big, even though he’d already flown across the ocean with it in the overhead compartment. They forced him to check it, and subsequently lost it. Anyhow, according to him, it’s becoming more difficult to wish people a Merry Christmas in America. You might offend someone, if they’re not Christian or pagan. His suggestion? If someone makes an issue of it, say that wishing them a Merry Christmas is the best you can offer. It’s the sentiment that counts. The wish for wellness to other people. So when I say what I’m about to say, don’t get offended, just understand I want you to be happy. Merry Christmas! (Happy Christmas to people with Angles!)

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.

Monday, December 7, 2009


Recently one of the Mingus clan experienced another birthday. A unanimous decision was made to dine in the Hotell Dorpat (not Hotel), but only because I was excluded from the voting process. The building looks nice, definitely a good locale overlooking the Emajõgi River, but the restaurant itself is just kind of…boring. The dining room is fully lit at night, making it difficult to see out the floor-to-ceiling windows to watch the drunks feeding the ducks in the dark behind the Tasku mall.

For almost a year now I’ve been picking up favorable chatter about Dorpat’s lunch buffet. Now that they’ve lowered prices from near a hundred kroons to forty kroons for the soup buffet, business is apparently booming in this place, bearing Tartu’s former, German name. And while my review of their entrées is going to be less than ecstatic, I do hope they can stay in business. It would be a shame if they went bust and the premises were occupied by yet another grocery store. At least it would be the Dorpat Hotel, Spa and Supermarket instead of a Mall Rimi.

We’d had reservations for almost a month, to ensure we got a window table for ten. The place was utterly empty upon our arrival. Two more parties of two did arrive before we left, and there was a long dining table reserved, and I hope that was why they had four wait and bar staff on duty for our one table.

For simplicity’s sake we had pre-ordered the package dinners, giving us a choice of grilled salmon, chicken and pork. I chose the salmon. The only side dish offered was mashed carrot and potato. It wasn’t my favorite thing, but I might have also been influenced by the fact that the purée was riddled with shrimp, not described in the menu. Carrot, potato and shrimp purée. Not what I would consider the best idea I’ve ever seen from a peakokk (head chef, not peacock). Unfortunately, the salmon was also a bit, er, boring? Essentially I was not impressed, and I can’t say that I would recommend it to visiting friends. I did try the chicken and pork others in our party had chosen, and it tasted surprisingly like chicken or pork.

The menu itself wished me pleasant taste experiences. As I’ve said before, I find these types of phrases off-putting. Almost like a warning. Not “Enjoy your meal!” but rather,
“We made something really special here
It might in fact go well with tongue of deer
We wish you a pleasant taste experience
And a happy Saku beer!”

I’m really sorry for that. I do apologize.

The kids’ menu was rather extensive, and offered real food as opposed to wieners and fries. My girls wolfed down broccoli and other veggies, but didn’t like the processed, frozen meatballs too much. So I ate them, because I wasn’t full at all.

The one redeeming experience here was the wait staff. Because we had three of them serving us, we didn’t have to wait long for anything. They were pleasant, as the menu hinted at, professional and they even smiled! Wow! Our main waitress, Krista, went so far as to chuckle and offer a reassuring “It’s fine, don’t worry about it,” when our toddler smashed a peppershaker all over the tablecloth. In the Olden Days (six or seven years ago), we would have been charged for the damages.

I approached the bar just after we got there to secretly order a round of vodka shots. There was some confusion. Here’s a transcript of the conversation.
“Hi, could I have four shots of vodka for our table?”
Kristiina the bartender: What?
“Four shots of vodka, please.”
—Four what?
“Four shots. Of vodka.”
—What’s that?
—No, four what of vodka?
—What’s that?
“A small glass. For drinking alcohol.”
—Why do you want that?
“Because we want to drink some vodka.”
—Alright, and how should I serve it?
“In shot glasses.”
—What are those?
“How about this—I would like four times four centiliters of vodka.”
—In one glass?
“No, four centiliters of vodka in one glass, then four centiliters of vodka in another glass, and so on. Four shots.”
—Four what?
At this point, I just went through the motions of doing a shot. She understood, and asked once again how many I wanted. I counted one, two, three, four on my fingers, and then pointed at our table. And I swear this is exactly how it happened. It’s not made up for humor’s sake.

A moment later when the shots arrived, she placed two of them in front of Mrs. Mingus-in-law right off the bat. I don’t know why, because I’d never even indicated her in any way. I said, “Actually, just one for her,” and I pointed to whom the other shots were intended. She picked up the two shots she’d already served, put them back on her tray and started to walk off.

“Excuse me, you’re right, please come back. My mistake!” I uttered.

She was visibly angry at me for the confusion. We allowed her to give my mother-in-law the two shots and whomever else she felt deserved a shot. I thanked her, she left, and we redistributed the glasses.

Now I know I have an accent in Estonian, and that it’s frequently the first time an Estonian has ever heard a foreigner (at least non-Russian) speak Estonian, but she shouldn’t have had that much of a problem understanding me. She was also in her early twenties and should have known the word “shot” in English, as she’s a bartender in a hotel full of foreigners.

A couple days later I recounted this harrowing tale of futility to a friend, who explained that the word “shot” doesn’t exist in Estonian. That was the source of the misunderstanding. I should have used a different word for it. Fair enough, except for two points: I’ve used the word “shot” for eleven years, and this was the first misunderstanding; and what I wanted should have been more than obvious to any bartender who can tie their shoes. Kristiina would make a good contestant for that upcoming reality game show called Dancing with Darwin.

But I did like the crème brûlée. The cranberries were an excellent choice of garnish.

The cute part of the evening was our older daughter begging us to dance to the elevator Muzak under the giant disco ball. Luckily there were no other customers.


This wasn’t the first strange thing to happen to me at Dorpat. Earlier this year, Mrs. Mingus discovered the spa part of the hotel was offering discounted massages from student masseuses. She went one morning, then demanded that I go that afternoon.

“Was she hot?” I asked.

Mrs. Mingus said she wasn’t bad looking, but not cute enough to be worried about her having her hands all over my body, in a professional setting.

“Good. Sign me up.”

I walked in for a forty-five minute, full-body massage. I was told what room to enter, and as I opened the door I saw some old guy standing there, looking down on me. I’m not an especially tall man, but I’m well above the official average height of Estonians. This guy towered over me. “Are you my masseur?” I asked politely. He nodded. I was sure Mrs. Mingus had played a joke on me. He told me to change. Mrs. Mingus said she’d worn a swimsuit, so I brought my swimming trunks. I’m American, so I cannot go out in public wearing a bikini. Make all the “Americans are prudes” jokes you want, but they don’t apply to me. I just won’t say why.

My masseur said my trunks were unacceptable, and proceeded to pull a tiny, flat plastic bag out of a drawer. Inside was something truly miniscule, something worse than a bikini. It was a disposable male thong. Made of paper. One size fits all. But at least I was man enough not to walk out. He was extremely professional, and I didn’t feel uncomfortable even during the full bum rub I received.

Yet as this was my first professional massage of any type, I had no clue what to expect. When he was finished, he merely quietly slipped out of the room, not saying a word. I assumed I was supposed to get dressed and leave. I couldn’t find anything to dry away the massage oil with, so I got dressed. Then he walked back in, and was visibly shocked to see me fully clothed. It turns out I was supposed to lay back and relax for a few minutes, and he’d brought me a towel for before dressing.

I chatted him up a bit. He was an ex-construction worker. Unemployed from the recession. He really liked working with people and his hands, he explained, so the transition to masseur made perfect sense. A very nice guy overall, and strong construction hands made for a promising new career for him. I would have talked more, but my clothes were all sticking to my skin. I was starting to feel claustrophobic from it, so I thanked him and left.

Later I found out Dorpat’s policy is to mix genders. Meaning no woman should massage a woman, or a man a man. They were oh for two that day.


Our clan generally seemed a bit disappointed overall, and I was the only one eating in Dorpat for the first time. They said it was just an off night for the kitchen, and still had positive things to say about their previous pleasant taste experiences. Maybe I’ll give it another try.