Two centuries ago there was an Irish writer named Oscar Wilde. There was also an Estonian writer named Eduard Vilde. They never met, though they lived thirty-five years in common. Sixty-five years after the passing of the Estonian (or, twelve years ago), an Irish entrepreneur opened a bar in Tartu with a statue of the two writers sitting on a bench. This statue, and the bar, became Tartu icons, a must-see for every tourist, even if they had no clue who these writers were. The sculpture is Estonian, but years ago a replica was made and given to the City of Galway in Ireland. Conspiracy theorists, however, suggest that the Tartu statue is the copy.
The Irish chef who opened the original kitchen was a nice person, lured to Estonia by the bar’s owner under slightly false pretenses. False pretenses in that he was guaranteed the finest staff in Estonia. And perhaps they were, but he had to teach them how to slice bread. The menu he offered was excellent, the stories of training his staff hilarious. He once said that they had never heard the concept of using gloves in the kitchen for sanitary purposes. They acquiesced, only to wear the glove on the hand holding the knife, not the one holding the meat. When he eventually had a falling out with the owner, he skipped town of course, and Wilde continued for years until it was sold, sold again, and then bankrupt, a victim to the economy.
But for a long while Wilde was the place to go for foreigners, the intelligentsia, and anyone who could afford the extra two kroons for a beer. Every night the place was packed, and in warm weather the veranda was stuffed with patrons wondering how they could get a hold of the beautiful house across the street (which is still empty by the way—the owner really missed his boat!). The rum and colas began to consistently boast a certain meaty flavor, with many a waitress thinking us crazy for complaining. In the end, we discovered that the meat knife had been used to slice the lemons.
The café downstairs was every rich grandma’s dream come true, and their signature Grandma’s Cake was truly all it was cracked up to be. It’s still on the menu today, but I don’t know if it’s the same treat. The bar has now had four different owners in almost as many years, and finally got a long-needed facelift. It’s slightly recognizable as its former self.
Wilde has reopened its doors under new management, but it is no longer called Wilde. Its new name is Vilde. W became V to save money on the engraving. Actually it’s Eduard Vilde lokaal ja kohvik (Edward Wilde Lounge and Café). Vilde is a comfortable place to get a relatively quiet drink or dinner. The premises are fairly large and spacious, and the almighty, elite Saksa Kamber (German Chamber—a room where the cream of the kraut could gather and discuss intelligent topics, such as cheap brandy) now has a hunting theme. The head of a dead animal is mounted on the wall, a trophy demonstrating the superior manliness of some guy with a gun. If you see antlers, only manly men may enter. Oh, and the door bears the seal of the Rotary Club—apparently philanthropic hunters.
Vilde’s head chef is the elusive Romanian whom I have mentioned in previous reviews. Having heard amazing things from numerous sources, Mrs. Mingus and I decided to take our fathers over the holidays to give him a try. I called in advance to ask if he was in fact cooking that night, and the man on the phone replied, “Yes, he’s here.” When we walked through the door, we were greeted by Kristjan, an old Wilde acquaintance.
When Wilde was still less than a year old, Kristjan did something he really shouldn’t have. Really shouldn’t have. Mrs. Mingus and I demanded an apology; he scoffed, so I poked him in the chest as a threat directly in front of a security camera, fully knowing the Irish owner—extremely careful about the public behavior of the staff—would see it. Kristjan has never retaliated, although he’s given us dirty looks over the years. He’s a good waiter, but I wouldn’t trust him to handle our food for fear he might spit in it. So we decided to cook our own dinner in Vilde.
The most expensive item on the menu is the Grilling Stone with Choice of Meat for a Party of Four. Or maybe party of two. The on-line menu says both in different places. But at three hundred sixty kroons, it’s at least five kroons cheaper per person than ordering individually. And it is definitely worth it. While technically I still haven’t tried the Romanian’s cooking (but he was there, sitting at a table next to us with his family), the marinades and choices were still his, even if he physically may have had nothing to do with the dinner.
Creating a menu is a tricky endeavor. What cuts do you serve, and of what meats? Do you cut it properly? Marinade? Spices and flavor combinations? What accompanies your dish? While Mrs. Mingus handled most of the grilling, it was presented in a foolproof manner. Anyone could cook it. Who can take credit for this meal? Well, still the restaurant. But here’s my opinion: this was one of the best three meals I’ve had in Estonia, although I can’t immediately recall what the other two were.
A grilling stone was served by our waitress, who apparently was appointed by Kristjan. “Hi, I’m Krista, Kristiina’s replacement. This stone is heated to three hundred degrees, and if it gets cold, just ask and we’ll bring out a new one. But make sure you don’t touch it with anything but metal utensils.” She then served trays of food, one with thinly sliced cuts of beef, Frenched lamb cutlets and salmon filets. The veggie platter consisted of red onions and bell peppers, mushrooms and eggplant. Another platter was an absolutely fabulous potato casserole, and three dip sauces.
Pure pleasure, and what simplicity! This was not some complicated concoction from a cook who wants to show he has mastered this or that technique. This was dinner from a chef who knows the soul of his ingredients. But there must be something negative about my meal, right? I am Mingus, after all. Here’s my advice: order an appetizer. It takes a while for the stone to heat up. And while Vilde is one of the few places in Tartu (or Estonia) to offer anything free on the table before your meal, it was still just a tiny little bowl of peanuts. And there’s no guarantee the peanuts are fresh from the package. Twenty other people could have fondled them, and the leftovers were dumped in a clean bowl and topped off.
This is routinely done in the States, and this is why I will never touch any food that could be available to the general clientele of a restaurant or bar: while out one night with friends in university the bar served popcorn in baskets, lined with a waterproof sheet of paper. A random guy was walking by and suddenly emptied the contents of his digestive system, using our half-empty popcorn basket as a receptacle—the only thing he could grab on such short notice. Then he moved on, as if nothing had happened. Well, he did say “Sorry,” smiled, and turned. Shocked, we could only think to take another basket and cover up the mess. Then the waitress approached to ask if we wanted the popcorn. We said no, of course not, assuming she had watched the deed be done. She picked it up, and as she was walking away, she said something about the popcorn being out, that this was the last basket, and another table wanted it. We quickly left.
Anyhow, while I still can’t claim to have directly sampled the Romanian’s cooking, I have found a place to take visiting guests. A quick search on line reveals that the grilling stone concept for restaurants is hardly unique in the world, but it’s not that common either, and definitely unique in Estonia.
The Romanian once tried to organize a league of chefs in Tartu, in order to improve restaurant quality and variety. He said there were some interested people, but once he asked for a token twenty-five-kroon annual due to fund its activities, everyone disappeared. But he really loves his work, and jokingly admits he’s still holding the organization’s meetings, even though he’s the only one attending.
And while I’ve only had a fraction of the Romanian’s cooking, I’ve also only experienced a fraction of the restaurant itself. The downstairs café is still there apparently, but the bookshop is now a club called Plink Plonk. The bass made my beer bounce on the second floor, in the restaurant. Downstairs used to have antique printing machines, as the building housed a publishing house. They might be gone now, as are the display cases between tables in the lokaal upstairs. The displays had various autographs, rare books and plagues. Yes, plagues. One plaque I remember said something in English along the lines of “We present to You this plague for whatever it is You did.” As I’ve mentioned before, checking your work before sending it to the printer is not a very popular practice here. One of the menus Wilde (not Vilde) printed had the beers called A.Le Coq and Saku Lite printed as A. le Cog and Suka Lite, an especially unfortunate mistake in a country with so many Russian-speakers.
Another word of advice is that you should not sit anywhere near the balcony overlooking the front of the building. The balcony is the smoking section, and on a cold night the breeze from the opening of the door can make your grilling stone prematurely cool. Also watch your step if there’s any snow or ice at all. The sloping cobblestones in front of the statue have caused many a leg to break over the years. I once saw four older women—all hunched over—using themselves as a human chain to pull each other up the hill to get some tea in the café. Salt?
Unfortunately, Vilde has lost any semblance of its Irelandishness. Where will we go for St. Patrick’s Day? Like most Americans—white and black alike—one thirty-second of my blood is Irish. It’s important in my culture, the only day a year I can stomach a Guinness. I guess I can just go to Vilde on Tartu – City of Good Food Day, which I hope will happen many more times this year.