Monday, March 29, 2010

Gruusia Saatkond

In the interests of propagating Georgian culture, we at Tartu – City of Good Food have decided to provide a translation of their greatest legend in modern English, using the original Estonian version for reference, as found inside the menu at Gruusia Saatkond (the Georgian Embassy) on Rüütli Street.

Kui siis jumal rahvastele maid jagas
(When some sort of deity passed out soil to the peoples)
Jäid grusiinid veinil ja lihal hea maitstes maast ilma
(The Georgians missed out because they were getting drunk and eating flesh)
Ja jumala juurde jõudes ütlesid, et nad veini juures teda hea joogi eest tänasid
(They turned to this deity and said, “Each drink was a toast to you, Buddy!”)
Ei jäänud jumalal muud üle kui anda grusiinidele viljakas ja kaunis maa
(The deity had no choice but to give the Georgians a fair and fertile piece of soil)
Mille ta enda jaoks oli hoidnud
(The one it had been saving for itself*)

*Various other translations of this last line, including that of the Georgian Embassy itself, suggest, “His private spot.”

At the beginning of the last decade, the dining situation in Tartu was dire. Apart from Irish fusion, some sort of Asiatic nonsense and the newly discovered Holy Trinity of Tartu (blue cheese, pineapple and red bell pepper), there wasn’t much choice in the way of cuisine, unless you were satisfied with buckwheat and mystery meat. Those of us who had grown up with a somewhat broader range of food welcomed the newest member of the Kitchen Klub—Gruusia Saatkond. Georgian food is for Estonia what Mexican is for America and Indian for England.

That’s not entirely accurate, on second thought, as there are only two known Georgian restaurants in Tartu. While they are run—even indirectly—by people from Georgia proper (not the state in America!), it would be more precise to refer to this food as Caucasian (meaning from the Caucasus, not white people in America!). This also includes Armenia and Azerbaijan. There is a satisfying selection of Caucasian food in Tartu if you think about it this way. And, like Mexican and Indian food in their respective host countries, Caucasian food has adapted itself to the Estonian market. It now includes peeled and boiled potatoes.

Last week we went to the Embassy to enjoy a meal with friends who had just returned from abroad. We reserved a table for six and arrived at eight, only to be seated at a table for four cramped up next to a party of ten. As the lone table in the back up and left after eating, we acquisitioned their places so we could comfortably converse and dine. We had our menus delivered promptly, but it wasn’t until forty minutes after our arrival that our orders were taken. Krista—the waitress, and mother of a woman married to a Georgian (I think that’s the relation)—had her hands full with three tables and no other staff to help her.

Krista was very friendly and could clearly answer questions and accept orders in English (one friend didn’t speak Estonian), but she was hard to find. She seldom made appearances in the dining area. Once our orders had been placed, however, the food started rolling out right on time. The khachapuri—bread stuffed with cheese—was fantastic as usual. It tastes like a grilled cheese sandwich with enough ethnicity to satisfy your whiteness. And, as an appetizer, it had even been served well in advance of the main courses, contrary to contemporary Tartu practices of serving appetizers with desserts.

Over the years, the dishes have changed, as to be expected. The cheburek—a deep-fried bread pocket with mystery meat tucked inside—had more than doubled in size and price. As for the main dishes, their prices have also doubled, or even tripled, in cost. But without the respective increase in portion size. Some of the signature sides had even gone so far as to disappear. I’m referring to the adjika sauce and pepperoncinis that accompanied most foods in years past.

This was a place to take visiting guests if you wanted a guaranteed good meal. Their kebobs were excellent—basically seasoned kafta sauced and wrapped in lavash—the Caucasian tortilla. The chicken ketsi was always my favorite. Today the menu describes it as “chicken pieces in sour cream sauce with adjika”. Years ago, the description was something along the lines of “baby chicks cut into pieces”. That might even be a direct quote, if memory serves correctly.

Yet this time the food, like the menu’s description, was far less provocative. Provocative in the sense that you would think, “Wow, this is excellent!” I always looked forward to finishing the pieces of chick because that meant I was free to dredge my Georgian bread in the leftover sauce, savoring each remaining bite. The stuff served this time was simply seasoned chicken in herbal butter. The chicken had a very strong “boiled” flavor to it. Three of us had ordered the chicken ketsi, and we were all equally disappointed. And I found no indication of adjika anywhere on the plate.

Only our friend who had ordered the chicken shish-kabob was satisfied. In Tartu at least, the shish-kabob is the prize dish in any Caucasian eatery. As for the summer season, the whole country lovingly grills šašlõkk—even the skinheads! Gruusia Saatkond’s shish-kabobs were always great (three varieties: pork, chicken and salmon), but today the salmon has been replaced with lamb, which makes sense. I somehow doubt the ancient Georgians had developed salmon farming. Either way, the grill is in need of some serious renovation. I’m not sure how I would feel about my food being cooked with the help of a Coke bottle. This next photograph reminds me of what I found when we had to replace our new Glaskek windows because they had insulated them with plastic Coke bottles.

The problem with the Embassy’s shish-kabobs is that the price has almost tripled. It happened all of a sudden, about three or four years ago. Everyone got greedy—the whole country. The economy made everyone think they were millionaires, and prices were raised accordingly. And while most Tartu restaurants have reentered reality these days, the Embassy has not. Maybe the night we dined there was an off night. I would really like to believe that. But on the off-hand chance it was an average night, then I would have to say the food is just mediocre for the price, and perhaps that’s why the restaurant was mostly empty (the Embassy used to be packed on a daily basis!). I saw three tables reserved, all vacant. As one foreign friend likes to say, “It makes no sense that a lot of the locals are still charging over two million for a shit shack.” This is Tartu, but these are euro prices.

The atmosphere was also not as warm as it used to be—literally and figuratively. One of the reasons we moved from the first table was because, in addition to the floor slanting, there was a draught from the window. We were all still cold at the new table, though we sat next to the grill-slash-furnace. There were some strange purple strips of cloth on the table that we unanimously chose to remove. They were slippery and kept wrinkling up. The napkin holders were nice, however, and provided us with entertainment while we awaited our waitress. The breadbasket became an attractive ship at sea, with a sail made of the waterproof napkins on our plates.

The entrance has always been nice. By the guestbook is an autographed photo of President Saakashvili. I would really like to know what he thought of his dinner there. And the jonis, with its interesting ribbed mirror.

But back to the food—specifically, my chicken ketsi. Having already described the chicken itself, I will list the side dishes. Boiled potatoes (they were also deep fried, I think), a pinkish shredded cabbage salad (mildly pickled perhaps—very good), and raw sliced onions and red bell pepper. For a hundred and twenty kroons. Now, I’ve personally experienced the full firepower of Georgian cuisine in Estonia. I know how amazing it can be—even if most of the sides are just sliced veggies.

Last night I decided to create my own chicken ketsi based on my memory of it from years ago (the Internet was of little help). What you are about to read is a Mingus original—feel free to experiment with it, and definitely share your thoughts. It is one of the best things I’ve ever produced in my kitchen, and I’d like to think it glorifies the Georgian Buddy that gave people soil.

While the name in the Embassy is “chicken ketsi”, a ketsi is really a clay cooking dish and doesn’t seem to have much to do with the recipe itself. Thus, so I can at least have something positive to say about Gruusia Saatkond, I will name this dish “Saelcho Chicken” (Embassy Chicken).

Brown some chicken thighs and legs in butter on a pan, then add a couple onions and cloves of garlic finely chopped (I used a food processor for speed). Simmer a few minutes, then add the zest and juice of half a lemon. Lightly coat with salt and pepper, as well as a couple spoonfuls of paprika (I was lucky enough to have access to some smoked paprika from Israel). Top it off with a couple sprigs of thyme. Add a small amount of chicken stock—just enough so the pan isn’t dry. Braise your chicken and occasionally turn it over, and continue until the chicken is ready. Three-quarters of an hour maybe.

Remove the chicken and separate the meat from the bones. Transfer what remains in the pan to a pot, adding a cup or two of the stock. Pour in about half a cup of sour cream, a teaspoon of ground fennel and a dried cayenne pepper (also finely ground) then sprinkle in a generous dash of turmeric for color. Stir frequently for a few minutes till it thickens a bit, then add a gracious handful of fresh basil, mint and cilantro (coriander leaves), all finely chopped. Serve the sauce over the pieces of chick. Sides of baked herbal potato and, of course, chopped raw veggies.

That’s a lot of ingredients. Most of them I already had on hand, so keeping that in mind, I was able to produce six full portions for roughly eighty kroons. Portions identical to the Embassy’s chicken ketsi. Each portion worked out to be about thirteen kroons, and I spent one hour doing this. A professional chef could undoubtedly shave a few minutes off that. I won’t factor in the costs of wages, rent, utilities and so on. I’ll leave that to your imagination.

But if the Embassy served this kind of food for more affordable prices, heated a little more and hired some extra staff—oh, and stopped taking reservations—they would be able to provide the Georgian government with a significant source of funding. Maybe Georgia would just be able to buy out the Russians, instead of picking hopeless fights and hoping for Western intervention. Because both the country and the restaurant really are in great spots.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Orient Express

Bump. “Hey, did you just drive through a pothole?” Mrs. Mingus asked.
—Did the car go up or down? I inquired.
—Then it wasn’t a stray dog.
“You have to watch out for potholes,” she nagged.
—That’s good advice, thank you. Next time I’m driving on a road completely covered in water, I’ll try to keep an eye out for things I can’t see.
“But it’s the big spring thaw. You should expect potholes under water,” she persisted.

Võru roads are notoriously crap. Entire lakes of snow were flowing downhill, hiding asphalt for dozens of meters at a stretch. Just before we arrived at our cabin to open it up for spring, the tire went flat.

After limping back to Võru, visiting several garages and contacting the police, we discovered two other cars—locals, too—had hit the same pothole. One of the cars had lost two tires. “It’s not too deep,” Officer Kristjan stated. “But it has a sharp edge. Officially, a pothole has to be twenty-five to thirty centimeters deep to file a complaint.” A pothole that deep could rip a car off its tires. Hours later, they were just then placing a traffic sign. After the water had receded.

Driving back to Tartu took twice as long as usual, not being able to exceed seventy on the highway. Possibly thirty tire shops in Võru—all called Kummi-this and Kummi-that—and not one tire available that would fit our absolutely standard station wagon. Totally wasted day. I decided I would make it up to our older daughter, who had so suffered at the hands of her loving grandmother for so long while we traipsed across the wilderness in search of futility.

Of course, in this weather, the options were few. Lõunakeskus (the mall) had a fun park set up on the ice rink. And off we went. To Lõunakeskus. Again. Just getting the ticket was an adventure. Sold at the information desk, I waited in line only to discover I was in the wrong line. So I waited in the new line, only to discover the tickets were cash-only. “But you have a card terminal right there,” I pointed.
—And there’s a cash machine right there, the mall worker pointed. We waited for cash, then waited in the ticket line again.
—Is she under a hundred ten centimeters? I was asked.
“I don’t know. She’s four years old.”
—Well I have to know so I can enter it in the computer and sell you the right ticket.
“You’re entering it in a computer, but I can’t pay by card?”
—If she’s over one-ten, then it’s a more expensive ticket.
“So one extra centimeter costs almost twice as much?”
“Why don’t you make the cut-off based on age? Say, six years old, I suggested.
—But then we wouldn’t know how tall they are.
“But why is that even important?”
—So we know which ticket to sell them.
I breathed deeply. “She’s one-nine.”
—Fifty kroons.

There were at least ten venues in the fun park. Mostly inflatable fun houses—for jumping—and two-story air-cushioned slides. Little Mingus was having a blast. “Daddy, can I go to that one?”
—No, that one looks dangerous.

There were teenage boys whacking each other in the head with large rubber pillows.
“What about that?” She pointed at some sort of rolling tube. You climb in, and you roll. We waited in line for a few minutes, and one freed up. A man and his daughter appeared from outside the line and grabbed it. “There’s a line, you know?” I politely suggested. I was met with a “So?” and decided to just wait some more. I didn’t want to lose face in front of my own child, but the guy was much taller than I, and had much less hair. He was also wearing a leather racing jacket with an oil advertisement on it for some reason.

After three goes on the trampoline, twelve times sliding down various pillows of air and being dragged by the hand for more than two hours, I suggested we get some food. “Yes, I’m really thirsty!” Little Mingus exclaimed. We left the fun park and headed to Le Bus. A long line. Walking by that Asian/Italian place overlooking the ice, I spied fried chicken in the trough. Interesting.

“Hey, let’s go see what’s on at the four-dimensional movies here.” The next showing was “Space Rally”. “Is it suitable for little children?”
—Yes, the teenager behind the ticket machine answered. But how tall is she?
“I have no idea.”
—She has to be at least one-ten.
—Because the seats move.
“She’s one-eleven.”
The girl looked suspiciously at my daughter.
—Let’s check, she ordered. Little Mingus stood next to the tape on the wall. One-eleven.
“Two tickets then,” I triumphantly grinned.
—One hundred kroons.

The movie started in half an hour. I wanted to try the fried chicken. I took a tray and started piling on different types of food, fully expecting some things to be less than enjoyable, so I would have a backup. To be safe, I got a plate of Russian ravioli that I was sure Little Mingus would enjoy. I couldn’t find sour cream, and assumed it would be by the salt and pepper, after paying.

This was one of those places where you had to weigh your food. But I wasn’t sure which register to stand in front of. There was no one there. I mean, there were three workers there, standing and talking and occasionally glancing at me, but none of them came to the register. I waited some more. Finally, I asked, “Excuse me, is anyone working here?” Our time before the movie was running out.

A middle-aged woman of a clearly nervous demeanor lifted a finger, instructing me to wait again. Finally she walked over and motioned me to place my plate on the scale. No hello, no apology for the wait, no eye contact. She then made a brushing motion with her hand. Time to remove my plate. I began to suspect she might be mute, but then—at the exact moment my eyes were resting on her chest, looking at the nametag (her name was Krista)—she looked at me and said, “Two hundred twenty-six kroons.” I looked at my food in disbelief. Rice, a portion of ravioli, a chicken leg, a few meatballs, some sort of Asianesque sauce, a piece of stale bread and a Coke. It occurred to me later everything was soggy, and so weighed much more than it should. I felt cheated.

After I paid, I carried the tray up the stairs to the table Little Mingus had chosen, overlooking the rink. Remembering to ask for sour cream, I bounded down the steps and looked again. Nothing. There were three sauces in the trough, under the sneeze guard, but they were labeled as something else. I asked Krista, “Do you have sour cream?” She pointed at the sauces. “But which one is it? The only white thing here says mango sauce.”
—That’s it.
“That’s sour cream?”

I poured some out into a mug—the small plates stacked up wouldn’t hold this liquidy mixture—and asked if I could just pay a couple kroons, rather than wait in line again, my child unattended atop a three-story balcony. No, I had to wait. When I was in front again, Krista didn’t like that she would have to weigh the mug separately, then weigh the sour cream, then do math on her calculator. She just waved me on, nervously instructing me to go away. “You don’t want me to pay for this?” I wanted to be certain. She shook her head. That was very nice of her, but I couldn’t figure out why she’d wanted me to stand in line again if she wasn’t going to charge me.

Back upstairs I realized we had no napkins. Back downstairs I couldn’t find any, except for a cupful of nicely folded napkins just behind the counter, far off to the side. I just walked back and grabbed a couple. Krista didn’t like this. “No, you can’t go back there!” she shouted, drawing the attention of people down below on the ice, next to the loud air compressors.
—Well, what do you want me to do then? I asked, showing her the napkins in my hand.
“Right here,” she said, indicating a paper towel dispenser next to the register.
—But it’s empty, I told her
“But you can’t take those red ones in your hand.”
—Why not?
“You have to take these.”
—There’s nothing there. It’s empty.
“The ones you have are for people ordering from the menu.”
—You have different napkins based on what food you order?” I asked in surprise. She just nodded. I pretended to sneeze on the napkins in my hand, and proceeded back upstairs, now unhindered by Krista.

Little Mingus didn’t like the Russian ravioli. “Daddy, it tastes like the swimming pool” It did actually. There was a faint chlorine flavor to it. The fried chicken leg, however, was decent. Any Suthna or other farner who happened to be in Tartu would have a place to go in the event of a sudden craving. I can only imagine what the look on an Estonian’s face would be if I were to tell them that fried chicken is, in fact, a dish best served cold.

The sauces on the other foods, though, had that gelatinous quality that suggested they were nothing more than mass-produced sauces of starch, artificial flavoring and coloring, and water. I could feel my carotid artery tugging on my jaw, trying to keep it from opening. We ate a little of it, as we were very hungry.

Movie time. It was fantastic! Essentially a roller coaster on some sort of asteroid in deep space, it was a very good simulation of a supersonic carnival ride. I was so engrossed in the experience that when it ended, and we were splashed with water, I feared for a moment that the people in front of us had vomited. It hasn’t happened to me before, but I have seen it. Of course, we weren’t moving, so any sort of gastric aside would not be propelled onto the faces of people further back.

We both finally stopped smiling a few minutes later, when we saw this strange creature lurking by the children’s indoor playground—not the one on the rink. Limpa, a local soft drink mascot. “Don’t be afraid of me,” came the raspy voice from somewhere near the creature’s head. Little Mingus froze, grudgingly accepting the box of sugared water thrust into her palm.

We went back to the fun park for another hour, then called it a day. Back at the car, I noticed the spare tire had deflated a bit. I drove to the Statoil in the parking lot to use their air pump. Unbeknownst to me, the nozzle was broken. It wouldn’t create a seal, but it would let air out. About half the air in the tire, in fact, before I could pry it off. Strange glances were made at the man frantically pumping on a bicycle pump from his trunk, while standing next to an air compressor—one of the several dozen in the area.

Back home we just played with Legos. No lines, you can build what you want, and the little tires don’t go flat.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


“You don’t, by chance, want to drop off the kids for a few hours, do you?” Mrs. Mingus-in-law asked on the phone Saturday morning. Half an hour later we were speeding down the road to grandmother’s house, the children singing in unison, “I don’t wanna’ go to Grandma’s house!” That’s not why we were speeding though. I was hungry. So hungry I could feel the shakes coming on. After dropping them off, I asked Mrs. Mingus where the closest food was. Lõunakeskus, the mall. But neither of us wanted a burger.

By the ice rink is a strange pair of restaurants. A Chinese place and an Italian joint, right next to each other, overlooking the ice and apparently owned by the same people. We looked at the glass shelf with premade food. Nothing appealing. The menu offered a renewed hope, however. Shaking, I pointed at a croissant sandwich with a description of an egg, sunny-side up, and bacon. Mrs. Mingus chose the same thing. The photo in the menu looked delicious.

“Hi, could we have two egg-and-bacon croissants, please?”
The woman behind the counter—Krista, I believe—said nothing, but proceeded to pull out two items from the glass shelf.
“Excuse me, but that’s not a croissant.”
—Of course not.
“We wanted a croissant sandwich.”
—We don’t have any.
“That’s just a store-bought hamburger bun. With grated cheese burned onto it.”
—Fifty-six kroons.
“Are you just out of croissants? Or you never have them?” I persisted.
—Why would we have croissants?
“Um, because you have them on the menu, and in the photograph?”
—This is the same thing.
“No, it’s a hamburger bun. I don’t want a hamburger bun with an old egg in it.”
She shrugged and stared off past my shoulder, patiently waiting for me to pay.
“This is completely false advertising,” I continued. My stomach growled. Was I really going to eat this? Krista just kept staring, no apology for insulting people’s intelligence by expecting them to buy a hamburger bun and think it was a croissant. I gave up.
“No thank you.” Krista looked at me like I was a snob. And we walked away. “Hey, what about Breadway, on the other side? They have baguettes for their sandwiches.” Mrs. Mingus agreed that she, too, was still in the mood for a sandwich.

On the way, I couldn’t help but notice that almost every single man we passed had super-short hair and an angry expression, masked by hangover eyes, being pulled along by a woman with jet-black dyed hair eating a doughnut and yelling at their kids. That’s right, it was only eleven on Saturday morning.

The doughnuts came from Breadway’s new doughnut machine. I’d had them before—pretty good, too, I might add. A classical, simple doughnut, the kind we get at that café just off Rüütli Street in Pärnu first thing when we arrive for our annual trip to the beach. It seems, however, that doughnuts had replaced baguettes at this little sandwicherie. Breadway’s glass shelf, at a time when everyone was hungry after a night of boozing, was almost empty. Twelve sandwiches listed, and only one little pickle-and-cheese concoction available. Inside a hamburger bun. At a place called Breadway. We started walking back to the car, my stomach trying to establish contact with the hangover guys. No language barrier there.

“How do these places stay in business?” I asked Mrs. Mingus.
—It doesn’t bother them. People like it because it fills them up.
“Eating food is celebrated with about as much fanfare as when it exits.”
—Don’t be disgusting.

We decided that if we wanted to pay money for food, we’d be willing to suffer a bit longer in search of something enjoyable to eat. We drove downtown and decided to get a crêpe at Crepp. We’d given in to the National Crêpe Obsession. While walking down Rüütli Street—not the one in Pärnu, obviously—I glanced through the window of one of those shops that are now almost extinct. The kind that sell old women’s gigantic underwear from Poland. Only I didn’t see cheap lingerie. I saw salad, and beer. We checked it out.

A new place had secretly opened, with a tiny, unassuming sign by the door. Kohvipaus, it read. Say “kohvipaus” out loud and you’ll understand what it means in English. If you can say h and v at the same time.

This tiny little café had a tiny little salad bar, but at least it was fresh, and offered real lettuce, not Chinese cabbage. The waitress would prepare it in front of your eyes, and it was cheap. And the sandwiches—oh, the sandwiches—were scrumptiously crafted inside baguettes! The mother lode. I was so giddy at having found a baguette sandwich I felt like jumping in the air and clicking my heels together, but the twenty-year old guy sitting on the sofa distracted me. He was wearing a suit and had straight hair that looked like he was wearing a wig backwards. Obviously a frat boy, with his frat hat on the table next to his chips and Coke.

I wondered if he was one of the frat boys who were sieg-heiling last Thursday night. Apparently, a group of guys from the Sakala fraternity were bothering customers in a local bar by yelling out “Sieg Heil!” over and over, right arms stretched to the ceiling. They were asked to leave, and were seen by numerous witnesses marching down the road in single file, continuing their chant. And these guys all had hair. I wonder what the baldies would think.

So anyhow, this baguette sandwich cost a whopping eighteen kroons. It was simple—a couple slices of ham, some cheese, the end of a tomato and lettuce, with butter instead of mayonnaise, and a kind offer from the waitress (her name was Krista, too!) to warm it up. I was famished, which is perhaps why I enjoyed it so much, but it was one of the better sandwiches I’d had in Tartu. Most local sandwiches are stuffed with pickles and served in hamburger buns. Merely improving the quality of the base ingredient—bread—makes such a noticeable difference.

I went back for more (you order at the register, as it’s mostly a take-away place). Sandwiches sold out. There were constantly people coming in and buying food. All they had left at that moment was chicken and salad wrapped in a tortilla (remember people, you don’t actually pronounce the double l in “tortilla”). It had a tad too much lettuce in proportion to the rest of the ingredients, but it was very good, especially considering the price.

Ordering coffee was a bit tricky. I wanted milk, but I was warned that “milk coffee” on the menu actually meant a latte, and that if I wanted milk in my coffee, I would have to order “coffee with milk” instead of “milk coffee”. But it was served in a mug if you drank it there. The coffee stand was inviting and cozy. I also noticed a fruit stand by the door. Not “fresh” fruit, as the bananas were starting to spot and shrivel, but at least they were offering fruit. The chocolate and almond cookies are very good. I didn’t want any of the pastries on their glass shelves, because they were all made by Astri Pagar, a local bakery chain. I’m a Pagaripoisid man, myself. “Baker Boys”. Best bakery chain in Estonia. A shame they don’t sell more of their products in Tartu.

I glanced at the shelf next to the coffee stand. Sometimes when you hang out at a café, sipping coffee, you just want some peanuts, or a candy bar. Kohvipaus sells both. And on rare occasions, you might even want hand-knitted gloves. I was in the mood for a Mars bar, but unfortunately they only offered the fifty-one gram version. I wanted the fifty-two, so I passed.

Beer was available on tap, fifteen kroons a half liter. But it’s a take-away café. Could you buy a beer and walk around town with it? I saw that their doors opened at seven in the morning. It seems to be Tartu’s first coffee-on-the-way-to-work place. Or maybe just another option for that last beer on the way home. Has anyone else noticed that all the bars are suddenly open all night? Twenty-four hours almost. It’s shockingly easy to get a beer at all hours of the night. I live fairly close to downtown, and I’ve been woken up several times in recent weeks by drunken revelers passing by my bedroom window.

I like Kohvipaus. It’s a good place to get a quick and tasty bite on a budget. It’s a bit dirty inside—the snack shelf was badly in need of a dusting—but it’s a healthy, comfortable mix of Home and Modern. Not too sterile, but no velvety curtains or doyleys, which is a definite plus. I guess the best description of it would be an upscale gas station without the gas. They do serve hotdogs, after all. Stick one of those doughnut machines inside and Kohvipaus will be the king of the Old Town. Tourists always want doughnuts. They’ll go home and say, “Yeah, Tartu had those good doughnuts.” Versus what they say now: “We went to Tartu. There’s a university there.”

However, I couldn’t help but notice that Kohvipaus is the only café I’ve ever seen that is closed on Sunday. That’s the day when no one has anything to do. They went to great lengths to set their prices so they would be competitive. You will not find less expensive food and beer downtown—at least not for that quality and in that atmosphere. Naturally they would be closed at peak hours. I wonder if you can make reservations there.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Roadkill Café

Tartu is a wonderful city. Its spirit infected me when I first stepped off the train. The smell of tar from the railway station, the wooden map that showed the entire city yet offered no street names and was thus utterly useless. I looked forward to getting lost on its streets, and I felt safe doing so. More than a decade later, I still feel safe wandering the tree alleys, cobblestoned roads and grassy parks that dot the town.

As I got to know the history of this city on the Emajõgi River, I heard hard-to-believe claims that Tartu has been destroyed fifty-five times throughout its history. I can’t see how that’s possible, but it was largely destroyed by the Great Northern War and the Second World War. If you stand on Town Hall Square and look toward the big pink Town Hall, it’s mind-boggling to know that everything to the left of and behind City Hall is a product of the Twentieth Century. I’ve seen the photos that show the wasteland after the Nazis and Soviets rumbled in the bog that is Tartu. This place is no stranger to violence.

During the Soviet occupation, Tartu “happily” hosted a massive airbase that was home to the bombers that would nuke Europe in the event of a failure to communicate between a couple old white guys in far-off cities east and west of here. For that reason, it was a “closed city”, meaning you couldn’t just come and go as you pleased. These days, you can buy a used car and test-drive it on that old runway. There are plans in the works to plop down a museum in the same place. A really, really long museum.

One of my favorite things is that instead of monuments to the people who have interfered with and intervened on behalf of Estonian history—warriors, I mean—you instead have monuments to scientists and artists. Well, there is Barclay de Tolly’s bust, and a General Laidoner on the other side of town, and Kalevipoeg, who looks suspiciously like Tõnis Lukas, the Minister of Education. De Tolly is an interesting character. A Lithuanian-born, German-speaking Scotsman with a French name who was raised in Livonia (now Estonia and Latvia) and who fought for Russia and invaded France.

Estonia has been ruled by Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Germany, Russia and, of course, Estonia. I’m probably forgetting a couple as well. There have been two successful drives for independence. Estonians obviously don’t like people telling them what to do, which is fully understandable. I wouldn’t want anyone telling me to fight in a war I’m not personally vested in. I wouldn’t want anyone telling me to not question the nature of my government. I wouldn’t want anyone telling me I have to live with people I don’t like.

But we don’t really live in that world anymore. At least Estonia doesn’t. It’s free. The people of Estonia are free to think and act as they choose. The people of Tartu are free to create their own image. Yet no one is free of the consequences of their actions. If you do something, you will have a reputation for doing that thing. If you get caught driving drunk just once, you will be known as a drunk driver for an awfully long time. I’m satisfied with Tartu’s current international image—that of a blind, drunk driver who got caught twice, and where people have sex on top of the bridges in broad daylight. Some local students placed a bed with an inflatable sex doll in the same place. If that isn’t a great sense of humor, I don’t know what is. Maybe we should all dress in bandages today, to mock ourselves for our recent actions.

Every city in the world has been victimized by the actions of its own citizens. A foreign tourist getting mugged in New York City would hardly make the news. A gang-related shooting in Compton, California? That’s just the world we live in. Anyone who doesn’t like it is free to up and leave.

Or you can stand up and say, “Wait a minute, this is not right. This is not the world I want.” As a foreigner, I cannot say that about Tartu. Only its citizens can, right?

I am free to leave Tartu, yet I choose to stay. My children are Estonian, and I make damned sure to teach them about the histories of two countries, to be proud of two peoples. I choose to raise my family in Tartu, Estonia. And I choose to stand up, have my voice heard: We will not tolerate violence in our city, on our streets.

A lot of people might disagree with the use of “we” and “our” in that statement, and that’s their right. But Tartu is not a closed city. It is part of the world, and the world should be embraced.

There have been several beatings of foreigners over the years. Nothing anyone would refer to as an actual problem, because the ratio of Estonians and Russians getting the crap kicked out of them is undoubtedly the same. Yet in the past few days, there have been three incidents of violence against foreigners.

The Postimees newspaper today wrote about a fight outside Pattaya, a local nightclub. Mace was involved, and everyone was drunk. Rumor has it one of the foreigners is still in a coma.

On Saturday night, a foreigner was walking home with two Estonians. Two different Estonian men apparently approached them on Võru Street and sprayed mace in the face of one of the Estonian friends of the foreigner. The other Estonian victim managed to escape and call the police. When they arrived, the two attackers were caught red-footed, repeatedly kicking the foreigner in the head. I’ll assume that alcohol had been consumed by at least some of those involved, but the foreigner must be over fifty. He’s not going to pick a fight with anyone. The attackers in both of these cases were arrested.

[The details concerning nationality and profession regarding the specific story above have been changed per the request of the victim, pending the trial of the attackers.]

Monday night, another foreigner was outside Püssirohukelder, the famous Gunpowder Cellar—the tallest pub in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. A group of three guys asked him something in Russian, he replied (I assume in English) that he didn’t speak Russian, and then they beat the hell out of him. He was taken to the hospital and his head X-rayed, but he’ll probably be fine. One of his eyes is completely shut though. I don’t know if the attackers were arrested.

[I received information via a mutual friend regarding this incident as well. The victim had been at Püssirohukelder but was walking in front of the Hotell Tartu, behind the Statoil on Turu Street, when he was attacked. The victim further learned that the same night, a coworker—an Estonian, not a foreigner—was also attacked by three people speaking Russian one hundred meters from the same location, just two hours earlier. The attackers asked him for a cigarette, and while he was distracted with pulling one out, he was attacked.]

I have not personally spoken to any of the victims, but I have first-hand accounts from mutual friends regarding the last two incidents.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve never felt unsafe in Tartu. Never, not once. But three incidents in a week is borderline suspicious. I choose to give Tartu the benefit of the doubt and say that it’s merely an ugly coincidence. Maybe people are fed up with the economy and the snow. But it is the duty of the city government and the police to assume otherwise and act accordingly.

But what could they possibly do, right? These three incidents all took place in what locals would refer to as problem areas. Yet if it is a problem area, where is the police presence? These “problem areas” are all right downtown. One of them is across the street from the main building of the university, not to mention immediately behind city hall. And sure, alcohol might have been involved at some level or other, but alcohol is merely an enabler. It is an explanation. It is not an excuse.

I find it extremely ironic that the city is currently campaigning itself as “Tolerant Tartu”. What a slap in the face. As much as I love Tartu, it hurts to admit that if a city has to advertise itself as tolerant, then said city probably has a problem with tolerance.

Originally I wanted to invite people to list any incidents they had personally experienced, or even just heard about. I decided against it. One reader went so far as to politely request that I not make this an “us versus them” post. That is a very wise thing to think, I might add. This situation is, however, an “us versus us” scenario. We all live in this city together. What we do to ourselves is everybody’s business.

It’s doubtful that the perpetrators will get any serious punishment. Jail time is unlikely. But if you know anyone who would pick a fight, beat someone up, harass a nerd, anything like that—I invite you to laugh at them for their cowardice. Perhaps shame is the only thing that will change their ways.

Perhaps the city could provide bumper stickers, buttons, pins and so on that say “Tolerant Tartu”. I know I would proudly sport one.

A lot of you might be thinking now, “How very American of Mingus.” might be right. But is it a bad thing to want the city you live in to be safe? America has an international reputation as a warring country. I hope you can look beyond that, just as I know that these random acts of violence do not represent the people of Tartu as a whole. It is what the people of Tartu do about it that will define their reputation.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


“Hey Mingus, they’re closing the meat restaurant!” —The meat restaurant? “The meat restaurant,” Mrs. Mingus shouted out to me late last week while reading the paper. Frantically I snatched the article from her hands and devoured it, hungry for a reason. “There just aren’t enough diners who eat out,” it reads—that’s really all the explanation there is. “Holy Crepp, you’re right!” I exclaimed, and picked up the phone to reserve a table.

There is more of an explanation, of course. One of the problems in Tartu’s restaurant scene is the reservation. But in order to understand how it is an issue that will need to be dealt with at some point, we must first categorize the local eateries. Tartu has a lot of places that are very expensive, considering what’s offered. Sometimes a small gimmick, usually void of customers and taste, and almost always some sort of pastel wall paint—purple and pink seem to be the favorites. As if frighteningly bright colors will whisk away bad attitudes and surly service on a dark winter night.

Next obviously is fast food. There has been a sudden expanse in fried variety of late. I’ll call it the Fatten Explosion and also apologize in the same sentence. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that the casinos are finally clearing out of the city en masse, replaced with numerous outlets for the same wholesale fries and mystery meat burgers. Evidently the government’s new regulation requiring mandatory background checks and DNA sampling upon entering a casino are having the desired effect. Will they next pass a similar law requiring some sort of examination upon entering a strip club?

The third category of restaurants in Tartu would be, well, everything else. Crepp, on Rüütli Street, falls into this group. If you want a nice atmosphere, decent service and edible food, you will eat at one of these places. And so will everyone else, which is why you often need to make a reservation. So many times over the years I’ve taken Mrs. Mingus out for a night on the town, only to be turned away from place after place because there are no tables available. What they do have, however, is a dining area half full of customers, and half full of empty tables with a nice little brass paperweight that says “Broneeritud” or “Reserveeritud”. One such eatery—the kind that cuts its napkins to cut costs—merely had a handwritten sign indicating that our table was reserved. I asked the help for a marker and printed a large P before the word. A week later they were still using the sign that read “Preserved” on their table. Paper must have been at a premium. Or maybe they just didn’t notice. Yeah, that’s probably it.

So on the phone with Krista—the waitress from Crepp—I was disappointed that I couldn’t have the large table for ten. I knew lots of people who would want one more meal here. The whole place was already reserved, except for one small table for two in the corner. I convinced Krista that we really wouldn’t mind having a third chair squeezed in as well. When we arrived, however, I wasn’t too surprised to see that except for two other tables, the place was empty. We were bumped up to a larger table for five due to a cancellation, but as we were near the door I couldn’t help but notice three different groups of people who were turned away because they didn’t have a reservation. This is not good business, in my book.

This reminds me of an experience in Tsink Plekk Pang years ago. Mrs. Mingus had just graduated and we reserved a very large table to celebrate. Every inch of our table was packed with friends, ordering food and drink. Basically giving the restaurant lots of money. We even had chairs behind chairs, all occupied. The rest of the restaurant was virtually empty, yet we still behaved and kept our voices down. Then suddenly the waiter—Kristjan—abruptly told us that we would have to leave.
“Why?” we asked in bewilderment.
—Another group is coming, and they reserved this table.
“Are you serious? But we’ve been here for hours.”
He just stared at us, a hint of expression in his eyes that suggested he didn’t understand why we didn’t just accept how we were being treated, as was his wont.
“So we’re giving you lots of business, the place is empty, and you want us to leave?”
—The table is reserved.
“No, the table is occupied.”
—Here’s your bill.
“Is this honestly how you treat customers?!”
—I don’t know.
“Do you treat all your customers like this?”
—I don’t know.
And he walked back to the bar. I wasn’t going to let it go that easily, so I got up and followed him.
“Listen, my wife just graduated today. That’s a big deal, you understand? We would really like to continue having a good time here. Is there any way you can move the next group to a different table?”
“Why not? The place is empty!”
—They specifically wanted this table.
“But we’re specifically here! Right now! When did the other party call?”
—Half an hour ago.
“And you don’t think that maybe there is something wrong with what you’ve done?”
—We are running a business here, and we don’t want to turn away customers.
“But you’re throwing out a large, paying group!”
He just shrugged. I went back to the table, paid in cash and left my beer for him. Evenly distributed all over the tablecloth and a couple chairs.
“Oops,” I mentioned as we walked out.

Crepp is a very small place. Seven tables I think (there’s also a café downstairs with a different menu). We were upstairs obviously. Upstairs is the part that’s closing. I think it would make much more sense for Tartu’s restaurants to accept no more than a couple reservations on any given night. If you tell someone on the phone, “I’m sorry, we can’t accept any more reservations tonight. But I’m sure we can find you something when you arrive,” it makes the place sound popular, attractive. Like the television ads that tell you to order now while supplies last. Much more welcoming than being turned away at the door of a restaurant with a sea of empty, reserved tables.

Over the past couple years I’ve taken no fewer than three foreign visitors to Crepp for a good dinner. That’s the kind of place it is—was. “I would recommend mystery meat sauce at this place down the street, or going out for a nice steak at Crepp.” I’ve uttered that sentence a few times. But it’s risky. Why? Because the five or six times I’ve eaten here, several of the steaks available have been out on all but two visits. There are only two possible explanations: one, it’s so popular they just sell out of it; and two, they just don’t know how to keep it in stock. I believe the second explanation is more probable. The place is going out of business for lack of patrons, after all. It’s a fairly serious business gaffe for a restaurant that used to be called simply “Meat Restaurant” to be out of meat on a regular basis. Regular at least meaning whenever I personally go there. But to be fair, running out of stock is a ubiquitous practice infecting the city of Tartu.

The owner himself greeted customers at the door this night, and personally took our coats to hang them up. As this was the last time we’d ever be able to eat here, we spent a fair amount of money on booze. Pastis, wine and vodka, mainly. We started with an order of steak tartare—raw ground beef or horse meat, basically. Fortunately ours was Estonian beef. Typically consumed with vodka. Rumor has it it’s the best steak tartare in Estonia, and I would not doubt it. Three orders of chateaubriand, Mrs. Mingus took the duck and I ordered the salmon and tilapia, accompanied by a ninety-four Rioja. We asked the owner if he would care to do a shot with us if we ordered another round, and he answered “Yep!” before the question was even finished.

The steak here is good. I won’t say excellent, but then again I have very high standards for steak these days. I was fortunate enough to be invited to a semi-private dinner at Illegaard with the Romanian chef from Vilde preparing specially imported Brazilian tenderloin. It was amazing. You can’t compare it. This is how I see things now: there is steak, and anything else is just beef. When I got back from the States last month, I tipped my cabbie extra to get me to the bar as fast as possible, only to discover I was the first to arrive. Hungry as I was after international travel, I didn’t wait for any of the other invitees, so I wolfed down my steak (well, actually I slowly ate about a hundred small bites, savoring each) and went home to sleep off my jet lag. In Crepp, the steak is beef. Delicious beef, but still just beef. My fish was good, but it was full of bones. To be honest, it was a bit difficult to eat and it made me paranoid.

The main reason I’ve always liked Crepp upstairs though is the side dishes. These are excellent. The chef here really knows how to cook vegetables, staunchly avoiding the Holy Trinity of Tartu—pineapple, red bell pepper and blue cheese. It’s almost as if the owner should have reversed the menu to read “Wasabi potatoes and ratatouille in red wine sauce, with a side of beef”. I will miss this.

But to clarify my earlier criticisms—Crepp is a well-managed place I believe, a good restaurant. The things I said about reservations and stocking apply to most places in Tartu. I was surprised to find that while Monday is the last day of business, Sunday it was closed. “Why?” I asked him. He’s throwing a dinner party for the staff, cooking it himself. If more bosses in Estonia behaved this way, I suspect the country might move up a couple notches from nearly dead last on virtually every list of world happiness by country.

The atmosphere is tasteful, reminiscent of the “boom time” of a couple years ago when it opened. It was unquestionably marketed for the nouveau riche—the people who just recently began to make money for the first time and immediately went out and bought peacock costumes and paraded around like they were professionals who danced on the floats in Rio’s Carnaval. Those people are still around of course, but they are all wearing Monton now and frequenting hamburger joints across the city.

And that’s just what gets my goat. Crepp is closing for the wrong reason. Past criticisms aside, a good restaurant should only be forced to close if there are too many even better restaurants that soak up the clientele. This is not the case right now. Crepp is closing because everyone is abandoning good, quality food and atmosphere in exchange for French fries in a former casino.