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.


Mingus said...

An anonymous commenter texted this message to my phone:

"I had a similar experience, so I suggest you do as I do. Occupy a table in the restaurant, then make sure to reserve your table for the evening. This has 2 benefits. Firstly, the table is yours for the evening. Secondly, it confuses the crap out of the waiter."

John said...

Crepp is one of the better restaurants in Tartu(decent food at decent prices within the reach of students on a splurge)but it is often hard to get a table. IMHO they should prob. add more tables(plenty of room downstairs) or move to a bigger space. You'd think the upstairs "meat" restaurant could survive on the overflow but I guess it is just a little too pricey.

While you lament the loss of a moderate to expensive, high quality eatery and the arrival of too many crappy, fast food joints I long for more good, cheap places that cater to students. Tartu is already too upscale and needs to reach out to the population that is it's raison d'etre. Where I went to uni the vast majority of places were aimed at the students with a handful of expensive restaurants. In Tartu it's just the opposite! I really don't know how students afford to live in Tartu. Yet somehow they find ways to drink(and pay the outrageous nightclub covercharges) but that's a whole other topic!

Anonymous said...

I'm looking at Estonia for investment, which is how I came by your website.

It's a nice read about your dining, and it's unfortunately something that is happening all over the world where fast food joints are allowed to open. being a westerner I grew up only knowing fast food and a decimated local cuisine (Australia), I never realised how enriching it is have your own protected cuisine was until I went to Tunisia where all the McD's and Burger Kings are simply banned.