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.


L said...

Noo, can't believe that underwear/handbag/sock shop closed down. There's no need for yet another cafe right there!

John said...

Mmmmmm doughnuts!

Anonymous said...

Kohvipaus is my favorite place :)

Anonymous said...

Looks like previous Anonymous hasn´t been in Kohvipaus lately - the prices went up since the euro and the salat I got today, had been reduced from 100% to 55% + no bun anymore. Sad, sad, sad! Aa, one positive thing too, today they had parmesan for my Caesar, many times they don´t.