Saturday, April 17, 2010

Asian Chef

Mrs. Mingus bolted across the living room, into the kitchen, and spat out the contents of her mouth in the sink. Probably due to the six spoonfuls of salt added to her morning mug of coffee. After she had uttered several expletives, I replied with a friendly “April Fools’!” A few minutes later, while in the shower, she dumped ice-cold water on me no fewer than three times.

Later in the day, a friend called to thank me for faxing a “Wanted” poster with his face on it to his office, which is now framed and hanging on the wall. One of our project managers is still angry that she went downstairs to tell the security guard to let me in (we don’t have a security guard). This is my favorite day of the year.

And for dinner, Little Mingus (my older daughter) said she wanted sushi. Yes, she actually does like and eat sushi. Maki, to be more precise, but the uniqueness of her food preferences is not lost on me. There’s not much point in spending hundreds of kroons, however, for something I can make at home for a fraction of the price, especially considering that I cannot tell the difference between the good stuff and the bad stuff. But on this day, there was no time to roll maki—there was much more important work to be done.

As I’m not in the habit of carrying around cash in Estonia—you can pay by card everywhere, except a certain kebob stand and most home deliveries—our choices of having maki shuttled home and paying without paper money were limited. I remembered a place called Londiste. I’d ordered it once, when I was too sick to shop or cook. The food was less than desirable, but they did have maki, in cheap abundance.

Mrs. Mingus and I spent ten minutes browsing their on-line menu and compiling our order. Time to call. Line disconnected. We checked the number, called again, line still disconnected. Five places on their site displayed the same number. We looked at the homepage to see if they had a new number listed. Nothing. As a last resort, I browsed through the guestbook. Out of business. Since last November.

Nice April Fools’ joke, I thought to myself. Unfortunately, it was real, and we were hungry. The hour was getting late and we’d wasted almost twenty minutes trying to order from a place that was too lazy to take their webpage off line, instead preferring to pay for web hosting, despite their being closed. Little Mingus was going to be upset.

And yes, she started screaming hysterically from the living room, but not because of the maki. “My little sister is throwing poop all over the room, and she’s eating it, too!” We ran as fast as we could, and sure enough, there were little brown pellets all over the rug, and her little sister really was munching on one of the pellets, a rascally expression in her two-year old eyes. Mrs. Mingus and I were rightfully horrified, but disgust quickly turned to hilarity when we discovered we’d been had. Little Mingus had taken some left-over cookie dough from the refrigerator, made little balls, strategically placed them throughout the living room, and had even supplied one to her sister. It was her first April Fools’ prank. She had a promising career ahead of her.

We decided to give the new Asian-themed restaurant a try —Asian Chef—at the corner of Võru and Riia Streets. The menu seems professional enough, but as you browse it more, you discover that some of the dishes are Thai, some Chinese and some Indian. I wonder if somewhere in Bangkok there’s a restaurant for locals that serves French, Italian and Russian. Because they’re all European.

No maki, but the prices seemed about right, and as I mentioned, we were hungry and time was an issue. We placed our order, and then asked Krista—the waitress—when we could pick it up (you can’t pay by card for home delivery). “I’d say about thirty minutes. No, make that forty-five minutes. Or let’s just say seven o’clock.”
—But that’s already fifty minutes.
“Yes, see you then!”

So I left to finish my day’s labors. A quick trip to Selver and some grunt work out in the parking lot. After wrapping a fish in newspaper and writing a romantic love letter from Yevgeny, I drove to the Mingus-in-laws’. Parking down the street, I quietly approached their front door and placed the fish and letter on their doorstep, further adorned with some flowers and a small bottle of vodka. Then I rang the doorbell and ran for my life.

On the way to Asian Chef, I made sure various friends would find dried fish in their mailboxes (a French tradition). Then the allotted fifty minutes had passed, and I went to the restaurant. The location itself held a certain sentimental value to me. Years ago, when I first arrived in Tartu, there had been a bar next door called Peegli pub, or Mirror Pub. Quite an original name, as the interior was covered with mirrors. My fellow students and I frequently went there for lunch between our Estonian classes, and more frequently than not we stayed there, lured by beer, rather than spend the afternoon assembling paper cut-out puzzles with Estonian sentences hand-written on them.

I had once gone into Peegli pood, or Mirror Shop (now Asian Chef), which is right next door, to buy some lunch. Not speaking a word of the language yet, I pointed to what seemed to be a battered and fried piece of mystery meat behind the sneeze guard. I experienced what Mrs. Mingus felt when she drank her salted coffee. It was something sweet that had been deep-fried. I’ve experienced this a lot in Estonia—a food or drink that is fairly good, so long as you’re expecting it, but because it is not what you are expecting it is repulsive. A birthday party with a delicious-looking cake—I took a big slice, only to discover it was a herring cake. I took a sip of Mrs. Mingus’s Coke once, only to discover it was kvass, a sort of liquid Vegemite.

The interior of Asian Chef is a bit eclectic, like the menu. Hints of Asia with countryside wooden beams and a charred, brick fireplace, replete with bathroom tiles on the restaurant floor—very Nordic in its own way. But inviting nonetheless. I waited a few minutes for Krista to notice a customer had arrived. Fifty-five minutes after calling in my order, she appeared. “Hi, just a few more minutes,” she politely said.
—No problem, I assured her. May I ask a question? Are the owners Estonian?
“What do you mean?”
—The people who own this restaurant, are they Estonian?
“One is not, and neither is the other. But yes, they’re both Estonian.”
I didn’t know what to think, so I just continued my questions.
—And the chefs?
“They’re both from Nepal.”
—Oh, really? And do you offer Nepalese food then? That would be nice to try.
“I’m sorry, this is an Asian restaurant.”

The food was, in fact, fairly good. I wouldn’t say it was spectacular, and definitely not better than Žen-Žen, but it had several menu items that the latter did not. If its reputation spreads, it will provide competition, with customers as the winners. We didn’t care too much for the Hot and Sour Chicken Soup—fairly bland, not at all spicy—but the Garlic Naan was excellent. It may be an Indian bread, but as this is a de facto fusion restaurant, I fused it with my tasty Chop Suey and Mrs. Mingus’s Sweet and Sour Chicken. Now, I’ve never liked sweet and sour before, but I was delighted to finish off my children’s sweet and sour chicken. This is the first restaurant that’s ever produced a sweet and sour recipe I thoroughly enjoyed. Not being snobby, just something about the taste that until now has rubbed me the wrong way.

I think the desserts were good, too, but they should not be ordered for take-out. In-house only. We had fried, candied apples and fried pineapple slices. I decided to give this property another try regarding sweet, fried items. The tiniest little scoop of ice cream had been packaged with the simmering fruit, cooling the dessert and soaking it through and through. In other Asian eateries, the ice cream is served separately.

As for the take-out boxes, I think they were free. Could this be the one place in Tartu that doesn’t charge for take-out boxes? Amazing! And they were so cute, too! Not Styrofoam or flimsy paper, but an actual take-out box—like Asian take-out in the rest of the world!

Asian Chef should definitely survive a few years in Tartu’s tough competitive environment. If it doesn’t, I’m sure it will be promptly replaced with another motley mix of ethnic cuisines—maybe a copy and paste of that European restaurant from Bangkok. But until then, I will visit Asian Chef again.

Mrs. Mingus did not speak to me during the entire dinner. Not because it was so mouthwateringly delicious, but because while I was out picking up our delivery dinner and delivering fish and flowers, she had discovered that the tray of spring flowers she’d planted—for later transfer to the garden—had sprouted. Sprouted fingernail clippings from the entire family. I blamed it on my daughter, even though we all knew it was something I had cooked up myself. Then Mrs. Mingus-in-law called. “Thank you! I’ve never laughed so hard in my life!”


Justin said...

I find the name and sign for the place amusing. They have a picture of an Asian guy on the front as if they are desperate to prove they have an Asian chef.

There can't be that many Nepalese in Tartu -- could these be the same chefs that used to work at Glam?

I believe Truffe also does not charge for take-away containers.

Marika said...

I was in Tartu this past weekend and heard this place mentioned in two separate conversations (although one Estonian referred to it as "Asian Chief"). It piqued my interest, so I'll try it next time I'm in town.