Saturday, April 24, 2010


Flourishing tourism, a sprawling downtown and a medieval Old Town that many in the West probably think was fashioned after Disney’s Magic Kingdom, and not the other way around. So just how big a difference is there between dining out in Tartu and Tallinn? This little Mingus will attempt to answer that very question. For the next three reviews, you will hear the tales of a recent week spent in the capital of Estonia.

First of all, you have to get there. We chose to drive. The highway from Tartu is supposedly considered the single most dangerous highway in the European Union. The road itself is fine, although it is only two lanes and passes through several villages. The danger is that people have to travel it often, and get tired of the endless truck traffic. Many pass on curves without looking and expect oncoming drivers to give way. A network of traffic cameras has been installed, but I wouldn’t worry about them. There is a warning each time you approach one, and they look like robots from Star Wars and are immediately to the side of the pavement.

Due to the nature of our visit to the “head city”, we opted for a hotel that was a little west of the Old Town. The Hotel Vertigo. Actually it’s called the “Uniquestay Hotel Mihkli in Tallinn” (that’s a long name), but when we first entered our room on the top floor, I thought I was beginning to pass out, I felt so dizzy. Luckily, Mrs. Mingus said she felt strange, too. Then I realized the problem wasn’t us, it was the hotel. First of all, the floor was slanted, and if you stood two steps inside from the doorway, you could feel the building swaying. It’s only four floors. I told the other people in our group to “stand right here, and tell me what you feel.” They all noticed it.

Also, the elevator broke while we were in it. I had to pry the doors open to get out. Overall the hotel was clean, but it just seemed kind of, well, crappy. But that’s why it was so cheap. The breakfast buffet was served in a Brazilian-themed restaurant in the basement that used parrots as decorations and played the greatest hits of Muzak. The staff were polite, especially as our plans changed a little, and there was an extra room awailable that had wallpapares.

Time for dinner. Located behind the Coca-Cola Plaza (the multi-floor cinema complex), Vapiano is right downtown. You can hear the voice of a modern city—that sort of ever-present whooshing sound—quite well from the front door, although the restaurant is nestled into a cozy little nook near the sea. The sea—that’s one thing I’ll never understand about Tallinn. They hardly take advantage of the sea. There are fantastic pedestrian malls all over the downtown area, but none are overlooking the Gulf of Finland. Maybe it’s the constant wind that blows them away from the coast.

Vapiano is a unique experience. There are no waitstaff. When you walk in, you’re greeted by a hostess and given a card. Each person is given a card. You have to go to different stations and place your orders for drinks and food, all prepared in front of you, and then take it to your table and enjoy. This is a gimmick that works. You present your card on the way out and pay.

The menu is divided into three price classes, ranging from the sixties to the hundred-twenty-fives, and you can choose which pasta you want for each (did I mention this is an Italian restaurant?). I ordered the Italian sausage with penne from the expensive class which, all things considered, isn’t that pricey. The chef—the nametag said Krista—apparently hadn’t bargained for dealing directly with customers when she went to cooking school. Over the crackling of the stoves, she was very hard to hear and seemed less than enthusiastic about her profession when she asked which of the several options I wanted on my plate. But I still thoroughly enjoyed my dinner. It was a very large portion, and with all the cheese (perhaps even too much Parmesan) and sausage it was heavier than what I had hoped for, but the flavor was fantastic! Others in our group were slightly less satisfied with their dinners, yet they all quickly said they would eat here again if the opportunity arose. The salads are especially popular.

My advice if you’re eating in Vapiano for the first time: order your drinks from the bar first, and spend time studying the menu before you talk to Krista. As you won’t be familiar with how the restaurant works, it can be a bit daunting. I asked the bartender if they had a dry red wine, and I was offered a sample from an open bottle. A free sample of an alcoholic drink? I’ve never seen that happen in Tartu.

After the meal, however, I had this uncontrollable urge to drink a beer. I hardly ever drink beer. Maybe it was because I wanted to make up for the first time I’d eaten at Vapiano, last autumn, when I was driving but really wanted a stiff drink. The whole Mingus clan and a friend went, and it must have been rush hour. We were all hungry and tired from the drive to Tallinn, and had no clue of how to order. The kids were going crazy and I couldn’t look at the menu for so much as two consecutive seconds. Mrs. Mingus and our friend went to stand in line to order their pasta, and I stayed with the kids and tried to figure out what my starving stomach wanted.

The next thing I knew, Littlest Mingus—she’s two—had somehow got stuck between the pillar and sofa in this image. But she can’t fit through there. She’d fallen into it, with her head and one leg on one side, and the rest of her body on the other. Her neck was in between, and she let out the most blood-curdling cry I’d ever heard from her. I thought her little neck was broken, and the sofa was bolted to the floor and couldn’t be budged. This was the single most terrifying moment of my life. My only choice was to lift her up, but as I couldn’t lift from both sides at once, it was difficult. Perhaps if someone had come to help—anyone really, staff or customers—it would have been easier, but I somehow managed. Fortunately Littlest Mingus was only frightened—not injured. Still, not a single person came to ask if we were fine. But they were watching. People who have heard this story all agree that while Vapiano is a great place, it’s best to leave the littluns home.

A couple I’m friends with used to be frequent customers in Vapiano. They were eagerly trying to take advantage of a customer card that offered a free ninth meal after the previous eight. They paid separately and got stamps on the same card, and had done this repeatedly. One day, however, the hostess wouldn’t do it. “One customer, one meal, one card, one stamp,” she stated.
—But we’ve been doing this for weeks, my friend protested.
She just stared.
—Show me where it’s written that we can’t share a stamp card.
She couldn’t. She just stared.
—Mathematically, there’s no difference if we have one card or two. We’re still buying the same number of meals, and getting the same number of free meals.
“One customer, one card,” she robotically droned on. The manager was standing there as well, and said nothing. Silence means approval.
—Well, we won’t be coming here again, he stated before paying and leaving. Personally, I’ve noticed tons of this anal attention to meaningless detail, and it’s disappearing from Estonia at a constant pace. However, it is rampant in Northern Europe. Have a free sample, I’ll even give you a smile, but you must have your paperwork in order. I suspect my friends now visit the other Vapiano, in the new Solaris mall a few minutes away.

There are a lot of farners in Vapiano. I heard the hostess say, “Welcome back”, “Nice to see you again”, and so on several times in English as non-Estonians walked in, one after another. A well-known secret, this place is. Ultra-modern yet inviting, a lot of the locals who were in the restaurant seemed overly fashion-conscious. Lots of people who spend their days at tanning salons and dye their hair jet black, wearing pink and white pants and shirts.

After a “positive taste experience”, as local restaurants like to say, we hit the bars. I’ve heard so much chatter about a new place in the Old Town called Drink Bar and Grill. What a name! It reminds me of the numerous places on the highway called “Hot Food”, or the produce stands called “Potato” and “Cucumber”. Well, no, they’re not called that, but they always list what they sell in the singular. “We have one potato for sale, and once we sell it, we’re going home. But we’ll be back tomorrow with a cucumber.” To be fair, the owner of Drink, I believe, is British. Meaning, the name is intentional.

Drink offers a good selection of draught beers, and I asked about one I wasn’t familiar with. Another free sample! I should have asked if I could try their vodkas and whiskeys as well, but then realized that this was specifically why samples weren’t given in Tartu, and why you had to pay for ketchup in fast-food joints. Drink is a nice enough place, not too pricey, but we left after one beer because the toilet smell was a bit overpowering. It smelled like every pub in Camden Town.

Next was Clazz, a trendy restaurant and nightclub, across from Town Hall Square. The music was good, the drinks the same price as Tartu, and apparently it’s where the koor koorest go to be seen (koor means crème). Tanel Padar of Eurovision and local rock fame was seen with his entourage. I also met Abdul Turay, the frequent writer for Estonian newspapers. Very nice man.

What I don’t understand about Tallinn is why they have reacted so strongly to the current economic climate. Everyone says that prices are often half what they used to be, meaning they’re the same as prices in Tartu. In Tallinn, the portions seemed a bit larger, a bit fresher, a bit more polite, but for the same cost as a small city two hours to the south in the middle of nowhere. The hotels were a fraction of the Tartu prices. Or maybe it’s just Tartu that eludes my comprehension.

After leaving Clazz, we passed by the Polish embassy. For some reason, I found myself glued to the spot, having a quiet moment of reflection.


Justin said...

Vapiano is pretty good, but they face 2 issues:
1. If you have a car, parking can be difficult (at the Hobujaama location). They have about 5 spots in front of the place, but if those are full, you not only have to take a huge circle back around to look for more places (up Ahtri and on Jõe street), but you're unlikely to find one at the busy time since they are taken by movie-goers or visitors to Zebra and Island.
2. The idea of standing in line while they cook your food is good and fast, as long as it's not the peak time. If it's busy and you're stuck behind 5 people, you'll be waiting in line for a while (it takes about 5 minutes to process each person in line). That is where a restaurant with wait service excels -- you can sit down and relax while you wait for your food to be prepared.

Nonetheless, it's a good price-quality mix and generally quite fast.

Indeed the city has not exploited its location by the sea. Most of the nearby sea property is devoted to the ports, and those layouts are not very pedestrian-friendly (try walking from the D-port to the C-port for example). Some big developer, Arco Vara I think, was going to build a huge entertainment complex on the lot next to Norde Centrum but backed out, so now it's just a large gravel-covered parking lot.

Clazz is owned by the Olde Hansa crowd, so service is very good though their prices could be a bit better.

Check out and write about either Kohvik Moon or Nop. I'm interested to hear what you think about those places.

John said...

Kadri and I think Vapiano is "Delizioso!" We especially like the daily special (available even at night) usually pasta arrabiata, cooked to your particular specifications for like four dollars. The Vapiano in Solaris has some great views of Tallinn too! BTW surprisingly good, cheap Sushi is also available just upstairs at Sushihouse/Cinnamon and world-class cakes/views at Komeet! There is NO COMPARISON between Tartu and Tallinn in terms of food! Tallinn has way more/better/cheaper options! Heck just Solaris alone might beat Tartu! ( Still Tartu has it's charm!

Anonymous said...

I've been to Clazz. I think it's just a couple steps above the lounge on an overnight ferry to Stockholm. And Tanel Padar sucks.

Ragne said...

Clazz has it's charm, specially the spacious girl's restroom downstairs, but i usually find it to be too loud for any kind of decent conversation. But i've also been there mostly when some performer is on, that might be the reason ..