Monday, May 3, 2010


Visiting Tallinn inevitably involves a lot of walking. That’s a good thing, I think. The entire city is linked by an intricate public transit system, and if you ask a local how to get from point a to point b, they will probably tell you to take a troll. A troll? Yes, the big ugly monsters from fantasy literature. I guess they mean “trolley” but as there are three main forms of transportation, it’s not quite certain which is which in English. There are “trams”—small trains that travel on tracks—buses and electric buses connected to an overhead network of electrical cables. One of those is the troll.

In the Old Town, however, you are limited to the private options: various forms of rental (Segways and bicycle rickshaws, for example) and of course the foot. And the foot gets tired. I must say, though, how surprised I was at the amount of car traffic in the Old Town. And especially the speed at which said traffic traveled. Several times I had to jump out of the way of an unseen Audi heard around the corner of a winding, labyrinthine street. There are no traffic mirrors anywhere. One guy came speeding up the street at close to highway speeds, slammed on the brakes, turned up one passage, stopped, drove blindly in reverse, turned the car around, and sped as quickly as possible back down Väike-Karja Street (and narrowly missing an approaching car), only to park and wait a full half minute before slowly getting out and meandering over to a shop called Raw. The kids stayed in the car.

On a side note, after having visited Tallinn several times a year over the last decade, never—not once—have I heard Estonian spoken by anyone walking. I know the population is roughly fifty-fifty Estonian, but they just seem terribly underrepresented on the street. This is something I noticed in the nineties, and for me at least, it is still valid today. I’ve also never noticed a sign that says, “Estonian cuisine” or anything similar, referring of course to a place to eat. The gift shop windows are full of matryoshka dolls and sculptures of Fat Margaret and Tall Hermann, the bars are Irish or English-themed (one doesn’t even have a name!), and all manner of cuisine can be found with a little patience and luck, but I have yet to see a restaurant called Kartul. Or maybe there is one. Yeah, I think there is.

Farners and Estonians alike joke about local, traditional cuisine, and I have to admit there are quite a few stinkers out there, but I have eaten at “Estonian” restaurants that serve high-quality Estonian food, and I have to say it’s delicious. What a passionate Estonian chef can do with grain, pork, mushrooms and dairy is simply amazing, so long as said chef leaves out the snooty influences of various red-wine braises and blue cheese marinades—things with no historical roots here. Stick to things that are primarily made of roots.

That said, our feet were tired and we happened across a place called Chakra—look up the definition as I won’t try to explain it here, except that it loosely means energy nodes in the body. Indian food. I’m not that familiar with Indian as I’m not from England, but most of what I’ve had has been very tasty, very different. The combinations of flavor can be fantastic—star anise, cumin, turmeric, cilantro—and I love heat in food (temperature and spice-wise). I try to avoid the use of the term “ethnic” though when describing foreign cuisines as I can’t imagine hippies in India smoking weed and eating burgers.

It was an early Sunday afternoon, and there were only two other tables occupied in the entire restaurant on Bremeni käik in the Old Town. The service was top-notch—that is to say, what it should be. Our waitress—Krista—was quick, attentive, polite, clean and informative. If she didn’t know something, she apologized and went to ask. Our party of four quickly discovered we’d all chosen the same menu item (roasted Tandoori chicken), so I forced them to select again so we could all sample greater variety.

The naan was especially good. We polished off the garlic naan almost immediately and ordered more—this time with onion. The sauces were absolutely delicious. The mint was the favorite of the table. I am unable to say if this food was high quality, because I admit I do not have much experience with this cuisine, but we were all extremely pleased with Chakra. The only (only!) thing that was less than perfect was the amount of rice served us. One platter for the table, it was devoured within minutes, and a second helping would cost. I couldn’t help but wonder if the same amount would be served to a party of three, or two.

I had some trouble getting my chicken off the bones, so I gave in and used my fingers. After I’d finished, I thoroughly wiped my hands clean, and went outside to enjoy some tobacco while on vacation. I stood near the door and watched the passers-by. Three highly attractive women all gave me dirty looks and stepped up their pace. I was at a loss. I was just standing there, minding my own business, and people were voluntarily frowning—no, looking at me disgustedly! Was the product I was enjoying so offensive to Tallinners?

After going back inside, I looked around through the different chambers in the restaurant to find the jaan. Found it. I opened the door and walked in, and a loud blasting sound scared me so badly my previous life flashed before my eyes. The hand dryer was powerful, and was mounted a little too close to the door. My shoulder had inadvertently activated the motion sensor when I walked in. Now, I have some slightly unusual characteristics and behaviors. When I’m scared like that, I start laughing. Laughing loudly. And I hadn’t closed the door yet. I turned around to do just that—still laughing—and saw the owner watching me with the same look the women outside had given me.

The mirror in the gorgeously decorated jaan solved that mystery right away. I hadn’t completely wiped away the red from the chicken on my fingers, and while enjoying my tobacco outside, the red had spread to my face, resulting in a long, colored line starting from the corner of my mouth and proceeding down the side of my jaw. It looked like I was bleeding profusely. And from the owner’s point of view, he just saw a bloody guy laughing with crazy eyes while walking into the jaan.

Chakra’s interior was snug yet still spacious. Located somewhat in a basement, it was still far enough above ground to take full advantage of the numerous windows. Romantic, dim lighting, but light and fresh. A unique combination. I liked it. The bricks and rocks in the walls had been beautifully restored (is it limestone in Tallinn?). My absolute favorite interiors are those of tastefully decorated basements—Chakra obviously being a prime specimen.

Back in the days when the Internet was hard to find in Tartu, there was an Internet café in Annelinn, the “workers’ paradise” section of town. Above it was a restaurant that offered Thai, Chinese and Indian cuisine, all on separate menus. I think the restaurant was even divided into three different sections, all sharing the same kitchen. It was bad. I’m not sure if it’s still there. Then later, in the downtown shopping plaza called Kaubahall—across the street from the other downtown shopping plaza called Kaubamaja—an Indian restaurant opened. It was slightly on the cheapish side in terms of quality, but it was better than the mystery meat burgers available in the parking lot at Toidutorn (Food Tower). It lasted just a few months, despite my frequent business. To my knowledge, that is the complete history of Indian cuisine in Tartu.

Back to Tallinn, though. I have had Indian coffee several times, and while I can’t say I have ever had a craving for cardamom or ginger in my coffee, it’s quite good from time to time. We opted out of coffeeing up at Chakra, however, because we had to meet some friends at the Reval Café on Müürivahe Street, again in the Old Town.

The coffees and lattes were delicious, as were the fresh pastries. Well actually, Mrs. Mingus didn’t care too much for the caramel éclair, but that was just because of the flavor. She gave it to one of our friends, who loved it. The atmosphere was mildly upscale, but still relaxed. The service was friendly.

Several small glass shelves adorned the stone walls, offering unusually beautiful examples of how candles don’t have to be for snobs alone, but can in fact be cool. I went to go explore the long room in the back to take a couple photos. It was fairly dark, and I tripped on the unmarked step in the middle of the floor. Be careful of that if you visit the Reval Café.

The friends we met were in fact not just friends, but family. Sort of. I’m not quite sure how to refer to one of them. My partner-in-law? My sister-in-law’s partner. This is an extremely nice man who, later that night, would get me in trouble with the police. And the other was my niece and godmingus—Mrs. Mingus’s sister’s daughter. We left in a hurry to go drop off their bags at the Hotel Vertigo. Only a couple hours until the week’s main event—but more on that next week.


Flasher T said...

Oh man. I wish you'd turned to the owner and said "WHY SO SERIOUS?".

John said...

I traveled for three months in the sub-continent and NEVER had a bad meal (or got sick [ptui, ptui, ptui!]). I had three rules for choosing a restaurant: 1) vegetarian, 2) clean, and 3) crowded [preferably with locals]! In the west I usually just look for an "All U Can Eat Buffet!" or a good "Lunch Special!" My pick for a tasty Indian lunch in the center of Old Town Tallinn is Elevant ( though I haven't tried Chakra. Wish curry houses were as ubiquitous everywhere as they are now in London!

Justin said...

About the car situation: I think many residents of Old Town (including myself) would prefer if they limited traffic so that only residents can park there. Anyone can drive through (given the bumpy roads, it's not efficient as a shortcut), but the only people who can park there are residents.

The problem we face is there are not enough parking spaces for residents, and yet the city allows non-residents to park there, and even sells parking permits to non-residents (residents pay a reduced price).

Also in terms of speed, I've tested it myself and it's hard to go above 30 km/h without your car falling apart... the cars just seem to be going faster because they make so much noise bouncing around. I believe the speed limit in old town is 30.