There is a running joke that several of the Americans living in Estonia are undercover operatives for the Central Intelligence Agency. Probably in search of the missing reactors from the Soviet-era naval base in Paldiski. While I cannot openly admit that I myself am an agent, I am authorized to say that I regularly enlist the help of several informers. What follows is a full account of a crime recently committed in Tartu. The crime is that this food is not more readily available.
The Fabulous Gourmet Club, first brought to the public’s eye twenty years ago in a documentary titled The Freshman, continues its clandestine activities. The local ringleader is none other than “the Romanian”, of whom I have been known to write. For extraordinary prices—the aforementioned film contends it is a million dollars, but in the current economy it is only five hundred fifty kroons—gourmet enthusiasts can eat the last surviving specimens of various endangered species. The film, in one instance, documents the consumption of a Komodo dragon.
In the back room of Illegaard, a popular underground bar in Tartu on Ülikooli Street—a fitting venue, really, for epicurean mafiosi—the various members began to assemble for the most recent meeting of the Fabulous Gourmet Club. When all members were accounted for, the Romanian called them to order. But ordering wasn’t an option. The menu was already fixed—an eight-course meal with eleven separate dishes.
First were the appetizers—a strawberry doused in chocolate, followed by carbonated grapes in tarragon syrup and focaccia with tapenade. My informer says these did indeed whet his appetite, and that the focaccia was among the best he’d ever had. Among? No, ignore that word and repeat the sentence.
Gazpacho is similar to Mexican salsas in that both are mainly puréed and of raw ingredients. The Romanian, however, gelatinized his gazpacho and served it with a spicy Catalan herbal sauce. This novelty of preparation was new to my informer’s palate, and he thoroughly enjoyed it. Gazpacho in general is not completely unlike a Bloody Mary, and it is refreshing. Which is what it is supposed to be. That’s why the Spanish eat it in their hot climes.
Next it was time for the first endangered species—pâté of bald eagle served with fig compote. Of course the Romanian could not advertize bald eagle on his menu, so it was listed as duck. The bald eagle pâté was a group favorite among the elite club members.
Barbequed Iberian lynx—one of Europe’s most endangered species—was the next dish. The menu had it listed as beaver, however, and it was presented in a phyllo basket over asparagus. The portion was small of course, and some bites were tougher than others, but it most certainly did have that “gamey” flavor that many hunting enthusiasts so cherish. My informer recounts that the more he ate, the more he became accustomed to the taste, and began to quite enjoy the lynx.
At this point, there was an intermission in this fine dining experience. Several of the members stepped out to the staircase to enjoy hand-rolled Cubans, while many of the others approached the bar to order a drink. “What’s going on back there?” Krista the bartender asked my informer.
—We’re having a—
At this point the Romanian stuck his head out of the kitchen door and stared him in the eyes. The informer continued:
—Don’t ask me about this business, K.
“Is it true?”
—Don’t ask me about this business.
And the Romanian winked and disappeared once more to the hot kitchen. All was well.
As an appetizer to the second half of dinner, mango sorbet in passion fruit was placed on the table. An interesting combination that really worked. The mild sweetness of it had the effect of causing everyone to become hungry for more.
Black ink from a giant squid in risotto with tiger shrimp and green mussels were the next course. My informer claimed the rice was a bit underdone for his taste, but a prominent local chef at the tables as a guest countered by stating that it was perfect. Other members of the club said it was the best risotto they’d ever had. The mussels were indeed memorable.
One of my first memories from France was ordering a plate full of mussels for almost no money. I was a bit squeamish at first, eating them right out of the shell, but as they were so good I couldn’t stop eating them. There was a shopping mall in Paris with a cafeteria-style restaurant that served mussels as well. Mussels were everywhere! Just like French fries in America and boiled potatoes in Estonia. I can only imagine what wonders the Romanian grew up eating.
My informer forgot to take a photo of the pygmy hippopotamus, but the very same animal from the Tallinn Zoo, before its untimely demise, is in this image. Can you guess which one it was? The menu listed it as a rack of lamb with yam and date purée. The rock salt sprinkled on the meat added especially potent flavor to this specialty of the Romanian. Illegaard’s owner, who did a wonderful job of hosting this meeting of the Fabulous Gourmet Club, later called and offered to sell an extra leg of the hippopotamus, as I hadn’t been able to attend the dinner. I declined, citing my ignorance of how to cook it.
There were two desserts. The first was a goat’s cheese truffle served with a walnut topped in a caramelized tower of sugar. This was a bold thing to offer on a menu whose choices you can’t refuse, as there are a great many people in this world who despise goat’s cheese, but it worked. I was assured it was fabulous, as the club’s name will claim.
The final dessert was listed as “Chocolate Oblivion”. This needs no description. The flavor and texture, I was told, were even better than what the last image would lead you to believe.
Presumptuous is what I would be were I to tell people how to find happiness, especially when the real number of unemployed in Estonia currently surpasses twenty percent. Casino revenues in this country have deflated to near-record levels. Yet the damage to visitors to casinos has skyrocketed. I’m not talking about habitual gamblers, but those who turn to drink and Gin Rummy to lament their long-term unemployment or approaching financial doom and who hope to “get rich quick”. The house will always win.
Instead, I would like to suggest that these people take just a fraction of the money they would lose on any given night (hey, where do they get all this money anyhow?) and treat themselves and their loved ones to a dinner similar to the Fabulous Gourmet Club. You can still drink.
Lay down your mystery meat, relinquish your ketchup and experience true food for just one night. It will make you happy, if for just that one evening, and may—just may—clear your head enough to allow you to make a better plan of action than merely sitting back and allowing bad banking to wallop you in the butt. You would be astounded at how beneficial good food can be for your psychological health.
After the Fabulous Gourmet Club’s dinner party had concluded, the Romanian stepped out and received his due applause. The members filed out of Illegaard one by one, anxious to attract little attention from the customers in the front room.
If this type of dinner is served elsewhere in Tartu, I do not have the connections to find out about it. My informer is keeping his eyes open, however, as am I, so that I may attend a future meeting. The cost may indeed be exorbitant, but it is money well spent.