A couple and a half years ago, it was my birthday. I treated myself to some Estonian-made military boots. That is a decision I have not regretted. There is one friend—an ultra-nationalist who can find no fault in anything Estonian, except for the boots—who says things in Estonia are good enough as they are, that there is no need for change or improvement (he doesn’t like my blog), but the boots are crap. I say they’re warm, durable and comfy. What more could you want?
And so I proudly wore these new, tall and black boots out of the store and marched down to Town Hall Square to celebrate my birthday with the Mingus-in-laws in a café called Pierre Cafe. Not once did I slip on the snow or ice left by middle-aged shovelers as a practical joke for those who would wear high heels in deep winter. Not once did I lose communication with the nerves in my toes from the bitter cold of Christmas. As I walked into the front door of Pierre, I was instantly flooded with a warm, glowing coziness of golden light and shimmering tapestry.
Before sitting down, I exchanged handshakes and hugs. Mrs. Mingus started laughing, however, saying I was finally starting to fit in. Something about skinheads wearing similar boots. I shrugged it off. I’m no bigot, and everyone knows it. I give everyone and everything a fair chance to fudge things up, and then I give them another. After that, I start to develop opinions. My opinion of Pierre was that it was slightly expensive, the portions were not too large, but the food was good. The food from the menu. The daily lunch specials were often better. For around fifty kroons, self-serve and single-trip, you just can’t go wrong.
But that was a couple and a half years ago. With so many new joints opening, two kids and less time, I am finding it increasingly hard to visit my old haunts. I did get coffee outside a few times last year. Pierre’s coffee is good—not wonderful, but good. I leave “wonderful” to describe what is served in Café Truffe, almost next door. Pierre, however, has a play corner in summer. I liken that to coating yourself in green Off when you’re deep in the woods. Instant relief.
At my birthday dinner, I couldn’t help but order some Provençal dish. It’s a French café, after all, with another café in Tallinn’s Old Town. It was good. Not wonderful, but good. Enough to order every time I went there, and enough to go back for.
It is with precisely this attitude that I marched into Pierre a couple and a half weeks ago with a group of friends, hungry for Estonian-made French food. This was a decision I regretted. For starters, I couldn’t find any French food on the menu. Pierre hadn’t taken my nationalist friend’s advice, and had changed the whole menu. But not improved. It’s not natural when you look at a menu in a French restaurant, and the first thing you see on the entrée list is Tandoori chicken.
Time to order the wine. Out of twenty-four wines, five were French. Only one French red. The menu itself was quite an œvre. Attractive and cute, but the proofreading was medium-rare. I just don’t get how someone can pay good money to print out a menu that clearly took a long time to compose and plan, but they can’t be bothered to do a simple spell-check before sending it to the print shop.
There was also some confusion de nationalité as well. One of the best salads I can remember—the Salade Niçoise—fortunately was on the menu. It means Nice-style salad. I ate this on a regular basis when I lived near Nice. It varies from place to place, but the common denominator was that this recipe always had green beans, boiled eggs, anchovies and other raw vegetables served on a bed of lettuce. Pierre’s version unfortunately had two pieces of lettuce. A salad of eggs, fish and potatoes. And it was called a “Nizza salat”. “Nizza” means “Niçoise”. In Italian. In a French restaurant. In Estonia.
Our waiter—Kristjan—was quick and polite. I enquired about the “Firenze beef” on the menu. “What is the Firenze beef?” I asked.
—It’s beef, in Florence style.
“But what is it?”
—It’s how they eat beef in Florence.
“But what does it mean?”
—Oh, it has marinated plums and red wine sauce, Kristjan said matter-of-factly. A quick search on Google reveals just seven results for “Firenze beef”. Two of them are in Asian soup recipes.
“But what cut is it?”
—Tenderloin. Definitely tenderloin.
I opened my mouth to order it, but he interjected.
—No, it’s not tenderloin. Maybe it’s “external filet”. (Beef cuts here differ substantially from British or American cuts, so it’s impossible to accurately translate them, as they often consist of multiple Western cuts.) No, he continued, it’s not that, either. I’m not sure what it is.
“Oh. Could you ask?”
—Well, Kristjan said while grimacing, it would take a few minutes. And I don’t think the chef knows anyhow.
“I’ll take the salmon. ‘Pierre’s Salmon’. What does ‘over-baked’ mean, anyhow? The ‘over-baked vegetables’.”
—They’re cooked, and then they’re cooked again.
The rest of the table ordered, and then the food came out. Didn’t take long. Everyone else’s food came out, that is. I was left dry. After my companions finished, I asked if my dinner was by chance ready as well. “Two seconds,” was the reply. And then I was eating. The salmon was good—a thick cut, much better than the usual thin filet elsewhere, and it was deboned, too—but the vegetables were truly over-cooked. The menu did not lie. I cannot be sure, but they tasted surprisingly similar to steamed veggies from a frozen supermarket bag.
One of the farners at the table raved about the chiken (sic!) in his salad. He offered me a piece. Yes, very good. “However,” he mentioned, “the salad is just pure iceberg lettuce, and it’s soggy.” Mrs. Mingus couldn’t finish her soup, either. "It tastes like Knorr," she complained. In fact, no one in our party was satisfied. “At least it’s cheaper than it used to be.”
After I finished, I went to the jean to wash my hands. No soap. Luckily I hadn’t touched the fish. I dried my hands on the bath towel and went back to the table. They had ordered the bill, and dividing it into parts was no problem, though we did have to go to the register to pay by card. I suggested that we get another drink, but I was overruled. “Let’s go to Illegaard or Möku for a beer instead,” came the overwhelming response. “They serve food, too, if we get hungry later.”
At least Pierre still offered the same types of bread, or pain—one even has nuts in it…delish! Yet as much as it pains me to write this about a former favorite—I had been saving Pierre for a sure-win review—I will give them another chance. It might take a few months, but I won’t let this experience change my opinion just yet. I would, however, recommend that they bring back the little electronic boy stirring fudge outside. That added definite charm to Tartu’s Town Hall Square. And lose the tapestries on the chairs. They just get wrinkled up under your legs.
A couple of the people in our party asked me, “But what did you expect? The food here has sucked for a couple and a half years. Didn’t you know?” Honestly, no, I didn’t. At least the consistency of their service is better than that of their food. But the truffles are still good. I like the lemon.
Meanwhile, my Estonian-made boots—three winters and hundreds of kilometers of walking later—are still in perfect shape. You just have to put some love into what you make.