Friday, July 30, 2010


A very long time ago, a young Mingus found his way to Estonia to learn the language. He had visited before, and wanted to visit again. An extra tongue or two could only help him in his planned career as a farner. What he didn’t count on, however, was meeting a young Mrs. Mingus. After a lengthy wooing, he one night found himself on bended knee before her. This was unplanned, but he felt compelled by something poets and lyricists have long been trying in vain to define. As a result of her “Sure!” in response to his proposal, the two celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary this week in a little restaurant called Taverna.

Out of all the fancy, over-priced places available, why would we choose Taverna? They did the catering at our wedding. Taverna and I have had a long, oft-neglected relationship. The first time we met, I was severely famished, and ordered a pizza. This pizza was nearly entirely green, it was covered in so much dill. As I put the first slice in my mouth, for some reason I inhaled, and all the excess dill that had not clung to the melted cheese flew into my lungs. The other patrons watched the farner who apparently did not know how to properly eat pizza while he suffered his dill-induced choking spasms.

For the next year, I ordered all my food ilma tillita (no dill) wherever I went, to the grin and chagrin of many a waitress. The phrase had a double meaning in Estonian that no one wanted to clue me in on, and it’s very hard to go to the kitchen and tell the chef to not sprinkle something on top of the food.

I am not alone in my newfound dislike of dill on food. As the Romanian recounted one evening, he had repeatedly instructed the kitchen staff at Wilde, or rather Vilde, about not committing this flavorcidal crime. Meeting after meeting, reminder after reminder, the dill found its way to the customer’s platter. He gathered his miscreants to a corner of the kitchen, picked up the ceramic dill bowl, and Frisbeed it against the tiled wall. That got the point across. I’ve often wondered how many innocent people the Romanian has thus saved from choking.

The manager of Taverna was very professional and helpful in helping us plan the dinner at our wedding reception. He still greets us on the street even today, and their website still shows images of our wedding dinner. However, Mrs. Mingus wrote to the e-mail address listed on their homepage to enquire about our anniversary party. No reply. I guess some restaurants haven’t realized yet how many paying customers they could lose by not checking their mail from time to time.

But we were persistent. “Twenty people? Not a problem,” Krista the waitress answered on the phone. “But we can’t seat that many people together. Is that alright with you?” The staff were indeed polite and friendly this recent evening, and while I would expect attention from a waitress, I would not expect her to remove two pillars in the center of the dining room to satisfy my seating whims. There was also a bit of confusion while ordering, as we were all paying separately. But again, we were twenty people. It’s understandable.

What I didn’t understand, though, was why it took Krista so long to give us menus. When she finally did, she stood by us while we perused the drinks list and then took our orders. The menu offered a Bloody Mary in English, so I ordered a Verine Maarja. She understood me only when I said the name in English.

Twenty-five minutes later, we were still thirsty. I approached the bar and saw our drinks on a serving tray. No staff anywhere. When our beverages were served, the ice had melted in my tomato juice, and it was very watery. Still, I can’t complain too much because nice, attractive cocktails were the same price as Alexander beer.

A bottle of sparkling wine costs only a hundred and thirty kroons. It was a cheapish Ukrainian bottle, but that price is still unheard of in a good restaurant. Yes, I am calling Taverna a good restaurant. The presentation was tasteful yet not over the top in snobbishness. Some of the entrées were a tad on the salty side, but they were filling and enjoyable to eat.

Whenever I go to a restaurant, though, something odd always happens to me regarding my order, service, and so on. I am a magnet for the bizarre. Perhaps this is what coaxed me into starting this blog. My tradition for dining on our anniversary is to order fish. Usually salmon. (Remember, the l in “salmon” is silent!) When the dinners began to arrive, I was left hungry. Again. Just like in Pierre.

Krista eventually approached to inform me that there had been a mistake in the kitchen. Instead of my breaded salmon cut, the salmon pasta had been prepared. I could have that, if I wanted, or I could wait another twenty minutes for the proper meal to be magicked up. “No thank you, I would like the food I ordered,” I firmly stated. Any restaurant in the States would have given me something for free from the menu, or comped the whole meal. This is not the States, however, so I did not expect it. “Never let a customer leave unhappy” is, however, something it would be wise for all Estonian businesses to learn. Competition is tight right now. Every customer counts.

The fish was very good when it arrived, even though there was a gigantic piece of dill on the plate. But the food made up for my extra half hour of hunger. I didn’t want a problem on such a special night. And hell, I even left a tip, because Krista was sometimes hard to find, but she catered to all our wishes, kept her cool and was, well, she treated us like people. We weren’t an annoyance to her, like in so many other local restaurants, despite the customer being the reason the waitress has a job in the first place. I did feel bad though, because out of all twenty people who came, I was the only one to leave a tip.

Everyone else also complimented the food. Not exquisite, but for the price I will definitely not complain, and I will definitely continue to dine there. And order pizzas. The combinations of toppings are very Estonian, but here it works. Pearl onions, pork and the Holy Trinity of Tartu—blue cheese, pineapple and red bell pepper. My favorite is the Caribica. If you order the family size, you should understand that the thick crust is usually a bit raw in the middle. Better to order two larges or smalls. There is no medium. Other local pizzerias offer medium, large and maxi. There’s no small. Slight mathematical misunderstanding there.

Taverna is on Town Hall Square, immediately across the street from the bridge. The new outdoor seating appears attractive, but when we were there Tartu had just been drenched by a storm. Upon leaving, we saw the staff drying off tables and chairs, rather than letting the air do its thing over the course of several hours, like so many other outdoor cafés do. The other thing I liked was that we had ordered a large meal, on par with or perhaps better than places such as Atlantis, and definitely as mouth-watering to look at, for much less than half the price.

We also saw a double rainbow over the river, a fine view from the outdoor seating. After visiting a bar for a final drink, our friends and we all parted ways, thanking each other for an enjoyable evening. “Why didn’t you want to have a romantic dinner, just the two of you?” we were repeatedly asked. Because we already know what we have in each other. It’s not that we wanted to flaunt our happiness in front of our friends, it’s that we wanted our friends to be happy with us. A wedding itself, and the anniversaries that hopefully follow, are merely symbolic. We have no wish to celebrate a symbol. Celebrate happiness. Celebrate the fact that up until this point at least, you have someone to love, and that both of you together have the wisdom and patience to continue to have someone to love.

But that’s just how we feel. Marriage, partnership and relationships in general mean different things to different people. I would never feel that my marriage is threatened, for example, by two atheist men who want to get married for love, or by two Christians who get divorced because of adultery. That’s a way of thinking I will never understand. “Why get married at all?” a man may ask who celebrates traditional folk music in Viljandi every year. “It’s pointless. My partner and I have been together for twenty years, we made a family. We’re not married.” Yeah, well, I won’t say you’re wrong, but marriage is every bit a tradition as eating blood sausage by a tree you cut down from the forest and stuck in your living room.

From a certain point of view, you could say that the only successful relationships are those that end in the unintentional death of one or the other person involved. People do get divorced in their seventies and eighties. When I reach that age, I will chuckle when I hear an old octogenarian friend say through his dentures, “I broke up with my girlfriend.”

A fitting and bizarre end to the evening: on our way home, all the street lights were off, and as we reached our building, we saw dark figures moving around, hiding in our doorway, then sprinting across the street. They rolled on the grass, hid behind cars and aimed their assault rifles at us. I approached one and asked why he was pointing a gun at passersby. “It’s a training exercise,” Private Kristjan explained. I asked him if it would have perhaps been a good idea to let people know that the Estonian Armed Forces would be hiding under their windows that night. “It was on television and the radio.” I didn’t see any posters in the neighborhood for people who don’t watch television or listen to the radio. But at that moment, I felt our neighborhood was very safe. I carried Mrs. Mingus over the threshold of our door without looking over my shoulder.

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