Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sõprade Juures

On the very last weekend of the very last month that could in any way be considered summer, Mrs. Mingus and I found ourselves doing the very last thing we would have expected—waiting to eat dinner at three in the afternoon outside on Town Hall Square. I even tried to stop it, but as evening approached, we were bound to stay and eat our dinner, which had finally been served. Watching the good people of Tartu greatly helped us while away the time.

“Since the kids are gone now, should we go get a coffee and enjoy the weather?” Mrs. Mingus asked, as we drove away from her parents’ house.
—I’ve had enough coffee today, but a glass of water sounds good. We have all afternoon to do anything we want, I replied. It’s only two o’clock.
“I think the tables are still out on the Square. Let’s go there.”

There was some sort of science exhibition going on, something involving bikes. A DJ was standing by the fountain on the Square going on and on about them. Maybe to promote the new bicycle lanes popping up everywhere. I love how the city is painting all the crosswalks red, too. I assume it’s so hurrying motorists won’t be distracted by splat marks.

The roads in the Old Town had been closed off, and we were offered no warning until we saw the signs that read, “Road Closed”, blocking further progress to our preferred free weekend parking zone. The four cars behind us were equally surprised, and we spent a quarter of an hour trying to turn around.

We ended up parking way off to the end of the downtown area, by Kaubamaja. I was glad, actually, because I was eager to see the progress being made on revamping the promenade from Riia Street to the Square. Ancient Soviet asphalt being replaced en masse with brand new cobblestone. I think the area near Zum Zum, immediately by the Square, is very tastefully done. The rusted metal boxes around the trees are a surprisingly positive addition. They remind me of the new hospital facilities, with their rusted metal façade details. I’m serious—I do like it. I’m just worried that it might be a bit too trendy, quickly turning into yesterday’s scrap. Like the old Hansapank building on Barclay Square. Ultra-modern a decade ago, now ultra-out-of-place and ultra-for-rent.

After sitting down at a table in a place called Sõprade Juures (At Friends’) with a good view of people, and in the sun, we started perusing the menus left out by the previous customers. Where’s the water? There it is. With or without bubbles? With. When I first came to Europe, I couldn’t believe how people would purposefully drink carbonated water. At a café in East Berlin once, I was greatly annoyed that I couldn’t get a glass of water. They only had the bubbly. “Tap water please?” —You can’t drink it. You’re not from here, was the reply. I trusted the waiter’s gastric opinion and ordered a glass of sparkling water. It was like drinking Sprite while holding your nose. An acquired taste. Now I quite enjoy drinking water with an injection of carbon.

We waited for the waitress. “You know, it’s half past two now. Maybe we should get something to eat. That early lunch we had at eleven is already long gone,” Mrs. Mingus suggested. Not a bad idea, so I glanced at the menu, and was delighted to see a full list of Estonian national foods, something I had been looking for of late. Herring, cottage cheese pancakes, potatoes, eggs, mushrooms, liver and “brawn”. By “brawn” they meant sült, or headcheese. The parts of a pig you normally wouldn’t eat, molded in a gelatinous solid from its own juices, served with vinegar. I like the flavor, but I’m a texture maniac and can’t get past the meat jelly aspect of it. Apparently “brawn” is British English for boar meat, too. The only green thing I saw on that menu of traditional Estonian food was a pickle. I decided on a main dish of turkey instead. Served with baked tomatoes.

The waitress—Krista was her name—approached us twenty-five minutes later, just before three. We ordered. Krista thanked us and left. Ten minutes later, I got my glass of water. Some friends walked by and joined us. “I’m pretty hungry,” one replied. I asked if they wanted to eat with us. “No, this place takes forever. We’re going to get something to eat on Rüütli Street, around the corner.” We were left alone again.

Krista ran in and out of the restaurant, servicing and waiting on other people waiting at tables. A random waitress approached us. “Your food will be ready soon. Very sorry for the wait.” —Who was that? I asked Mrs. Mingus. She didn’t know.

A few minutes later, our friends walked by again. “Still waiting?” they asked with a smirk. “We’re already done.” At four o’clock, I finally began to get annoyed. —I’m going to find our waitress and cancel the order. I want to go to Rüütli Street.

I saw Krista walk into the restaurant next door—Suudlevad Tudengid (Kissing Students)—and I followed her to the bar, where she was ringing up someone’s order. “Excuse me,” I said.
“I’m very sorry, but I have to cancel our order. We have to leave, we don’t have any more time to wait.”
—I’m sorry, but you need to speak to your waitress about that.
“You’re our waitress.”
—No, I work here. You’re sitting next door. You need to speak to someone from there.
“But you took our order.”
—Yes, and I gave it to your waitress.
I was beginning to feel like someone was carbonating my stomach. “Can you tell me who our waitress is then?” I desperately held on to my patience.
—Sorry, I don’t know who she is.
“But you just said you gave her our order.”
—Yes, that’s right.
“So you do, in fact, know who she is?”
—I don’t remember.

Jaded, I left the restaurant and proceeded to go back next door. Mrs. Mingus was talking to that same random waitress. Kristel was her name. I heard the end of the conversation, “…give you a discount for your wait.” A minute or two later, our food was served.

I had forgotten to ask Krista or Kristel to hold the Santa Maria potato seasoning for my French fries. They were doused in it. The turkey was mediocre. I thought the blue cheese topping would be interesting, but it was a bit too strong. By itself the turkey was bone-dry, a common problem with this poultry. But only if you don’t know how to cook it. It’s a North American bird, and the most common variety available throughout most of Europe is, if memory serves correctly, a cross of this wild turkey with a Danish pheasant. When I cook a turkey for Thanksgiving, it’s very moist and juicy, pleasant to eat. This dish was only saved by its savory mustard sauce. If only I had some water, which I had finished an hour previously.

Mrs. Mingus found the fried egg served over her pork to be overcooked, rubbery almost. Ultimately, we were most unimpressed with this early-and-now-late dinner. Sõprade Juures and Suudlevad Tudengid are essentially the same restaurant. They share a kitchen, share seating outside and, from time to time albeit apparently unofficially, they share wait staff.

When we got the bill, we did indeed notice a discount. Sixteen kroons. One euro basically. So I left a one-euro tip. That sounds pathetic, doesn’t it? One euro for a dinner tip. Sixteen kroons doesn’t seem that bad though, at ten percent. People are right, we’re going to feel very poor in three months.

The way I see it, this restaurant is in a very good location. The size of its outdoor presence could easily fool unsuspecting visitors and farners into thinking that this is the flagship restaurant of the city. The reputation it has among the locals for being slow is well-founded, and quite honestly I think the city should step in and tell them to hurry up their service. Our food was warm when served, but if the kitchen can’t handle this many people at once, it should be enlarged. It presents a clear and present danger to tourists. They could all die from hunger.

Obviously I’m exaggerating, but it’s still ridiculous. When I paid by card, like I do everywhere, I was surprised that I was asked to sign for it. Don’t we use personal identification numbers now? It had been so long since I had signed anything with a pen that my signature looked like a child’s scribbling, instead of an adult’s scribbling. But the jaans were clean and spacious. I am thankful to Sõprade Juures for allowing me to spend the entire afternoon outside, enjoying the last nice, warm weather of the year.


Anonymous said...

Not the best post but I guess it's difficult to write well about a crappy place. I do like the fact that they have at least some sort of a play-corner for the kids...not very appealing though (in a dark corner).

Fred Labarre said...

I once had to wait 40 minutes for the food to come, and another 20 for the girl to come back with the bill. I left without paying. I don't think it's the kitchen as much as the attitude that they are too good to wait on you, being all that pretty and all. They really should be on the catwalk in Milan or New York. It is one of the very few places where when you get the guy to serve you (the thin guy with blue eyes, the manager I think) you get better service. I don't understand how you took the trouble to cancel your order. I think that just disappearing and leaving them with full dishes and no money will slowly sink it as being related to poor service.

Ragne said...

Yes, that place is awful. And i can't believe you tipped later. Isn't the whole point of leaving a tip to thank for a good experience - either the food or service. You got neither, so what were you tipping for? No wonder there's no improvement in service if they get tipped anyway.

Btw, i recently had the most tastiest chicken in Tartu - juicy and soft, not the overcooked dry variety served even in the best Tartu restaurants. It was in the new Georgian restaurant "Tbilisi", the chicken sashlõk. Quite recommend. But even thought the chicken was good, be prepared to wait for a while for your food.

Elen said...

I love potato seasoning! I live in London and always when grocery shopping, I'm wondering how can brits live without the Santa Maria potato seasoning?! :)))