Saturday, September 11, 2010

Where Are They Now? Volume II

After fifty reviews of restaurants in Tartu and around the country, I’ve been asked if it was my intention to retire Tartu – City of Good Food the way I sent my previous blog the way of President Arnold Rüütel—replaced with something green. That’s a good question, and the answer is even better: no way, I’m just getting started!

For this jubilee review, during these economic times and considering all the turmoil the restaurant industry has suffered through, it seems appropriate to recap who’s still around, changes that have been made, and tales of subsequent visits. There is a theme, as well. Ketchup.

I’ll start with paraphrasing a keen observation from this blog: “The whole world is trying to curb the fast-food culture. Estonia, however, seems to be expanding it.” In the past year, there are a number of mystery meat burger outlets that have appeared—City, Le Bus, Fasters and Teine Koht, just to name a few. The last one means “Second Place”, depending on how you translate it. Even if you call it “Another Place”, the name is less than appealing. I tried it once, got the rukkiburger (a standard burger on whole-grain black bread). Forgettable, but open all the time. It’s on Barclay Square in a former casino.

Recently, on the way to Tallinn, the Mingus family stopped at the Lõuna Keskus mall to get a quick bite at Le Bus. When I reviewed it, I mentioned the difficulties of eating without a plate or tray. This time, I asked Krista the waitress for a tray. “We don’t have any,” came the confused reply.
—What are those flat looking things stacked up next to the microwave? I asked.
“Those are trays.”
—May I have one?
“Of course.”
—And I’d like some ketchup as well, please.
She proceeded to pull out a tube of ketchup, and asked me to pay for it.
—Could I just have some ketchup on a drink lid like I did last time? I enquired, motioning toward the large plastic bottle in front of me.
“Oh, that’s hot dog ketchup.”
—Hot dog ketchup? What’s the difference?
“Hot dog ketchup is for hot dogs. These tubes are for everything else.”
—It’s ok, I don’t mind.
She hesitantly took the bottle of ketchup and squirted a perfect ring around the perimeter of the drink lid, the way she would on a tubular hot dog bun.
—How much is it? I offered to pay.
“Nothing. Hot dog ketchup is free.”

When a visiting friend wanted to go out for a beer, we found a new place on Rüütli Street called Möku, which means “wimp”. Tiny little place, but a good atmosphere. We got hungry, so I asked Kristjan the bartender if they had food. “Yes, we do. I would recommend the baguette with kebob meat.” So we ordered it, and Kristjan picked up the phone to place the order. “I’m sorry, they don’t have baguettes right now.” I asked where he was calling. City. Möku is just too small to have a kitchen, but they have a delivery deal with City, right next to Barclay Square. I asked for a kebob instead. “Do you want pita bread with kebob meat?” It was actually pretty good. Can’t quite figure out what animal “kebob meat” would come from though. A camel? It tasted like beef.

Though still not as good as Alvi Kebob. I’m unsure of how many owners this place has gone through by now. They have ceased to add jalapeños unfortunately. Recently I waited for fifteen minutes to place my order while I watched Krista the food assembler try in vain to salvage a hamburger bun that had broken apart on the grill. Eventually she tossed it and put a new bun on, quickly serving it to the guy waiting outside. When she came to take my order, I ordered a tortilla with kebob meat. Here, “kebob meat” is supposedly duck, chicken and turkey, all somehow on the same skewer. “I’m sorry, we’re out of kebob meat.”
—You’re out? What is that? I pointed at the tower of durcken meat.
“Kebob meat. But it’s not cooked yet.”
Disappointed, I left. Why couldn’t she have volunteered that information while I was patiently standing there? I’ve had problems with Krista before, however. I speak with an accent in Estonian of course, but when I ask for a kebob, it’s pretty obvious that I’m asking for a kebob. “A burger?” When I asked for extra “yalapennos” I saw smoke coming from her ears. Or maybe it was from a burning bun on the grill behind her. But it’s still the best kebob with kebob meat in Tartu.

One of my favorite places for lunch, Ungari Köök, almost kicked the bucket this summer. Business was slow during the heat wave, yes, but the reason the owners considered closing was so they could go back to Hungary, where the climate for doing business is a bit warmer than Tartu. “I had a complete plan to build a restaurant downtown across the river, by Atlantis. Although the city helped us with all the paperwork, we felt the resistance to our idea, and ultimately they decided to keep the empty grassy area.,” the owner recounted to me. Rumor has it the city has also blocked other attempts to open a delicious langosh and soup kitchen accessible to pedestrians in the immediate downtown area.

The way I see it, the park by Atlantis is nice, but it’s relatively unused and unlit as well, a bit dangerous in the dark. It was populated with restaurants before the war, but because it’s just a grassy knoll these days, any attempts to rebuild after the war are shot down by politicians hiding in City Hall. Sounds like someone just wants a bribe. But business is booming in the Selver parking lot at the corner of Turu and Sõbra Streets. Must be a reason.

Last week Mrs. Mingus and I went to Vilde to enjoy that amazing grill stone meal, the one you cook yourself at the table. The Romanian saw me and invited me to the kitchen for a full tour after the meal. I had never been in a restaurant kitchen before. The only times I ever see them are on television, usually as a setting for a gangster gun fight or when the police discover a cadaver in the meat locker. “We’re changing our menu this month,” the Romanian explained. “We’ll still have the grill stone, but it will be for two people, it will be cheaper by thirty percent and more food will be served. We have to ax the lamb chops though. That’s half the cost right there, for such a small amount.” That’s too bad about the lamb—one of my favorite items—but at least it will be more affordable if you don’t want to organize a dinner party to try it.

When we stepped out of the kitchen, we heard uproarious laughter coming from the back room. “What’s happening?” I asked.
—Comedy night.
“Wow, I didn’t know they had live comedy in Estonian.”
—No, it’s in English, he explained. Some farners put on shows here sometimes.
“English? Is it any good?” I asked.
—Well, I haven’t had a chance to watch much, as I’m usually in the kitchen, but from what I’ve seen, it’s really good. They sell out all their shows.

Mrs. Mingus and I caught the last half hour of the show, and it truly was hilarious. The first time I’ve ever seen “stand-up comedy” live, and it was in English in Estonia. In Tartu. Word on the street is these guys have open-mic nights in Möku every month. I think Tartu just got a lot more fun.

The main chef from Moka (not Möku) has relocated to Illegaard, and has made quite an impact on their food. The Authentic English Bloke who owns the place let me sample an English-style doughnut, as I mentioned in a previous review. I went back for their pizza. They didn’t skimp on the toppings, and the crust was pretty good. I prefer deep-dish over thin crust, but I still enjoyed it. Good competition for La Dolce Vita, but for less than half the cost. I look forward to trying the other “non-bar food” in this bar.

While visiting friends in Southern Estonia, by the Russian border, we decided to try the Seto tsäimaja once more. The food is good there, but the service is a disaster. Kristõ, who takes orders, is fairly rude. “You can’t order food right now. No potatoes.” When asked, it was revealed that they were only then starting to boil more potatoes.
—Couldn’t we just order a main course without potatoes?
—Does that mean no?
—No yes, or no no?
“I can’t sell you food without potatoes.”
—Why not? I don’t mind.
“I wouldn’t know how to charge you for it.”
—I’ll pay full price. We’re just really hungry.
“Come back in half an hour. Should be ready then.” And she proceeded to turn down the next customers as well.
—Excuse me, I still haven’t ordered yet.
“We don’t have any food.”
“We have soup.”
—Great, I’ll take three soups, please.
“It’s cold.”
—Is it supposed to be cold?
“Do you want it cold?”
We drove to Põlva for mystery meat burgers. They were out of ketchup.

I have had so many odd experiences with eating, but don’t get the wrong idea—it’s only mildly more bizarre than eating out in the States from time to time. And I have yet to see Parmesan in a regular American grocery store that isn’t already grated and sold in a green can. Here, the stuff is plentiful. Nopri Talu (Nopri Farm) down south near Vastseliina sells an experimental Parmesan that is only available from their shop. I really hope they start selling it elsewhere soon, because the Alfredo sauce I made with it was unbelievable.

Apart from the fatten explosion (meaning, fast food), overall quality and service in Tartu has jumped by leaps and bounds in the past year. Everyone who visits me asks for authentic Estonian food in a restaurant. There aren’t many places for that, and the two or three locales I can think of aren’t that great. But I’ve had incredible Estonian food before. Just not that often in a restaurant. Why is that? Our visitors always ask Mrs. Mingus for her Estonian recipes after dinner.


Mingus said...

My blog somehow tricked me. This is review number forty-nine. But whatever.

mihkel said...

Uh just one question how can you like Illegrd pizza ? Its tastles peace of bread whid cheap chease i would not call it a pizza . Hot sandwich its called in Estonia

sry for the spelling

carissa said...

Once again an interesting and humorous read :) I wish the stand up comedy would have been available when i was living in Tartu. Keep up the good work :)

jalkameister said...

I haven't had any of the fast food, and don't know if there being more of them and less casinos is a sign of improvement or not. Perhaps. Better a tummy full than dreams lost.

I also agree totally on the Võru Parmesan. It's really good and somewhat cheaper than the original. Unfortunately, you can't find it in all the supermarkets.

jakimiku said...

Well, in defence of the Illegaard pizza, which i had yesterday while watching football, its fairly cheap. I mean, of course, there's only like cheese and ham or something, but with a beer together it costs like 50 eek (some mysterious deal that gives you 50% off). And you get your stomach full. No Taverna, but to my mind respectible enough and gets the hunger done. :) About fast foods... i've tried almost all in Tartu city centre and none are dazzling. I'd go to Metro, but it's so damn far away, so usually i settle for Teine koht burger. 25.- and propably the best you can get in city centre. Oh, and btw a marvelous writing. :)