Thursday, October 28, 2010

Itaalia Köök

The following is an excerpt from Streets of Tartu. Read it like they talk in the Big Apple.

It was a case of mistaken identity. It usually is. You get the job—find someone or something—you take the money ‘cause you need it for alimony, and the rest is up to you. You, alone, on the streets of Tartu. When the broad walked into my office, I knew those legs would be trouble. She wanted noodles. The Italian variety. And she was willing to pay double. I didn’t tell her I was Norwegian, and hoped my blue eyes wouldn’t tip her off.

The choices were simple. La Dolce Vita had already been taken care of. All that was left was a little joint on Gildi Street called Itaalia Köök. Köök means kitchen or cuisine, depending on what neighborhood you’re from. The owner is from the neighborhood where it means “restaurant”. At least that’s what the menu said. But how could the menu know? The cover was in the language of love. I guess “dauphins” is French for Italian. But I don’t know. I skipped that class in detective school. For all I knew, it could be a wine region.

On the street it looked like the right place. The rusted metal was a big clue. I had to pull the dame away from the wall so she wouldn’t rip her pantyhose. It was ten to noon—lunchtime. They didn’t have a page on the web, just an angry comment on a site called Tartu In Your Pocket. It said they opened at eleven. The door said something else. Twelve. We had ten minutes to kill. How was I supposed to keep her busy till then?

The joint opened on time. Gotta’ give ‘em credit for that. We were the first ones in. Sitting down, the seashell curtains made my skin crawl. One seashell for every victim? A nice blonde broad named Krista gave us some menus, but I already talked about that. Inside though, I knew it was a case of mistaken identity. And not just because of the name. Names. I wanted beef, but the beef in yoghurt said it had maple syrup too, but not in my language. So I got the classic, the osso bucco. Veal legs. I like baby cow. Something about the flavor. It was a mistake. The Estonian said it was beef. That’s not a baby cow. That’s an adult cow. And from the taste of it, I’d say it was an elderly dairy cow. Not a cattle cow. Probably from the meat market. Probably had no papers. My butcher has better meat hanging in his locker. He can get papers for anything.

Krista was real nice. She could see we had trouble with the menu. She asked if she could recommend something, but I knew what I wanted, and so did my client. She got the pasta with chicken and chanterelles. Now that’s classy. She knows her stuff. She just couldn’t finish it. She gave me a bite. I knew that taste. I’d had it before. Mushroom bouillon cubes. Made by Knorr®.

But my problem with my grub was that I know osso bucco. It’s veal, a white wine braise. I doubt it was originally served with gigantic potatoes baked and fried and overcooked and all that mumbo jumbo that local menus like to go on about. But the joint was packed. People know what they want, what they like. Not a single uomo in this place had hair, and it wasn’t ‘cause the garden was dried up, if you know what I mean. I shoulda’ followed my instincts. I knew those legs would be trouble. I just didn’t know which legs.

The bruschetta though, that was a real doozy. Don’t get me wrong, it was served in about five minutes. And, it was served before the main food. But Krista, bless her soul, asked us, “For two, right?” I nodded. I don’t gotta’ say it’s just for me when I’m sittin’ with a classy broad. She knows what to do. We got three pieces. For two people. I guess she was hoping for one of those Lady and the Tramp moments. We both eat the same piece and end up smooching. Like I said, my client wanted noodles.

But the bread, I knew that taste again. It was from Selver, those cute little buns made of flour so bleached you can taste the chlorine in it. But I wanted my client to see my soft side. I bought her a dessert. A tiramisu. It was the best part of the meal. The cakey bit was the premade cake you can buy in a Selver as well. The ones in the plastic. The sweets tasted like vanilla pudding from a tube, but it was good. She knew I’d take care of her if things got dicey.

That’s when she said I’d failed. I hadn’t done my job. This wasn’t Italian. Like I said, it was a case of mistaken identity. They’d pulled one over on me. What I thought was Italian wasn’t. It was processed Dutch. But we didn’t go Dutch. No, I had to pay for this stuff. I’d have to let my associates know in the city. And once that happened, I knew I couldn’t let this dame come back here alone. Not that she’d want to. But still, it wouldn’t be safe for her health.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

St Urho's Pub

After more than a decade of life in Estonia, I finally crossed the water and spent a day in Helsinki. For years, I’d heard tales of life on the “other side”, untouched by Soviet occupation. I expected diamonds embedded in the pavements, funded by Nokia’s profits. I expected hoards of drunken masses, fueled by cheap booze from Tallinn. As for food, I didn’t know what to expect. Boiled potatoes and fried pork? Estonians love to say how similar they are to the Finns.

As I stepped onto the ferry early one morning, called the Viking, it was difficult to find people on board who didn’t actually work on the ship. I sat down in a large room, alone, and started planning for my day’s business. I was hungry, but there was no need to pay big-city prices for cheap cafeteria food on a boat. I could do a review of the ferry on the way back to Tallinn, when I had more time.

Several hours later in Helsinki, I had a break in my work and wandered out to get my first food of the day. What gems of Western society were hidden among the bilingually named streets of Finland’s capital? The avenues and boulevards are stuffed with locally owned diners and cafés, but from the window they more or less all seemed to offer the same sandwiches in baguettes for upwards of seven euros. I was more in the mood for an old taste from home. Chain restaurant junk food. That was it. And sure enough, I found a Subway.

And for seven euros, I ordered a club sandwich. The image on the menu looked delectable, full, tall. I’d forgotten how big Americans had to open their mouths to eat some of the food we love. What I got, however, was a bun of bread loaded with green pepper and a couple slices of deli meet and cheese. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t quite what I remembered, either. I left a bit hungry.

Work ran late into the night, and after ten, famished, I went out to find dinner. Passing by the Parliament building, I happened across a line of bars, one of which my friend, Jussi, recommended: St Urho’s Pub, on Museokatu Street. Right after we entered, Jussi grabbed my arm and pointed at a bearded man. “Wow, that’s Kimmo Wilska!” I asked if it was the same man who had been on the front page of every newspaper that day, allegedly getting fired from his TV anchor position on a news program just the night before, for pretending to drink a beer on air. It was. I went up to him and introduced myself.

“Hi, I’m Mingus. Sorry to hear what happened, but it was still pretty funny to watch. I can’t believe they did that to you.”
—Thanks. At least someone’s laughing!
“Can I buy you a beer?”
—Nah, that’s alright. I think I’m done with beer.

Everyone at our table disappeared one by one and came back with a beer. So I followed suit and asked the bartender—Kristian—if they by chance had any Estonian beers. “We have Sakah Tumah, a strong, quality Estonian porter. Try it, you might like it.” I asked if he had anything else. “Um, yes, we have a beer called, er, Rock. It’s on tap.” I ordered a Rock. I assume he didn’t know it was also Saku, and therefore pronounced Suck. But when in Helsinki, you can’t be choosy about which beers you drink from the muthahland. It was a good excuse for me to finally try Rock. I’m a fan of Tartu’s beers, myself.

Back at the table, food started to arrive. “Oh, did you guys order for me, too?” Everyone shook their heads. They had forgotten to tell me there was no table service in St Urho’s Pub. I went to the bar again to order, looking at the pizza menu. Kristian informed me that there was a line for pizzas, about thirty or forty to go. I should order from the other menu. He recommended the Toast Manala, a hot sandwich with chicken breast and Cheddar. Excuse me, Cheddar? People in Finland cook with Cheddar? Fantastic! I paid by card and had to sign for it. A signature? The last time I had to sign anything was, well, I can’t remember. My signature was illegible. I secretly hoped my bank would think it was fraud and cancel the transaction. But only after I ate.

A brief fifteen minutes later on this busy night (we got the very last table), my Toast Manala arrived. The waitress—Kristiina—asked if I needed any mayonnaise for my fries. Or perhaps ketchup or mustard. I carefully examined what was on my plate. No potato seasoning, just rock salt. I declined Kristiina’s offer. “No thanks, salt is good enough for me. Why didn’t you put seasoning on the fries? I mean, it’s good you didn’t, but I’m just curious.
—Why? Why would we?
“Where I live, it’s very difficult to get fries without cheap seasoning.”
—Oh. Uh, I guess we just like the taste of potatoes in Finland.

My Toast was delicious. Hard to eat, yes, as the shape of the chicken caused it to get pinched out of the sandwich every time I picked it up. But the right choice of ingredients (namely, Cheddar) was well worth the hundred seventy point fifty-five kroons. This little bar, over by the Parliament building, was not, apparently, overpriced. I would pay even more for this meal again. My first time to Helsinki, and I already have a favorite restaurant.

The next morning I had to catch the ferry mid-morning. I skipped breakfast so I could eat at a place called Southern Fried Chicken I had seen on one of the main drags, Mannerheimintie Street. My mouth was watering as I almost jogged down the road, just itchin’ to get me some proper fixin’s. A friend had recommended it. It was closed. At ten in the morning. Opening in an hour. I would be on the boat by then. I was perplexed as to how a fast-food restaurant could be closed in the morning, especially as it was a Southern-style joint. Southern-fried breakfasts are notoriously delicious. Buttermilk biscuits, dirty rice and so on (yes, I like dirty rice for breakfast).

I looked at the menu in the window. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea, after all. Maybe I was lucky SFC was closed. The only thing it had in common with the real KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) apart from blatant copyright infringement was fried chicken. KFC served buttermilk biscuits. It did not serve kebobs, and it did not serve fried chicken on white rice.

But I was starving now. I walked up the street and saw a Robert’s Coffee. I knew this place from Tallinn. There I could get coffee and maybe a pastry or even another sandwich. It was open! As I walked in to the shopping center, I saw the employee locking the door to the stall, hanging up a sign that politely informed me he’d be back in half an hour.

Maybe Kamppi, the five-floor mall in downtown Helsinki? Time was running out, and it was only a block away. I wandered over to one of the food areas and found a place called I [Heart] Food The Restaurant. It looked decent, and I stood browsing the overhead menu for about five minutes. When I went up to order, the man at the register—who’d been watching me and waiting for my order—told me before I opened my mouth that they didn’t have any food or coffee ready yet.

I saw another place called Scan Burger. I didn’t want to find out why it was called that. I was out of time, and used the last of my energy to quickly make my way to the port. I could eat on the boat. Obviously there wouldn’t be a line, as no one had been on the boat the day before.

Chaos! And once I got on the ferry itself, more chaos! I couldn’t even find a seat where I could work. Forget about food, forget about coffee. There were lines outside the on-board bars and cafés with people waiting to get inside and stand in line again. This persisted for the duration of the trip across the Gulf of Finland. I had trouble typing, my hands were shaking so much.

And then I saw Estonia. My stomach had never been so happy to be in Estonia. Finland was great, but it wasn’t paved in precious gems, and fortunately the people in the city were quite polite (and they had different skin colors—yeah!). The drunks I guess only go to Estonia. They don’t appear in public in their own element. I found a seat at a table and shared it with a hugely obese couple and their little boy. In the course of two hours, they each did three shots of vodka, each followed by a pint of Suck. I don’t know how they made it through the lines. Maybe they were the line. The little boy was sucking on a giant Chupa Chups lollipop as big as his head.

It took about half an hour to get off the boat. That was unexpected. All the cabs were gone, too, so I stumbled to the bus station in my ravenous delirium and bought a hot dog from a Finnish R-Kiosk. Ketchup and mustard, please! I paid by entering my personal identification number in a sleek payment terminal and happily waited for my bus to Tartu.