Thursday, December 23, 2010

Café Bianca

Be warned before you continue reading that I am friends with the owners of Café Bianca. That means I can’t really say anything bad about it, except that it sucks! Just kidding. No really, I’m just kidding. It’s a great place to have a lunch or grab a quick coffee. Located at Kalevi 13 in Tartu, just a couple buildings down from the courthouse, I think everyone knows the building based on this first image.

I’d been waiting for months to finally sample what I fully expected to be the best neighborhood café in the city, and there are aspects of it that proved my expectations fulfilled, though not just for the law-and-order region of the city. I’ll talk about why soon enough. It kind of reminded me of Nop in Tallinn, but with even better food.

This is one part of town where the city government really fudged things up. Several houses boasting the most amazing and often unique architecture are immediate neighbors. Many of them are, or at least were, owned by the city itself. The city refused to fix them up, or even sell them to people who wanted to fix them up, and the result was abandoned, decrepit playhouses for street children. I personally had to call the fire department years ago because one of the houses had an external chapel, complete with a burning mattress. The same dispatcher who answered the phone could be heard on a loudspeaker just seconds later at the fire station a block away.

The city could have made tens of millions (of kroons) selling off these properties during the Boom, but ultimately decided it would be a somewhat better idea to wait until the economy was near rock bottom and the houses, like the housing market, were near collapse. One house, finally being restored, is supposedly going to be an animal shelter. It has been a mark of shame for the city for nearly 20 years.

Anyhow, back to the café. Both partners in this small business were present the day I visited. The American-Estonian partner, Christian, greeted us at the door. One very cool thing that we noticed was a moment later, two older ladies entered. Christian sat them at a table, took their orders without writing anything down and then recommended books they could peruse during their brief wait. Books on architecture, history, art—books from Christian’s personal library at home. In any other café, the only thing the staff would bring from home would be a virus.

It seems that the menu changes on a daily basis. Even Christian doesn’t know what’s going to be on the menu the next day. That’s left up to the other partner of Café Bianca, the namesake, the wife of the fabled Romanian cooking godfather from Vilde—I’ll call her Krista. We stopped in the day before as well, though just for coffee. I didn’t know there was food available, so I’d already eaten. The menu had lasagna listed, one of my favorites. I was hoping it would be served again when I went to eat, but the dish of the day was instead roasted vegetable soup with a grilled cheese sandwich.

The soup was very good of course. What amazed me was the grilled cheese sandwich. Never in Estonia had I been served such an amazing grilled cheese sandwich. Then again, never in Estonia had I been served a grilled cheese sandwich at all. As far as grilled cheese sandwiches go, it was good. It’s kind of a hard thing to mess up, after all. A grilled ham and cheese sandwich. It’s simple. Perhaps too simple for other restaurants and cafés, which insist on serving food that has French prepositions and spelling in the name. Croque monsieur à la Chalève. No, Krista’s not pretentious. It’s just a freaking grilled cheese sandwich! I feel like I’m overreacting here, but it is the perfect accompaniment to soup. Why hasn’t anyone else realized this?

Mrs. Mingus and I decided to share a quesadilla as well (phonetically spelled ke sa DI ja in Estonian). While it was not exactly Tex-Mex in flavor, it was very enjoyable. If I understood correctly, this menu selection was a regular, available every day. But the coup de grâce was the Christmas cake. A tiny bit rich for my personal preferences, but that’s what a Christmas cake is supposed to be—rich. And a wealth of ingredients was used. Cranberries, cherries, oranges, dates, blueberries, prunes and raisins.

When Christian was asked for the bill, he didn’t need to bring one. He instead chose to quickly recite everything ordered along with the prices. Payment in cash. Card payments soon available. You can get a receipt of course if you want one. This place just opened—there’s not even an official sign yet.

Obviously this café doesn’t occupy the whole building. The Tartu Centre for Creative Industries (Loomemajanduskeskus) operates here. What is that, you might ask? Well, the name doesn’t really mean anything to me in English or Estonian. It’s a local business incubator. It helps local businesses to get on their feet, with a bent on art. Funded by the city government. I have friends who have received help from them, and they all speak favorably of it.

And now for the negative part of the review. There’s a doorstop at the top of the stairs in front that bewilders me. Why is it like this? With all the safety regulations in modern Estonia, has no one thought that perhaps this is deadly? One slip on the tile and that’s the end of you. At least if you landed on this, you wouldn’t have to worry about sliding down the stairs after.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Mingus for the review! BTW, the loomemajanduskeskus is renovating two buildings next to the house in your main picture. This will form a complex for incubating arts and crafts related businesses. In the cafe, we think of ourselves as incubating ... errr ... a good time with great food and a friendly atmosphere. Our exhibition of Raul Oreshkin paintings will continue into February.

Anonymous said...

Oh come on Mingus, no reviews since December? Give us a review already, wont' you? ;)