Sunday, January 24, 2010

Burger Wars: Le Bus vs. City

Food culture is a function of cultural culture. But what is culture? One idea suggests it is the practice of traditions, these in turn being old ways of doing things, ways that are obsolete and bear little relevance to the modern world. Dressing up in old-fashioned costumes and singing and dancing every five years most certainly are culture—a very important example, too—but ultimately, it does not feed the homeless. Food culture is more indicative of what a society is like than the practice of culture itself, for it is practiced several times a day. The foods consumed in a metropolitan society reflect just how pedestrian that society really is. Thus food culture, following the logic above, means rejecting the new in preference of the old. The more foodly cultural you are, the less open-minded—and hence ignorant—you therefore appear to be. It means preferring Soviet-era mystery meat sauce over something like—oh I don’t know—green salad? This is a xenophobic paradox worthy of Zeno of Citium, right here on Tartu – City of Good Food.

This blog has previously mentioned how there are really only three fast food establishments available to the bar crowd—Alvi Kebob, McDonald’s, and the local gas station hotdogs—and that you should probably just stay where you are if you want to eat in hopes of warding off a hangover. In America, however (a very unfoodly cultural place, because so many different cuisines are so very popular), the afterparty munchies are extremely fickle because, well, they can be. My university town had a Tex-Mex place that offered “burritos as big as your head” for just a couple bucks. And they were that big. And that’s why we are too. But at least there’s a choice. The choice exists because people take advantage of it. Here, the market is less demanding, and that’s both good and bad for obvious reasons.

Before going ice-skating at Lõunakeskus (a mall) one evening, Mrs. Mingus and I spotted a bus parked up against a wall. Inside the mall. An honest-to-goodness bus, in working order. It served fast food. The selection was a bit odd: the first thing on the menu was a hamburger, and the second thing on the menu was also a hamburger. The difference was that in the second burger, you could get beef, but at Le Bus, “beef” is called “grill”. Or you could get a chicken patty instead. Well, if the second burger offers a choice of beef or chicken, what in the world was on the first burger?

And just this past week, I discovered a new joint called City, right downtown, by Barclay Square. The image of their cheeseburger looked so inviting, I just had to try it. The guy behind the counter—Kristjan—seemed to be the owner as well, not to mention stoned. I think he was stoned because I was a stranger, but he was very informal (yet still polite!) and humorous. He answered my questions. “Is the meat in the burger beef?” —Of course it’s beef. Have a look! And he picked up a tiny little thing out of the freezer. At first I thought he was going to try to play music from it in the restaurant’s compact disc player.

So welcome to Episode One of Burger Wars: A New Hope. Do these two new additions make Tartu and Tartites more or less foodly cultural? (Remember, “less” is actually good, by my logic.)

The battle begins. Le Bus is inside a Citroën, and that’s where the Frenchness ends. Definitely a good gimmick, an old gas-guzzler that’s about as healthy as the food it serves. I almost felt like I was outside, as the nearby ice rink adds a breath of something resembling fresh air. City starts out in a quiet corner of a newish building. Inside, it has the most typically, Westernly fast-food interior of all fast-food places in Tartu, except for McDonald’s, of course. The cool thing is the vaulted floor-to-ceiling window that goes out as you look up. Apart from the asphalt parking lot just outside, it somewhat resembles the top level of the ferry to Stockholm.

The help are polite in both places, if not a tad overly cultural in their behaviors. City charges you three kroons for ketchup, but it’s not in a tube as in other better-known establishments. It’s the cheapest ketchup available, with a sort of spiced flavor. Doesn’t really go well with anything, so don’t bother buying it.
“Out of curiosity,” I asked, “why do you charge for ketchup?”
—I don’t know, replied a new employee—Krista—who had just come from the back.
“Do you charge for salt, too?” I continued, eyeing the condiment tray.
—No, of course not.
“Why of course not?”
—Because it’s just salt.
“But this is just ketchup.”
—I don’t know.
“What about these coffee creamers? Are those free?”
—Yes.
“So I can just take some?”
—No, you have to buy a coffee.
“But I bought a hamburger, and fries.”
Just a shrug.
I continued with, “So it’s pretty certain that these creamers, individually packed, are more expensive per gram than the ketchup from this huge bottle, so why do I have to pay for it?”
—I don’t know. She was really smiling, out of embarrassment it seemed, so I gave up. She doesn’t own the place, or make the rules. I simply wanted to get some insider knowledge.
And then she squeezed out a tiny bit of red stuff into a plastic dish. “Could I have a little more, please?”
—Why?
“Because I have more than two French fries to eat.”
She gave me some more, and I didn’t have to pay for the extra amount, either.

Back at Le Bus, I also wanted ketchup. The burgers are served in little paper pockets, so I had no way of evenly ketchuping my sandwich—just piling it up on the front, drowning the meat, doesn’t cut it for me. I asked if they had anything they could put it on. Ironically, Krista worked here as well. She was moonlighting.
—I can put some on this coffee cup lid, if you want.
“But there’s a ventilation hole.”
—I’ll put it on this side.
“There’s a hole there, too.”
—But it’s smaller.
“I just wouldn’t want you to have to clean up my mess on the table when it leaks,” I timidly smiled.
—It won’t leak. You’ll see.
Now, the reason I made that comment about cleaning up my mess was because there were no serving trays available. I had to make the trip from the bus to the seating area four times to transport our meal, and I had laid out a tablecloth made of paper napkins. That’s a big, big minus, in my opinion. The tabletop wasn’t capable of sustaining visible life, but it wasn’t as clean as it could be. Now I understood why. But Krista was right—it didn’t leak through the little hole.

The food itself was mediocre. Well, no, that’s not fair. The hamburger at Le Bus was a decent size and tasted proper. It had real lettuce and tomato, not Chinese cabbage. Slightly pricey, but worth eating a second time if you happen to be in that particular mall. The same thing at City was a joke. The first time I ate their food, I stumbled upon it on the way to the grocery store. I thought it would be worth a try. It was so bad that I had to write about it, but that would involve actually going back there again and getting some photographs.

Although I will say the kebob was not nearly as bad. I am not sure, but I think it was beef as well. But there was no way in Helsinki I was going to eat that ridiculous burger again. Then something caught my eye: a baguette sandwich! Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I am obsessed with finding baguettes in Tartu, without cheese or seeds or any other odd toppings. Just a plain old baguette. And here was one as a sandwich. I got the one with kebob meat. It was absolutely delicious, and gigantic, for just thirty-five kroons. This thing is the best buy in Tartu kroon for kroon. But be warned—while it’s wrapped in one piece of foil, it’s been cut in half. I opened it up and tried to lift it, but the “head” fell all over the tray, causing a royal French mess. And I was only served one napkin, and it was inside the foil! (I’m not sure if I’d have to pay for more napkins.) Fortunately, the jaan was right there. We sat a couple tables away though due to the arôme de vomi wafting from the antechamber. Unlike on the ski slopes while skiing in Otepää, you can’t take your camera in the jaan with you. That’s probably a good thing.

To get the salt and sauce off your hands at Le Bus, you have to walk over a hundred meters to the nearest jaan. But at least that jaan had the coolest, freakiest, most useful hand-dryer I’ve ever seen. The four-second dry. Amazing. Probably not very environmentally friendly though. I think it must have been powered by the generator in Le Bus.

As for sides, Le Bus had fried cheese sticks. People familiar with them know that they’re only as good as the accompanying sauce—in this case, ketchup again. At least it’s something new. City offers onion rings. I saw Krista counting out six. Not five or seven, but six.

Back to the bar-crowd comment at the beginning of this review. Le Bus obviously does not apply, but if you go out on a Friday or Saturday, it’s useful to know that City is open until six in the morning. You can also sit inside. It’s a good deal, if you think about it. It’s not a burrito as big as your head, but it’s a pile of tasty baguette and other stuff for almost the same price—almost the same size, too.

While there are some major downs to both contestants in this first battle of the Burger Wars, there are positive advantages to each as well. More choice and better quality have definitely made Tartu a less foodly cultured city to live in, and that’s a good thing. The winner is City by a nose—hopefully not in my baguette though.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Kuutse Tõnise Trahter

Alpine skiing! Or rather, downhill—I think that more accurately describes what is done on Kuutsemägi. Otherwise it would be called downmountain skiing. Just outside the ski capital of Estonia, a tiny village of two thousand called Otepää, the peak of this hill is two hundred seventeen meters. (According to the Estonian entry on the Wiki, it “might even be two hundred eighteen”. Wow!) However, the surrounding land is up to a hundred meters, so really it’s just a barely distinguishable blip on the horizon. But it’s there, it’s fun, it is possible to ski for half a minute straight if you’re very slow, and I respect Jamaica for even having a bobsledding team. Estonia’s a cross-country country, after all.

Nice modern roads will safely take you most of the way. The very end, however, is full of potholes that even through the thick snow and ice would make a Land Cruiser wince. The elite of Estonia come here, and they can’t fix the road? Kuutsemägi pretty much has a monopoly in their field, so I guess that explains it. In summer they have a tennis camp, for high-altitude training.

The parking lot was almost full, a sea of station wagons—Estonia’s pickup truck. The ticket office is at the bottom of the hill, where you drive in. Nice and quick, but the sign says farners have to pay in cash, and the owners misspelled that famous credit card on the sign—what’s it called? Oh, right. Mastrcard. I had to visit the booth twice because by the time I discovered the lift ticket wasn’t a sticker, I realized they’d also forgotten to give me a ticket wicket.

I borrowed a complete ski outfit from my partner-in-law (Mrs. Mingus’s sister’s partner), and when I tried it on at their home, it fit fine. In the rental lodge, however, I put the suspender straps on for the first time and they just seemed a bit short. I couldn’t go skiing looking like Steve Urkel. They were very difficult to adjust, and it took time. But the place was a zoo, and stinky too! I got a few dirty looks from people envying my seat.

To the slopes! You have to scan your lift ticket and glide through a turnstile before getting on the T-bars. A short minute and a half later and you’re at the top. I couldn’t help but overhear some guy blabbing on the public announcement system. Really loud, just going on and on about something, but I couldn’t understand him. He was very interested in hearing what he had to say. Very enthusiastic.

The last time I went downhill skiing was twelve years ago. It came back to me immediately, but just to be safe I went down the easy slope first. And there he was—the emcee from the speakers, standing in the middle of the slope, skiers desperately trying not to ram him. As I went by, he was saying something about how to stick your ticket in the scanner. “If the light turns green, go through.” Glad to know that. “If it’s red, something is wrong. Try again.” You think? “If it’s red when you scan it again, your ticket is locked for fifteen minutes.” What? Most people pay by the hour here for their right to ski. You lose a quarter of an hour for their problem?

Whoosh! And back in line again. People kept cutting in front of me, and standing on my skis from behind. My Estonian friend and I remarked that the same number of people in line would take up twice as much space in the West. People kept butting because I wasn’t standing on anyone’s skis. I had to be rude to get on the T-bar. And the snowboarders think they have their own line. They’re probably right of course—their wood is bigger.

“There’s not much of a line right now, good time for lunch,” MC Snow told me halfway up the hill. A few more times and I took his advice. On the way back down (the restaurant—Kuutse Tõnise Trahter—is on that same first slope) he was talking to the people on the slope outside the building. “Let’s give the skiers more room. If you’re not skiing, would you be so kind and move back to the edge of the slope,” he pleaded, all the while standing in the middle of the slope. And this guy just wouldn’t shut up. I didn’t hear him breathe once.

After taking my equipment off, I did the robot walk (walking in ski boots) and looked for a rack to leave my skis and poles on. Not a single one. I did find a sign, however, that instructed me not to leave my stuff unattended. So I clumsily went inside, wondering how I would carry skis and food. As it turns out, it wasn’t a problem. The lady emptying the trash rudely told me I couldn’t enter with skis. At a ski lodge. Where you can’t leave your skis anywhere. But I listened to her (don’t piss off the trash lady, is what I’ve always heard) and took a chance by depositing everything outside against the wall.

Back inside, quite the line. Damned emcee let the snow cat out of the lunch bag about there being no line. Fortunately, the line moves quickly, because they don’t actually cook anything in Kuutse Tõnise Trahter. Well, they do, but it’s made in bulk, cafeteria style. Fried Russian ravioli, fried pork, fried chicken filet (what’s a chicken filet?), French fries, and so on. No English, and that’s not a problem for me—I’m just warning anyone who might travel from France to go skiing on Kuutsemägi. I figured the pelmeenid (the ravioli stuff) and fries would be hearty enough for a day on the slopes. I could cough up the grease the next day while I writhed in pain from my numerous Charlie horses.

Of course the fries that Krista—the cafeteria woman—gave me were coated in potato seasoning. I liked that stuff the first few hundred times I had it, but it got old after a while. And I understand that Estonians love it with a passion—why else would it be used so much, right?—but it would be a very nice development were a choice available. What’s wrong with just plain old salt?

The Trahter, in my opinion, was the worst of the worst in terms of food. “But I like the food there,” a few friends have disagreed with my description. “Yeah, you’ll like anything if you’re hungry enough, especially after skiing for hours,” is my response. And those pelmeenid and fries were oh so good. Objectively: boring and unhealthy, but still delish! I especially loved the carbonated fizzle reaction in my throat from the Baltic-bottled Coke along with the grease. I wondered what my stomach would do on the black diamond slope a few minutes later.

Although I’m a farner, I could still pay with my Swedish bank-issued chip card.

videoOutside, my skis were still there. Loud techno was blaring from the speakers, and we couldn’t talk as we put our equipment back on. Then MC Snow must have seen that I was back. He turned the volume down (but not off) and started talking again. “Be boom! sure boom! to test-drive boom! the new boom! Toyota Corolla boom!” he competed with the music. Advertisements? On a ski slope? I scanned the other people to see if anyone stopped skiing to write down the telephone number he kept repeating.

The maps are a bit hard to find, which is odd considering there are only seven slopes. There is one just outside the restaurant, but not where you’d think to look. There’s another one at the top of the hill, but if you’ve made it that far I guess you don’t really need it. I was surprised at how much cross-country skiing was required to get from slope to slope though. The map didn’t show that bit.

It also didn’t show that there was another little food lodge on the top, far away from the beginner slopes. Cash only this time, for Estonians too. No Internet atop the hill? That’s hardly consistent—the ticket scanners must be plugged into something, and Estonia has Kõu, the wireless web modem. Internet anywhere. But they did have hamburgers—if only I’d known! Then I saw one, and had the sneaking suspicion it was not beef, but a chicken filet again. Another kind of chicken filet, not the authentic one in Kuutse Tõnise Trahter.

The black diamond slope on Kuutsemägi—the hardest on the hill—was very short and easy, and I’m not an especially good skier, either. It also had the only Poma lift there. I was mildly put off by the amount of ice chunks, however, so we went back to the easier stuff.

“Only three minutes left until the competition’s over. Hurry up!” MC Snow started talking again. A race? We made it to the line. Basically you just start skiing when he tells you to go, and your time will be announced as you pass.
“What’s your name?” the little boy asked, clipboard in hand.
—Mingus.
“How do you spell that?”

“GO!” pushing and shoving and leaning as far forward as my boots would allow, this contest was mine. I flew down the hill like a fire on the mountain, and when I passed MC Snow he didn’t say anything. My friend said it was because I wasn’t fast enough. Not fast enough to even find out how fast I was? Then he continued with his verbal diarrhea, and I realized I needed a jaan.

Inside the Trahter again, I saw a sign inside the stall that read, “Do not throw paper in the toilet.” And there was no trashcan. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what you would have to do in the event of an emergency. Hold the paper in your hand and ask the angry trash lady for help? I took a picture of the sign, but forgot to mute my phone. It made a loud camera sound, and a second later when I walked out of the stall, there was a guy washing his hands, looking at me like I was some sort of perv. I asked him, “Wanna’ see it?” And I pulled out the phone. Okay, no I didn’t say or do that, but I was tempted.

It was dark and we were tired, so we called it quits. On the way to my Estonian pickup truck, I noticed that the children’s slope—with a rope tow—was the only slope not illuminated by the green floodlights. Four-year-olds skiing in the dark with only the white of the snow to show them the way.

But overall it was a great day. The equipment was newish, clean and in very good condition. The slopes were short but fun. No Aspen, but you can’t expect that anyhow, outside of, well, Aspen. The lift tickets were a bit pricy at three hundred kroons for a day pass, considering that there are no chairlifts, but as I said, the owners have a monopoly. I want to go back next weekend, but I think I’ll bring my own lunch. Maybe Kuutse Tõnise Trahter will let me use their microwave?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Vilde

Two centuries ago there was an Irish writer named Oscar Wilde. There was also an Estonian writer named Eduard Vilde. They never met, though they lived thirty-five years in common. Sixty-five years after the passing of the Estonian (or, twelve years ago), an Irish entrepreneur opened a bar in Tartu with a statue of the two writers sitting on a bench. This statue, and the bar, became Tartu icons, a must-see for every tourist, even if they had no clue who these writers were. The sculpture is Estonian, but years ago a replica was made and given to the City of Galway in Ireland. Conspiracy theorists, however, suggest that the Tartu statue is the copy.

The Irish chef who opened the original kitchen was a nice person, lured to Estonia by the bar’s owner under slightly false pretenses. False pretenses in that he was guaranteed the finest staff in Estonia. And perhaps they were, but he had to teach them how to slice bread. The menu he offered was excellent, the stories of training his staff hilarious. He once said that they had never heard the concept of using gloves in the kitchen for sanitary purposes. They acquiesced, only to wear the glove on the hand holding the knife, not the one holding the meat. When he eventually had a falling out with the owner, he skipped town of course, and Wilde continued for years until it was sold, sold again, and then bankrupt, a victim to the economy.

But for a long while Wilde was the place to go for foreigners, the intelligentsia, and anyone who could afford the extra two kroons for a beer. Every night the place was packed, and in warm weather the veranda was stuffed with patrons wondering how they could get a hold of the beautiful house across the street (which is still empty by the way—the owner really missed his boat!). The rum and colas began to consistently boast a certain meaty flavor, with many a waitress thinking us crazy for complaining. In the end, we discovered that the meat knife had been used to slice the lemons.

The café downstairs was every rich grandma’s dream come true, and their signature Grandma’s Cake was truly all it was cracked up to be. It’s still on the menu today, but I don’t know if it’s the same treat. The bar has now had four different owners in almost as many years, and finally got a long-needed facelift. It’s slightly recognizable as its former self.

Wilde has reopened its doors under new management, but it is no longer called Wilde. Its new name is Vilde. W became V to save money on the engraving. Actually it’s Eduard Vilde lokaal ja kohvik (Edward Wilde Lounge and Café). Vilde is a comfortable place to get a relatively quiet drink or dinner. The premises are fairly large and spacious, and the almighty, elite Saksa Kamber (German Chamber—a room where the cream of the kraut could gather and discuss intelligent topics, such as cheap brandy) now has a hunting theme. The head of a dead animal is mounted on the wall, a trophy demonstrating the superior manliness of some guy with a gun. If you see antlers, only manly men may enter. Oh, and the door bears the seal of the Rotary Club—apparently philanthropic hunters.

Vilde’s head chef is the elusive Romanian whom I have mentioned in previous reviews. Having heard amazing things from numerous sources, Mrs. Mingus and I decided to take our fathers over the holidays to give him a try. I called in advance to ask if he was in fact cooking that night, and the man on the phone replied, “Yes, he’s here.” When we walked through the door, we were greeted by Kristjan, an old Wilde acquaintance.

When Wilde was still less than a year old, Kristjan did something he really shouldn’t have. Really shouldn’t have. Mrs. Mingus and I demanded an apology; he scoffed, so I poked him in the chest as a threat directly in front of a security camera, fully knowing the Irish owner—extremely careful about the public behavior of the staff—would see it. Kristjan has never retaliated, although he’s given us dirty looks over the years. He’s a good waiter, but I wouldn’t trust him to handle our food for fear he might spit in it. So we decided to cook our own dinner in Vilde.

The most expensive item on the menu is the Grilling Stone with Choice of Meat for a Party of Four. Or maybe party of two. The on-line menu says both in different places. But at three hundred sixty kroons, it’s at least five kroons cheaper per person than ordering individually. And it is definitely worth it. While technically I still haven’t tried the Romanian’s cooking (but he was there, sitting at a table next to us with his family), the marinades and choices were still his, even if he physically may have had nothing to do with the dinner.

Creating a menu is a tricky endeavor. What cuts do you serve, and of what meats? Do you cut it properly? Marinade? Spices and flavor combinations? What accompanies your dish? While Mrs. Mingus handled most of the grilling, it was presented in a foolproof manner. Anyone could cook it. Who can take credit for this meal? Well, still the restaurant. But here’s my opinion: this was one of the best three meals I’ve had in Estonia, although I can’t immediately recall what the other two were.

A grilling stone was served by our waitress, who apparently was appointed by Kristjan. “Hi, I’m Krista, Kristiina’s replacement. This stone is heated to three hundred degrees, and if it gets cold, just ask and we’ll bring out a new one. But make sure you don’t touch it with anything but metal utensils.” She then served trays of food, one with thinly sliced cuts of beef, Frenched lamb cutlets and salmon filets. The veggie platter consisted of red onions and bell peppers, mushrooms and eggplant. Another platter was an absolutely fabulous potato casserole, and three dip sauces.

Pure pleasure, and what simplicity! This was not some complicated concoction from a cook who wants to show he has mastered this or that technique. This was dinner from a chef who knows the soul of his ingredients. But there must be something negative about my meal, right? I am Mingus, after all. Here’s my advice: order an appetizer. It takes a while for the stone to heat up. And while Vilde is one of the few places in Tartu (or Estonia) to offer anything free on the table before your meal, it was still just a tiny little bowl of peanuts. And there’s no guarantee the peanuts are fresh from the package. Twenty other people could have fondled them, and the leftovers were dumped in a clean bowl and topped off.

This is routinely done in the States, and this is why I will never touch any food that could be available to the general clientele of a restaurant or bar: while out one night with friends in university the bar served popcorn in baskets, lined with a waterproof sheet of paper. A random guy was walking by and suddenly emptied the contents of his digestive system, using our half-empty popcorn basket as a receptacle—the only thing he could grab on such short notice. Then he moved on, as if nothing had happened. Well, he did say “Sorry,” smiled, and turned. Shocked, we could only think to take another basket and cover up the mess. Then the waitress approached to ask if we wanted the popcorn. We said no, of course not, assuming she had watched the deed be done. She picked it up, and as she was walking away, she said something about the popcorn being out, that this was the last basket, and another table wanted it. We quickly left.

Anyhow, while I still can’t claim to have directly sampled the Romanian’s cooking, I have found a place to take visiting guests. A quick search on line reveals that the grilling stone concept for restaurants is hardly unique in the world, but it’s not that common either, and definitely unique in Estonia.

The Romanian once tried to organize a league of chefs in Tartu, in order to improve restaurant quality and variety. He said there were some interested people, but once he asked for a token twenty-five-kroon annual due to fund its activities, everyone disappeared. But he really loves his work, and jokingly admits he’s still holding the organization’s meetings, even though he’s the only one attending.

And while I’ve only had a fraction of the Romanian’s cooking, I’ve also only experienced a fraction of the restaurant itself. The downstairs café is still there apparently, but the bookshop is now a club called Plink Plonk. The bass made my beer bounce on the second floor, in the restaurant. Downstairs used to have antique printing machines, as the building housed a publishing house. They might be gone now, as are the display cases between tables in the lokaal upstairs. The displays had various autographs, rare books and plagues. Yes, plagues. One plaque I remember said something in English along the lines of “We present to You this plague for whatever it is You did.” As I’ve mentioned before, checking your work before sending it to the printer is not a very popular practice here. One of the menus Wilde (not Vilde) printed had the beers called A.Le Coq and Saku Lite printed as A. le Cog and Suka Lite, an especially unfortunate mistake in a country with so many Russian-speakers.

Another word of advice is that you should not sit anywhere near the balcony overlooking the front of the building. The balcony is the smoking section, and on a cold night the breeze from the opening of the door can make your grilling stone prematurely cool. Also watch your step if there’s any snow or ice at all. The sloping cobblestones in front of the statue have caused many a leg to break over the years. I once saw four older women—all hunched over—using themselves as a human chain to pull each other up the hill to get some tea in the café. Salt?

Unfortunately, Vilde has lost any semblance of its Irelandishness. Where will we go for St. Patrick’s Day? Like most Americans—white and black alike—one thirty-second of my blood is Irish. It’s important in my culture, the only day a year I can stomach a Guinness. I guess I can just go to Vilde on Tartu – City of Good Food Day, which I hope will happen many more times this year.