Saturday, April 24, 2010


Flourishing tourism, a sprawling downtown and a medieval Old Town that many in the West probably think was fashioned after Disney’s Magic Kingdom, and not the other way around. So just how big a difference is there between dining out in Tartu and Tallinn? This little Mingus will attempt to answer that very question. For the next three reviews, you will hear the tales of a recent week spent in the capital of Estonia.

First of all, you have to get there. We chose to drive. The highway from Tartu is supposedly considered the single most dangerous highway in the European Union. The road itself is fine, although it is only two lanes and passes through several villages. The danger is that people have to travel it often, and get tired of the endless truck traffic. Many pass on curves without looking and expect oncoming drivers to give way. A network of traffic cameras has been installed, but I wouldn’t worry about them. There is a warning each time you approach one, and they look like robots from Star Wars and are immediately to the side of the pavement.

Due to the nature of our visit to the “head city”, we opted for a hotel that was a little west of the Old Town. The Hotel Vertigo. Actually it’s called the “Uniquestay Hotel Mihkli in Tallinn” (that’s a long name), but when we first entered our room on the top floor, I thought I was beginning to pass out, I felt so dizzy. Luckily, Mrs. Mingus said she felt strange, too. Then I realized the problem wasn’t us, it was the hotel. First of all, the floor was slanted, and if you stood two steps inside from the doorway, you could feel the building swaying. It’s only four floors. I told the other people in our group to “stand right here, and tell me what you feel.” They all noticed it.

Also, the elevator broke while we were in it. I had to pry the doors open to get out. Overall the hotel was clean, but it just seemed kind of, well, crappy. But that’s why it was so cheap. The breakfast buffet was served in a Brazilian-themed restaurant in the basement that used parrots as decorations and played the greatest hits of Muzak. The staff were polite, especially as our plans changed a little, and there was an extra room awailable that had wallpapares.

Time for dinner. Located behind the Coca-Cola Plaza (the multi-floor cinema complex), Vapiano is right downtown. You can hear the voice of a modern city—that sort of ever-present whooshing sound—quite well from the front door, although the restaurant is nestled into a cozy little nook near the sea. The sea—that’s one thing I’ll never understand about Tallinn. They hardly take advantage of the sea. There are fantastic pedestrian malls all over the downtown area, but none are overlooking the Gulf of Finland. Maybe it’s the constant wind that blows them away from the coast.

Vapiano is a unique experience. There are no waitstaff. When you walk in, you’re greeted by a hostess and given a card. Each person is given a card. You have to go to different stations and place your orders for drinks and food, all prepared in front of you, and then take it to your table and enjoy. This is a gimmick that works. You present your card on the way out and pay.

The menu is divided into three price classes, ranging from the sixties to the hundred-twenty-fives, and you can choose which pasta you want for each (did I mention this is an Italian restaurant?). I ordered the Italian sausage with penne from the expensive class which, all things considered, isn’t that pricey. The chef—the nametag said Krista—apparently hadn’t bargained for dealing directly with customers when she went to cooking school. Over the crackling of the stoves, she was very hard to hear and seemed less than enthusiastic about her profession when she asked which of the several options I wanted on my plate. But I still thoroughly enjoyed my dinner. It was a very large portion, and with all the cheese (perhaps even too much Parmesan) and sausage it was heavier than what I had hoped for, but the flavor was fantastic! Others in our group were slightly less satisfied with their dinners, yet they all quickly said they would eat here again if the opportunity arose. The salads are especially popular.

My advice if you’re eating in Vapiano for the first time: order your drinks from the bar first, and spend time studying the menu before you talk to Krista. As you won’t be familiar with how the restaurant works, it can be a bit daunting. I asked the bartender if they had a dry red wine, and I was offered a sample from an open bottle. A free sample of an alcoholic drink? I’ve never seen that happen in Tartu.

After the meal, however, I had this uncontrollable urge to drink a beer. I hardly ever drink beer. Maybe it was because I wanted to make up for the first time I’d eaten at Vapiano, last autumn, when I was driving but really wanted a stiff drink. The whole Mingus clan and a friend went, and it must have been rush hour. We were all hungry and tired from the drive to Tallinn, and had no clue of how to order. The kids were going crazy and I couldn’t look at the menu for so much as two consecutive seconds. Mrs. Mingus and our friend went to stand in line to order their pasta, and I stayed with the kids and tried to figure out what my starving stomach wanted.

The next thing I knew, Littlest Mingus—she’s two—had somehow got stuck between the pillar and sofa in this image. But she can’t fit through there. She’d fallen into it, with her head and one leg on one side, and the rest of her body on the other. Her neck was in between, and she let out the most blood-curdling cry I’d ever heard from her. I thought her little neck was broken, and the sofa was bolted to the floor and couldn’t be budged. This was the single most terrifying moment of my life. My only choice was to lift her up, but as I couldn’t lift from both sides at once, it was difficult. Perhaps if someone had come to help—anyone really, staff or customers—it would have been easier, but I somehow managed. Fortunately Littlest Mingus was only frightened—not injured. Still, not a single person came to ask if we were fine. But they were watching. People who have heard this story all agree that while Vapiano is a great place, it’s best to leave the littluns home.

A couple I’m friends with used to be frequent customers in Vapiano. They were eagerly trying to take advantage of a customer card that offered a free ninth meal after the previous eight. They paid separately and got stamps on the same card, and had done this repeatedly. One day, however, the hostess wouldn’t do it. “One customer, one meal, one card, one stamp,” she stated.
—But we’ve been doing this for weeks, my friend protested.
She just stared.
—Show me where it’s written that we can’t share a stamp card.
She couldn’t. She just stared.
—Mathematically, there’s no difference if we have one card or two. We’re still buying the same number of meals, and getting the same number of free meals.
“One customer, one card,” she robotically droned on. The manager was standing there as well, and said nothing. Silence means approval.
—Well, we won’t be coming here again, he stated before paying and leaving. Personally, I’ve noticed tons of this anal attention to meaningless detail, and it’s disappearing from Estonia at a constant pace. However, it is rampant in Northern Europe. Have a free sample, I’ll even give you a smile, but you must have your paperwork in order. I suspect my friends now visit the other Vapiano, in the new Solaris mall a few minutes away.

There are a lot of farners in Vapiano. I heard the hostess say, “Welcome back”, “Nice to see you again”, and so on several times in English as non-Estonians walked in, one after another. A well-known secret, this place is. Ultra-modern yet inviting, a lot of the locals who were in the restaurant seemed overly fashion-conscious. Lots of people who spend their days at tanning salons and dye their hair jet black, wearing pink and white pants and shirts.

After a “positive taste experience”, as local restaurants like to say, we hit the bars. I’ve heard so much chatter about a new place in the Old Town called Drink Bar and Grill. What a name! It reminds me of the numerous places on the highway called “Hot Food”, or the produce stands called “Potato” and “Cucumber”. Well, no, they’re not called that, but they always list what they sell in the singular. “We have one potato for sale, and once we sell it, we’re going home. But we’ll be back tomorrow with a cucumber.” To be fair, the owner of Drink, I believe, is British. Meaning, the name is intentional.

Drink offers a good selection of draught beers, and I asked about one I wasn’t familiar with. Another free sample! I should have asked if I could try their vodkas and whiskeys as well, but then realized that this was specifically why samples weren’t given in Tartu, and why you had to pay for ketchup in fast-food joints. Drink is a nice enough place, not too pricey, but we left after one beer because the toilet smell was a bit overpowering. It smelled like every pub in Camden Town.

Next was Clazz, a trendy restaurant and nightclub, across from Town Hall Square. The music was good, the drinks the same price as Tartu, and apparently it’s where the koor koorest go to be seen (koor means crème). Tanel Padar of Eurovision and local rock fame was seen with his entourage. I also met Abdul Turay, the frequent writer for Estonian newspapers. Very nice man.

What I don’t understand about Tallinn is why they have reacted so strongly to the current economic climate. Everyone says that prices are often half what they used to be, meaning they’re the same as prices in Tartu. In Tallinn, the portions seemed a bit larger, a bit fresher, a bit more polite, but for the same cost as a small city two hours to the south in the middle of nowhere. The hotels were a fraction of the Tartu prices. Or maybe it’s just Tartu that eludes my comprehension.

After leaving Clazz, we passed by the Polish embassy. For some reason, I found myself glued to the spot, having a quiet moment of reflection.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Asian Chef

Mrs. Mingus bolted across the living room, into the kitchen, and spat out the contents of her mouth in the sink. Probably due to the six spoonfuls of salt added to her morning mug of coffee. After she had uttered several expletives, I replied with a friendly “April Fools’!” A few minutes later, while in the shower, she dumped ice-cold water on me no fewer than three times.

Later in the day, a friend called to thank me for faxing a “Wanted” poster with his face on it to his office, which is now framed and hanging on the wall. One of our project managers is still angry that she went downstairs to tell the security guard to let me in (we don’t have a security guard). This is my favorite day of the year.

And for dinner, Little Mingus (my older daughter) said she wanted sushi. Yes, she actually does like and eat sushi. Maki, to be more precise, but the uniqueness of her food preferences is not lost on me. There’s not much point in spending hundreds of kroons, however, for something I can make at home for a fraction of the price, especially considering that I cannot tell the difference between the good stuff and the bad stuff. But on this day, there was no time to roll maki—there was much more important work to be done.

As I’m not in the habit of carrying around cash in Estonia—you can pay by card everywhere, except a certain kebob stand and most home deliveries—our choices of having maki shuttled home and paying without paper money were limited. I remembered a place called Londiste. I’d ordered it once, when I was too sick to shop or cook. The food was less than desirable, but they did have maki, in cheap abundance.

Mrs. Mingus and I spent ten minutes browsing their on-line menu and compiling our order. Time to call. Line disconnected. We checked the number, called again, line still disconnected. Five places on their site displayed the same number. We looked at the homepage to see if they had a new number listed. Nothing. As a last resort, I browsed through the guestbook. Out of business. Since last November.

Nice April Fools’ joke, I thought to myself. Unfortunately, it was real, and we were hungry. The hour was getting late and we’d wasted almost twenty minutes trying to order from a place that was too lazy to take their webpage off line, instead preferring to pay for web hosting, despite their being closed. Little Mingus was going to be upset.

And yes, she started screaming hysterically from the living room, but not because of the maki. “My little sister is throwing poop all over the room, and she’s eating it, too!” We ran as fast as we could, and sure enough, there were little brown pellets all over the rug, and her little sister really was munching on one of the pellets, a rascally expression in her two-year old eyes. Mrs. Mingus and I were rightfully horrified, but disgust quickly turned to hilarity when we discovered we’d been had. Little Mingus had taken some left-over cookie dough from the refrigerator, made little balls, strategically placed them throughout the living room, and had even supplied one to her sister. It was her first April Fools’ prank. She had a promising career ahead of her.

We decided to give the new Asian-themed restaurant a try —Asian Chef—at the corner of Võru and Riia Streets. The menu seems professional enough, but as you browse it more, you discover that some of the dishes are Thai, some Chinese and some Indian. I wonder if somewhere in Bangkok there’s a restaurant for locals that serves French, Italian and Russian. Because they’re all European.

No maki, but the prices seemed about right, and as I mentioned, we were hungry and time was an issue. We placed our order, and then asked Krista—the waitress—when we could pick it up (you can’t pay by card for home delivery). “I’d say about thirty minutes. No, make that forty-five minutes. Or let’s just say seven o’clock.”
—But that’s already fifty minutes.
“Yes, see you then!”

So I left to finish my day’s labors. A quick trip to Selver and some grunt work out in the parking lot. After wrapping a fish in newspaper and writing a romantic love letter from Yevgeny, I drove to the Mingus-in-laws’. Parking down the street, I quietly approached their front door and placed the fish and letter on their doorstep, further adorned with some flowers and a small bottle of vodka. Then I rang the doorbell and ran for my life.

On the way to Asian Chef, I made sure various friends would find dried fish in their mailboxes (a French tradition). Then the allotted fifty minutes had passed, and I went to the restaurant. The location itself held a certain sentimental value to me. Years ago, when I first arrived in Tartu, there had been a bar next door called Peegli pub, or Mirror Pub. Quite an original name, as the interior was covered with mirrors. My fellow students and I frequently went there for lunch between our Estonian classes, and more frequently than not we stayed there, lured by beer, rather than spend the afternoon assembling paper cut-out puzzles with Estonian sentences hand-written on them.

I had once gone into Peegli pood, or Mirror Shop (now Asian Chef), which is right next door, to buy some lunch. Not speaking a word of the language yet, I pointed to what seemed to be a battered and fried piece of mystery meat behind the sneeze guard. I experienced what Mrs. Mingus felt when she drank her salted coffee. It was something sweet that had been deep-fried. I’ve experienced this a lot in Estonia—a food or drink that is fairly good, so long as you’re expecting it, but because it is not what you are expecting it is repulsive. A birthday party with a delicious-looking cake—I took a big slice, only to discover it was a herring cake. I took a sip of Mrs. Mingus’s Coke once, only to discover it was kvass, a sort of liquid Vegemite.

The interior of Asian Chef is a bit eclectic, like the menu. Hints of Asia with countryside wooden beams and a charred, brick fireplace, replete with bathroom tiles on the restaurant floor—very Nordic in its own way. But inviting nonetheless. I waited a few minutes for Krista to notice a customer had arrived. Fifty-five minutes after calling in my order, she appeared. “Hi, just a few more minutes,” she politely said.
—No problem, I assured her. May I ask a question? Are the owners Estonian?
“What do you mean?”
—The people who own this restaurant, are they Estonian?
“One is not, and neither is the other. But yes, they’re both Estonian.”
I didn’t know what to think, so I just continued my questions.
—And the chefs?
“They’re both from Nepal.”
—Oh, really? And do you offer Nepalese food then? That would be nice to try.
“I’m sorry, this is an Asian restaurant.”

The food was, in fact, fairly good. I wouldn’t say it was spectacular, and definitely not better than Žen-Žen, but it had several menu items that the latter did not. If its reputation spreads, it will provide competition, with customers as the winners. We didn’t care too much for the Hot and Sour Chicken Soup—fairly bland, not at all spicy—but the Garlic Naan was excellent. It may be an Indian bread, but as this is a de facto fusion restaurant, I fused it with my tasty Chop Suey and Mrs. Mingus’s Sweet and Sour Chicken. Now, I’ve never liked sweet and sour before, but I was delighted to finish off my children’s sweet and sour chicken. This is the first restaurant that’s ever produced a sweet and sour recipe I thoroughly enjoyed. Not being snobby, just something about the taste that until now has rubbed me the wrong way.

I think the desserts were good, too, but they should not be ordered for take-out. In-house only. We had fried, candied apples and fried pineapple slices. I decided to give this property another try regarding sweet, fried items. The tiniest little scoop of ice cream had been packaged with the simmering fruit, cooling the dessert and soaking it through and through. In other Asian eateries, the ice cream is served separately.

As for the take-out boxes, I think they were free. Could this be the one place in Tartu that doesn’t charge for take-out boxes? Amazing! And they were so cute, too! Not Styrofoam or flimsy paper, but an actual take-out box—like Asian take-out in the rest of the world!

Asian Chef should definitely survive a few years in Tartu’s tough competitive environment. If it doesn’t, I’m sure it will be promptly replaced with another motley mix of ethnic cuisines—maybe a copy and paste of that European restaurant from Bangkok. But until then, I will visit Asian Chef again.

Mrs. Mingus did not speak to me during the entire dinner. Not because it was so mouthwateringly delicious, but because while I was out picking up our delivery dinner and delivering fish and flowers, she had discovered that the tray of spring flowers she’d planted—for later transfer to the garden—had sprouted. Sprouted fingernail clippings from the entire family. I blamed it on my daughter, even though we all knew it was something I had cooked up myself. Then Mrs. Mingus-in-law called. “Thank you! I’ve never laughed so hard in my life!”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Kohvik Crepp

Years ago I met a retired high school teacher who had received a Purple Heart for taking shrapnel in the butt on Omaha Beach, during the Allied invasion of Normandy, during Dubya Dubya Two (the war, not the president). He maintained a tradition of cooking crêpes for his family every Saturday morning for more than fifty years, as a symbol of having fought the Nazis in France and won. “Victory Crêpes” he called them. Sometimes he would even make designs with strawberry jam, powdered sugar and blueberry jelly. These crêpes meant he had survived. And he was fairly old as well, probably because he had led such an active life, never sitting in one place for very long.

Then one day he was having a routine check-up at the doctor’s. Fortunately it wasn’t an MRI, because they found a fragment of Nazi shrapnel embedded in his heart muscle. Apparently it had ricocheted up to his chest all the way from his derrière. From his very specific point of view, he owed his longevity to the Nazis. He was lucky to be alive, and had always joked that the Nazis were close to his heart.

He was a great patriot and a big liberal. He celebrated his country’s multiculturalism, and was proud to have served in the war and educated multiple generations about the benefits of teamwork and not individualism. Upon becoming an octogenarian, he moved to a condo and sold his lakefront house to America’s first openly lesbian member of Congress. The same one I used to work for.

And so years later, I live in an interesting country—one that was a part of the Allied forces that defeated the Nazis. There was a time during the war when Estonia was occupied by the Axis, and all Estonians have family stories about uncles or grandfathers who were conscripted by both sides and had to fight each other. Estonians are now free to choose from a large number of restaurants and cafés and while away the time, sipping on Ethiopian coffee from a French press and eating crêpes and galettes on a newly cobblestoned pedestrian street. At least, that’s what I like to do in Tartu in the summer. Especially at a café called Crepp, on Rüütli Street.

This Crepp is not the same as the one I recently reviewed. The owner is the same, but I reviewed the place upstairs. That was the often-named “Meat Restaurant” that was often out of meat. This review is for the original place, downstairs. Kohvik Crepp. The place upstairs closed, and has now reopened as a club called Trepp.

My favorite thing in Crepp has always been the balsamic chicken salad. It is healthy, delicious, filling and relatively cheap. The crêpes themselves leave a bit to be desired—not because of the crêpes themselves, but because of the fillings. Mostly pre-processed and pre-cut chunks of ham with boring cheese. But the dessert crêpes are good. As is the Ethiopian coffee from a French press, although the presses are a bit worn out. Always a fair amount of coffee grounds in the drink, enough to make swallowing the second half of the coffee a tad unpleasant.

The atmosphere is charming, what with the chansons and artwork adorning the interior. The staff are always polite and helpful. And the owner? Well, he’s a Nazi.

Yes, I was surprised, too, when I recently found out. I’ll call him Kristjan in this review. I asked around, trying to confirm that it’s true. Everyone already knew this. It was old news, and I was the one out of the loop. I looked him up on Facebook. Under political views, he has listed himself as “rahvussotsialist” (National Socialist). One of his Facebook friends is Risto Teinonen, a locally famous Finnish Nazi who, just a couple years ago, celebrated a Nazi anniversary in Crepp, as you can see in the next photo, courtesy of Eesti Ekspress.

For all of the reasons my retired teacher friend fought in Dubya Dubya Two, one of them was to protect the freedom of speech. In America, Nazis—registered or not—have a constitutional right to express their views. That’s the great thing about freedom. If Estonia’s Eastern Neighbor ever decided to pay another uninvited visit, I would probably stand with Kristjan and fight to protect this freedom, even though I am no Nazi. Well, alright, I’d probably get my family as far away as possible in that event, as it would undoubtedly involve nuclear weapons. But the point remains.

And what is a Nazi exactly? A National Socialist—by definition, one who believes in the biological superiority of his own race over all others. Historically, the Aryan race (you know, the guys with the blonde hair who mostly start going bald in their thirties) was the Master Race. Seeing as how they lost the war however, this belief apparently didn’t work out too well for them.

But make no mistake—Nazism is racism. It was especially targeted against the Jews during the war. Roughly in the neighborhood of six million methodical homicides, just because one person made another uncomfortable for some reason. Oh—let’s not forget Hitler was part Jewish himself. And Mr. Teinonen believes himself to be biologically superior to the Bear Jew.

My question is: why would someone be racist? Racism is a belief, and everyone is entitled to have their own. I personally hate peanut butter, but I have no problem with people eating peanut butter around me. Well, there are people who have severe peanut allergies. One whiff and they blow up like a balloon. Yet I’ve never heard of anyone vomiting from watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Is racism due to fear of the unknown? To a large extent, yes. It’s human nature, after all, to want to view yourself as better than others. The kid with glasses, the radio deejay with a lisp, the Estonian model who’s part black. Any person with so much as a drop of gray matter in their head will understand that these people are not any less intelligent or capable.

I once asked a Christian friend why she was a Methodist. “Because my parents are.”
—You would never consider becoming Catholic, or Presbyterian, or any other faith?
“No, why? I was raised Methodist.”
—Do you support gay rights?
“Of course, they’re people, too,” she answered.
—But you know the Methodist church is against gay marriage?
“No, it’s not.”
—Yes, it is. Look it up.
“Really? Well, I’m sure it’s just a mistake.” And she changed the topic.

So I’ll go out on a limb here, and suggest that maybe—just maybe—racism is taught. Similarly to superstitions and the Easter Bunny. A child is racist because he was taught to be racist, and when he grows up his children will be racist just like Daddy. When I look at the world, I see variety, beauty and things to experience. This unfortunate father will see a world full of fear, borders and hate, and he is condemning his children to the same fate. The only way to stop it is to think.

If you are even a little bit racist, do yourself and your kids a favor, and think about why you don’t like blacks. Try to come up with just one good, legitimate reason. Think about why you don’t like Jews. Does it have anything to do with what you’ve heard, or is it something you personally have experienced? And ask yourself why your race is better. Is it because whites were more or less the last people on Earth to attain civilization?

Years ago I was drinking a beer in a club that used to be in an old Soviet bomb shelter. A Russian approached and was very eager to get to know me. I guess I just looked foreign. “Why?” I asked him.
—Because I want to get to know foreigners.
“But why?” I repeated.
—I used to be a skinhead, a neo-Nazi.
I simply stared at him, expecting trouble.
—But I’m Russian, he continued. It dawned on me one day that Hitler hated the Slavs. So why would I be a Nazi?
“Wow, that’s a good point,” I put forth.
—Yeah, it is. So I’m trying to be a better person. I want to open my eyes more.
“Are you just shitting me?” I asked. I felt a bit threatened.
—No, seriously. Here, take this!
And he handed me a zehn-Pfennig Nazi-era coin.
—I don’t want it anymore. And here’s something else.
The next gift, oddly enough, was a neck strap for a saxophone.
“Can I buy you a beer?” I offered, not quite knowing how to behave in this unexpected situation.
—No, I’m just trying to feel better about myself for being racist for so long.
And he left the club. I still have the coin and neck strap. They’re like my Saturday morning crêpes.

Recent genetic research has revealed that the vast majority of “ethnic Estonians” have almost nothing in common with the Finns, and are in fact mostly the same as Latvians and Lithuanians (and a lot of Russians as well). So technically, National Socialism really has very little place in Estonia—a country that claims to be tolerant. But read the comment thread of any on-line news article that has anything to do with people of other races, and you will see that racism is very much alive and well in a large portion of modern Estonia. Like in most other countries. I laud the efforts of Domus Dorpatensis in promoting a spirit of intelligent thought in Tartu.

The bottom line is that if someone wants to be racist, that is their right, and I support that right, though I do not share their belief. I just think that perhaps self-proclaimed National Socialists might want to reconsider their political affiliation a bit, lest they contradict themselves as my reformed Russian friend above.

Nazism in Estonia unfortunately is not limited to just a few people. According to Eesti Ekspress, there were several state officials from various political parties at a recent celebration in honor of the Holocaust. “Happy Holocaust,” the article quotes. The same article quotes Kristjan, the owner of Crepp, as saying, “My position is also that Estonia shouldn’t have any foreigners in it.”

Well, at least he’s honest. I do appreciate that. And while I can’t help him out in realizing his dream of no foreigners in Estonia—that would be beyond my power anyhow—I can make a contribution, roughly the size of my family, to not having any foreigners in his restaurant. I have a very good recipe for making my own Victory Crêpes, after all.