Saturday, May 29, 2010

Noir

“Dude, I’m at Noir right now, and I just had probably the best steak ever in Estonia,” my friend urgently called me one evening. “But you have to make sure it’s the same cook. The girl. The guy who works in the kitchen isn’t as good.” I thanked him and said I’d check it out. And I did. And I did learn the hard way, however, that you need to call and ask beforehand. Maybe even reserve a table.

The same friend and I recently made plans to dine in Noir, in an attractive courtyard on Ülikooli Street in Tartu. When we walked in, we got one of two tables that weren’t occupied. The main dining room has maybe eight tables, three of which are large enough for six people, and all of these were occupied by two or fewer people. Fewer meaning one. The small tables were available. The waitress promptly approached us with a smile, and even introduced herself. This is medium-rare in Estonia.

“Hello, I’m Krista. Would you like some drinks while you look over the menu?”
—Yes, please. What beers do you have? I asked, as I flipped through the menus, having trouble seeing anything because the print was so faded.
“I’m afraid we only have A.le Coq Premium at the moment.”
—Then I guess I’d like to have an A.le Coq, I replied with a grin.

Noir is a self-described vinothèque, so I can’t really fault them for having a poor selection of bière. For some reason though, knowing what I was going to order beforehand, I just felt that at that moment, beer would better suit steak. And our drinks were served in under a couple minutes. This means that Krista immediately went and poured our drinks, rather than finding countless other non-customer-oriented things to do, as is the norm in Tartu. Douze points.

The rest of our party of six meanwhile arrived. We had patiently been waiting for the couple near the window—the couple who had long since finished their drinks and were just hitting on each other—to leave, so we could crowd our six people around a table for six, rather than a table for two. We asked Krista if she could help us out. “Of course. Would it be alright if we added another table here?” We quickly agreed, and I rose to go get the table. “No, no, we can do it,” she urged me to remain seated. She disappeared into the kitchen and immediately returned with another person, who had combined our tables in seconds. Douze points.

As we started browsing the menu, I asked my friend if this was the steak he’d recommended. “I can’t find it,” he replied in frustration. “I think I’m looking at the wine list.” He wasn’t, but the wine list wasn’t labeled, and the ink on the shiny paper was equally faded. The page for main courses on his menu was missing. Several of the menus were incomplete, in fact. I offered my copy and pointed out the smudge mark where the steak was listed. Squinting, he answered, “Yeah, that’s it.” Beef tenderloin with sweet potato gratin in port wine sauce. Four of us ordered this, all medium-rare. That means bloody in the middle.

We also ordered an appetizer of olives, very good. Not from a jar, but probably from the delicatessen of Kaubamaja’s Food World. A plate full of warm herbal buns was served within three minutes. Those quickly disappeared, and we were given more. Apparently for free. “Of course, I’ll put some more in the oven,” Krista replied when we ordered seconds. This occurrence is also medium-rare in Tartu. Douze points.

In just the blink of an œil, two of the steaks were served, as well as the pasta someone had ordered. My friend noticed that there was no way his steak was medium-rare. He cut it open, revealing a mildly pink center. Krista then served the appetizer two of our party had ordered. Beef carpaccio with Parmesan and arugula salad. Their appetizer was served after our main course, and we’d all ordered together. Un point.

Yet Krista did overhear my friend’s complaint about the steak, and promptly returned with a complimentary glass of red wine. I didn’t get one, however, because I had kept my mouth shut, even though my steak was well-done as well, not medium-rare. I sampled the carpaccio. A tad bland, not as tasty as I usually would prefer raw beef, but the presentation was excellent and ultimately our friends were satisfied. I ordered another beer. “I’m very sorry, we’re out of beer,” Krista informed me. I’d literally drunk a restaurant dry. With one beer. Our carpaccio friends had also wanted beer, so we each ordered shots of vodka to sip on. Served in seconds.

Beer and vodka in a vinothèque? Noir didn’t have any wines I prefer. Snob! But if I’m going to splurge and get a good wine, I’m not going to settle for less than a good Côtes du Rhône. I still have yet to see a Bouches du Rhône in Estonia. That’s my real preference.

Then the rest of the steaks arrived. Even more well-done than the first two. “Excuse me, this is not medium-rare,” they informed Krista. She apologized profusely, and for the chef as well, and gave them complimentary shots of vodka. Again, I didn’t get a free drink. I was tolerating the food. I shouldn’t do that.

So I know what you’re thinking. That is, if you’re not familiar with beef. The more it’s cooked, the stiffer it becomes. I don’t like to chew my steak for a minute per bite. The flavor is also stronger if it’s still got blood in it. But the sweet potato gratin, also served with arugula, and sauce were fantastic. We asked who the chef was, and it wasn’t the woman. I won’t say her name, but I will say she shares one of the fifteen most popular names for Estonian girls last year.

As for price, it's a little more than average in Tartu. Still, just over ten euros for a (still decent) steak is not too shabby.

The courtyard at Noir is beautiful. Not sterile at all, but tastefully cobblestoned, with a real live tree growing in the middle decorated with some sort of garden lamps. A few tables, about as many as inside, and on rainy days they bring out large umbrellas. At least they used to. They also offer fleece shawls if you get too cold sitting outside. On this particular evening, the staff set out a fire. This created an amazing atmosphere. We stood around it for a few minutes, warming up a bit. Douze points.

The dessert menu was very inviting indeed, offering crème brûlée, tiramisu and chocolate ice cream—traditional desserts, rather than the more typical over-the-top fancy but bizarre deep-fried ice cream balls served in spicy chili sauce. Yes, I’ve actually seen that one before. But we were all comfortably full, and so asked for the check. Krista had no problem whatsoever dividing our bill between the six of us. A lot of places just won’t do it, saying it’s not possible. Douze points.

Noir means black. And everything is black, except for the ceiling. Except for the ceiling in the jaan, which I visited on the way out. While the jaan itself is fairly clean and modern, I did happen to notice smoke stains in the corners of the ceiling. I hope it’s from candles, and not the air quality itself from the ventilation system.

In the future, I will certainly visit Noir again, and I will order the steak. I will, however, heed my friend’s advice and call ahead to ask who’s on kitchen duty. The cut of steak was good, no denying it. I’m pretty sure it was the Brazilian beef that is available wholesale from the meat importing business in Tallinn, known as Tallinna Külmhoone. But it would be a good idea for the chef to study up a bit on cooking steak. He’s perfectly capable, just a little too late in removing the steak from the heat.

The service, as I said, was top-notch. It doesn’t get any better, and what I especially liked about it was that it wasn’t the embarrassing kind of service, where the waiter stands over your shoulder, individually placing each fork, knife and glass, while the guests at the table experience an uncomfortable silence because the waiter seems more like a servant in a plantation than an equal in society, just doing his job and enjoying it. Noir’s on-line guestbook also attests to this evening’s courtesy not being a freak event.

We admired the murals as we moved through the passageway to the street, and said goodbye for the evening. I was meeting up with some other friends to watch the qualification round of Eurovision—that ultra-tacky, annual international song contest. I arrived just in time to see Estonia present its song, fairly good this year. But for some reason, it didn’t make it to the final round this weekend. Un point.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Vabaduse Kohvik

Tartu and the rest of Estonia are participants in the dawning of a new age—one of genetic engineering, one of private spaceflight, one of calling the secret police if your neighbor has suspiciously large quantities of fertilizer stored in a truck behind the garage. Well, perhaps Tartu isn’t a participant in all of those. Tartu’s gene bank, the one that was supposed to map the whole population and be Estonia’s Nokia—that kind of got dubiously privatized and then drawn and quartered. Tartu just reopened its commercial airport last year, and hopefully it will be possible to fly outside Europe non-stop from Tartu in the near future. I won’t hold my breath on rocketry though. And fertilizer? People aren’t in the habit of calling the cops if they see street brawls. But there are, however, elements of Tartu society that are joining the rest of the developed world in collectively screaming out, “What the fuck have we been eating?!”

I recently defended the modern food industry’s use of chemicals and hormones and all sorts of good things that the human body wasn’t designed to withstand. Then I watched a film that has caused me to reconsider my beliefs. Reconsider, mind you—not change. The wheels of processed cheese are still spinning on that one. To sum up what I said, our global population has reached a point where we are dependent upon industrialized food. It simply is not possible for us all to suddenly switch to organic farming. I suggested instead that we pour more funding into agricultural research to make better, safer chemicals.

Also recently, I was wandering about in the Estonian countryside on a Saturday and happened across a laat, or fair. A country fair. Not with Ferris wheels and petting zoos—I don’t think many children would want to touch some of the animals I saw—but a fair amount of homemade ware, goods and foods. A lot of it was organic. To be more specific, a lot of it was organic bacon, ham, white-flour pastries, sausages and other foods that make your heart go boom, and then stop.

It was similar to American country fairs in many respects. You park in a grassy field, walk a bit, snicker at all the people walking around topless or in bikinis (who may indeed have looked good forty years prior) and pass by endless booths of merchants, while looking for something good to eat. And when you find that food, you curse yourself for buying it, knowing that it is probably not really that good—or good for you. But hey, it’s the fair, right? Live a little.



On a side note, table after table offered things you would never really need, but they were so neatly packaged it was hard to resist. Personalized pottery, woven shoes, locally imported Bugs Bunny balloons, and so on. One man was kind enough to pose for my camera after Little Mingus wanted to talk to Santa Claus. See his picture in the next picture?

Fresh fish as well. Freshly dried or smoked, but still good. I remember a few years ago catching a man on our land. His car was parked by the river, and as we walked by we saw several car batteries and several hundred meters of electric cable in his trunk. Then the man emerged from the bushes, carrying two buckets chock full of pike perch. No way he could have caught all that the traditional way, and no way he had a license, either. Were these fair fish caught the same way?

Then Mrs. Mingus elbowed me. “Stop staring!” she hissed in my ear, apparently angry because I was looking at almost every woman walking by. And it’s true—I was. For weeks now I’ve been asking where the Estonians were. I don’t hear them on the streets of Tallinn, I don’t hear them at concerts. Well, here at the fair, I found them. And they were huge! Not fat, but just huge! That’s why I was staring. And not just at the women.

Now, I don’t consider myself a tall man. I’m a bit taller than the official average, but not much. Here in Southern Estonia, I was not much taller than any of the women I saw. I looked up at any male over fifteen. And the calf muscles! Even on the women, they were simply pure muscle. Of course the physical condition of a person depends on their lifestyle—manual farm labor versus a desk job in the city—but the foundation for their body depends directly on what they grew up eating. These people had grown up drinking fresh, whole milk, eating organic foods. And as I said, they were very tall. And there were a few city girls at the fair as well. They were easy to pick out. The ones who had grown up on industrialized, processed foods. They looked anorexic compared to the country girls. In fact, I think a couple of them were.

So what would happen if all of Estonia suddenly went organic—assuming that possibility existed? Would we really be healthier? Would our life spans increase, stay the same, or decrease? A few random facts and statistics enter my mind. There was a sudden spike in average height once food began to be industrialized. When country people started having better access to fish. Also, in Estonia at least, there is an equation that links life expectancy to hospital proximity—the farther you live from the nearest hospital, the shorter your life.

As Estonia integrates with the West in every facet of life, will this country too become an irreversible slave to the food industry, as depicted in the film I mentioned? The director hinted that the whole system depends on cheaper, faster. “Faster” results from technology, but “cheaper” is due to labor. A lot of America’s food industry uses illegal labor on the individual farms indebted so much they have no choice but to obey their corporate masters. Illegal labor means cheap. They have no rights. A lot of people and companies publicly don’t want them there, but the people don’t know how dependent America is upon them. The corporations do, however. In public, they lobby against granting them rights, stirring up patriotic nonsense that makes them look, well, patriotic. But behind the scenes, their success is made possible by cheap labor.

And Estonia most certainly does have an “underclass” of non-citizens here. They speak Russian. They give us electricity. Officially, these people choose not to try for Estonian citizenship out of patriotic duty, but they also don’t want to go back to what they consider “home”. Now, I’m not going to try to tackle the whole “Russian question” here—I’m just pointing out a similarity between America and Estonia, and suggesting that there may be a link between the quality of the products we consume and the social rights we grant our producers.

Study after study is revealing how dangerous the chemicals we eat really are. Diabetes, cancer, attention deficit disorder—will Generation X be the first generation in modern history to experience a decline in life expectancy? Can the pharmaceutical industry keep up with the agricultural industry? We’re all becoming concerned about what we’ve been eating. But I don’t see many alternatives. I liken it to drinking your own piss on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean.

videoHere at the fair, I walked by the stage in a truck and the hoards of people dancing and found a kebob stand, also in a truck. The company (Freedom Café) is based in Valga, but I saw only processed foods on sale. All the tables set up in front of it were full, whereas the organic bacon and sausage grills had few customers. Is Estonia’s countryside preparing to experience a huge decline in height? It will take a couple generations to answer that question. That’s time we can ill afford to wait before making any changes.

Little Mingus pointed and asked, “Daddy, what’s that?” —I’m not really sure, honey. And I wasn’t. I think it was a cow of some sort. Maybe a comic book superhero for barnyard animals. I know for a fact that the local cattle farm feeds its cattle organically, as the animals often graze in the fallow fields across the river. Most Estonian livestock eats organically, but what about the hormone and antibiotic injections they receive? I’d never seen this thing before, though. I sincerely hope it wasn’t the same thing I grilled the week before.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Statoil

Sometimes, in the course of a human life, it is necessary to get thoroughly tanked and rock out. Few venues offer the possibility to do both with as much furor and vigor as Metallica—live in concert. While I would not refer to myself as an especially avid fan of this band, I will say that their live performances exude an energy rarely equaled in our mundane, everyday lives.

After traipsing around the Old Town of Tallinn for a few days, methodically embarrassing myself in a fine restaurant called Chakra, spending nights in a moving hotel and religiously watching flight updates due to the ashen disturbances of a certain unpronounceable volcano in a far-off, bankrupt country (but whose people are very nice!), it was finally time to make our way to the site of what is arguably Estonia’s greatest moment of international fame—hosting the Eurovision Song Contest. Of course I’m talking about the Saku Suurhall, the indoor concert venue. The Song Contest was hosted in this country thanks to one Dave Benton and another Tanel Padar having won the previous year’s competition by singing a rather unlikely duet. But the tune was catchy. Come On Everybody? Is that what they sang?

We arrived in the parking lot of the Saku Suurhall and waited for friends, a full hour before the warm-up acts were to take the stage. It had been a few hours since we’d eaten at Chakra, so we went to Statoil—the Norwegian-owned gas station chain. There was quite a line for the jaan, as most everyone was already drunk. Half the cars in the parking lot had small crowds of people standing and drinking beer, each time bending over to take a sip so the beat cops wouldn’t see them consuming in public.

I ordered a hot dog. The bun was a tube. They offered mayonnaise. I declined. Ketchup, please. It tasted surprisingly like a hot dog. I’ll eat one again in the future. This concludes the restaurant portion of our broadcast.

Originally Metallica was to give two concerts in Riga, Latvia. Due to poor ticket sales, one of the shows was moved to Tallinn. This is either because of the economy or the staggeringly expensive tickets, mostly priced at one thousand five hundred kroons. Personally, I think both were responsible, but I could be wrong. And still neither show was sold out. Throughout the entire performance, there were large swathes of seats left completely empty. The band could see this as well.

One thing I would like to point out regarding the tickets and seats: it is possible to choose seats for the movies, buses, trains and so on. These tickets are a fraction of the cost of Metallica. But seats at Metallica could not be chosen. Where you wanted to sit just wasn’t an option. There were sections, of course—standing room, assigned seating and a restaurant? With a wait staff? “Excuse me, Krista. Could you bring me another beer before Enter Sandman? And a bowl of onion soup, too. Thanks!” We got lucky. Third row and on the aisle. The aisles were kept clear by very large, bald bouncers, one of whom actually instructed me that I would have to remain seated for the entire performance.

Hoards of people standing outside gave the impression the line was long, but in fact very few were actually waiting in line, and we were inside within two minutes. Most of the men were getting patted down, but the bouncer took one look at me and just let me in. I guess he recognized me. But what were all those people doing outside? Selling tickets. It’s common. It’s called scalping. These scalpers were selling heavily discounted tickets. Five hundred kroons for most of them. I guess a lot of people had planned on flying to Tallinn to see Metallica. One of my friends missed the show for that very reason. Whereas most of the Estonians I know who wanted to see the show were stuck with tickets to the Latvia concert.

The building itself was quite nice. A coat check was the first thing I noticed, and there were several food vendors. I wish I hadn’t rushed to Statoil. The jaans were a bit few and far between for such a large place, and if you found one it could only accommodate four people at a time. The walls of the jaans were built at an angle, causing understandable confusion for concertgoers who had consumed copious amounts of brew. As expected, the stall was eventually rendered useless. The cleaning ladies apparently weren’t on duty.

After the warm-up bands, I couldn’t help but notice that the music played in the meantime was just amazing. It always is at big-name concerts. If only that music was from a radio station. I would listen to that station, and that station alone. Then the lights dimmed, and a recording of Metallica playing music blasted through the speakers while Metallica themselves made their way to the stage to start playing music. Of course the concert rocked out. It was amazing. It always is. It is Metallica.

At one point, during a slow song I don’t particularly care for, I stepped out to the section where tobacco products are consumed, and saw none other than Tanel Padar. Twice in two days! Four years ago, when Metallica sold out the Song Festival Grounds (upwards of eighty thousand tickets), Tanel Padar was the opening act. He hadn’t been invited to reprise that role. I wonder if he had been forced to purchase a ticket to this performance.

The thing about Tanel Padar and the Sun (his band) is that while they are very talented musicians—anyone who can play guitar, in my book, is talented—I find their music boring. The melodies are completely lackluster and I feel not a drop of the energy I pick up from most other bands. But that’s just my opinion, so while you can disagree, you can’t say I’m wrong. Because it’s an opinion. Opinions can’t be wrong, by definition.

And then he spoke to the small crowd surrounding him.
“Do you have a pencil?” Everyone laughed hysterically.
“That’s not a pencil.” More laughter.
“Is this a pencil?” I think I saw tears in one man’s eyes.
“I need a pencil.” Comic pandemonium erupted.
“Do I need a pencil?” Mr. Padar continued his erudite observations of literary tools.
“Where is a pencil?” At this point I just went back inside.

In the States, it’s often considered bad form to wear the T-shirt of the band you’re going to see. It’s the opposite here. I’d never seen so much Metallica attire in one place. And again, I didn’t hear any Estonian. Most of the people I happened to see and hear were Finns. There was one middle-aged man sitting across the aisle from me who sat up straight as an arrow and did not move for the entire concert. His facial expression did not change. His button-up shirt said “Suomi” on the back. Where are the Estonians?

On the way back to the Hotel Vertigo our designated drivers were not familiar with the streets of Tallinn. My partner-in-law gave directions. At one point he told us to turn right. From the back seat, he couldn’t see that the right turn lane was for buses only. Both of our cars turned, and a police patrol car saw it. They started following us, but didn’t flash their lights. As we were already at the hotel, we turned into the parking lot and stopped. The officers got out, approached us, and asked for identification and registration.

Neither of the drivers was Estonian, and neither were the cars’ owners. The cops never even said what we’d done wrong. It was obvious we’d made a harmless, honest mistake, and they returned our cards and told us to have a good night, in English, and with a smile.

A week after arriving back in Tartu, I received a warning in the mail from the police. But that was because I sped past one of the new droid cameras on the highway. See, we were hungry, and we were anxious to get a Statoil hot dog.

video

Monday, May 3, 2010

Chakra

Visiting Tallinn inevitably involves a lot of walking. That’s a good thing, I think. The entire city is linked by an intricate public transit system, and if you ask a local how to get from point a to point b, they will probably tell you to take a troll. A troll? Yes, the big ugly monsters from fantasy literature. I guess they mean “trolley” but as there are three main forms of transportation, it’s not quite certain which is which in English. There are “trams”—small trains that travel on tracks—buses and electric buses connected to an overhead network of electrical cables. One of those is the troll.

In the Old Town, however, you are limited to the private options: various forms of rental (Segways and bicycle rickshaws, for example) and of course the foot. And the foot gets tired. I must say, though, how surprised I was at the amount of car traffic in the Old Town. And especially the speed at which said traffic traveled. Several times I had to jump out of the way of an unseen Audi heard around the corner of a winding, labyrinthine street. There are no traffic mirrors anywhere. One guy came speeding up the street at close to highway speeds, slammed on the brakes, turned up one passage, stopped, drove blindly in reverse, turned the car around, and sped as quickly as possible back down Väike-Karja Street (and narrowly missing an approaching car), only to park and wait a full half minute before slowly getting out and meandering over to a shop called Raw. The kids stayed in the car.

On a side note, after having visited Tallinn several times a year over the last decade, never—not once—have I heard Estonian spoken by anyone walking. I know the population is roughly fifty-fifty Estonian, but they just seem terribly underrepresented on the street. This is something I noticed in the nineties, and for me at least, it is still valid today. I’ve also never noticed a sign that says, “Estonian cuisine” or anything similar, referring of course to a place to eat. The gift shop windows are full of matryoshka dolls and sculptures of Fat Margaret and Tall Hermann, the bars are Irish or English-themed (one doesn’t even have a name!), and all manner of cuisine can be found with a little patience and luck, but I have yet to see a restaurant called Kartul. Or maybe there is one. Yeah, I think there is.

Farners and Estonians alike joke about local, traditional cuisine, and I have to admit there are quite a few stinkers out there, but I have eaten at “Estonian” restaurants that serve high-quality Estonian food, and I have to say it’s delicious. What a passionate Estonian chef can do with grain, pork, mushrooms and dairy is simply amazing, so long as said chef leaves out the snooty influences of various red-wine braises and blue cheese marinades—things with no historical roots here. Stick to things that are primarily made of roots.

That said, our feet were tired and we happened across a place called Chakra—look up the definition as I won’t try to explain it here, except that it loosely means energy nodes in the body. Indian food. I’m not that familiar with Indian as I’m not from England, but most of what I’ve had has been very tasty, very different. The combinations of flavor can be fantastic—star anise, cumin, turmeric, cilantro—and I love heat in food (temperature and spice-wise). I try to avoid the use of the term “ethnic” though when describing foreign cuisines as I can’t imagine hippies in India smoking weed and eating burgers.

It was an early Sunday afternoon, and there were only two other tables occupied in the entire restaurant on Bremeni käik in the Old Town. The service was top-notch—that is to say, what it should be. Our waitress—Krista—was quick, attentive, polite, clean and informative. If she didn’t know something, she apologized and went to ask. Our party of four quickly discovered we’d all chosen the same menu item (roasted Tandoori chicken), so I forced them to select again so we could all sample greater variety.

The naan was especially good. We polished off the garlic naan almost immediately and ordered more—this time with onion. The sauces were absolutely delicious. The mint was the favorite of the table. I am unable to say if this food was high quality, because I admit I do not have much experience with this cuisine, but we were all extremely pleased with Chakra. The only (only!) thing that was less than perfect was the amount of rice served us. One platter for the table, it was devoured within minutes, and a second helping would cost. I couldn’t help but wonder if the same amount would be served to a party of three, or two.

I had some trouble getting my chicken off the bones, so I gave in and used my fingers. After I’d finished, I thoroughly wiped my hands clean, and went outside to enjoy some tobacco while on vacation. I stood near the door and watched the passers-by. Three highly attractive women all gave me dirty looks and stepped up their pace. I was at a loss. I was just standing there, minding my own business, and people were voluntarily frowning—no, looking at me disgustedly! Was the product I was enjoying so offensive to Tallinners?

After going back inside, I looked around through the different chambers in the restaurant to find the jaan. Found it. I opened the door and walked in, and a loud blasting sound scared me so badly my previous life flashed before my eyes. The hand dryer was powerful, and was mounted a little too close to the door. My shoulder had inadvertently activated the motion sensor when I walked in. Now, I have some slightly unusual characteristics and behaviors. When I’m scared like that, I start laughing. Laughing loudly. And I hadn’t closed the door yet. I turned around to do just that—still laughing—and saw the owner watching me with the same look the women outside had given me.

The mirror in the gorgeously decorated jaan solved that mystery right away. I hadn’t completely wiped away the red from the chicken on my fingers, and while enjoying my tobacco outside, the red had spread to my face, resulting in a long, colored line starting from the corner of my mouth and proceeding down the side of my jaw. It looked like I was bleeding profusely. And from the owner’s point of view, he just saw a bloody guy laughing with crazy eyes while walking into the jaan.

Chakra’s interior was snug yet still spacious. Located somewhat in a basement, it was still far enough above ground to take full advantage of the numerous windows. Romantic, dim lighting, but light and fresh. A unique combination. I liked it. The bricks and rocks in the walls had been beautifully restored (is it limestone in Tallinn?). My absolute favorite interiors are those of tastefully decorated basements—Chakra obviously being a prime specimen.

Back in the days when the Internet was hard to find in Tartu, there was an Internet café in Annelinn, the “workers’ paradise” section of town. Above it was a restaurant that offered Thai, Chinese and Indian cuisine, all on separate menus. I think the restaurant was even divided into three different sections, all sharing the same kitchen. It was bad. I’m not sure if it’s still there. Then later, in the downtown shopping plaza called Kaubahall—across the street from the other downtown shopping plaza called Kaubamaja—an Indian restaurant opened. It was slightly on the cheapish side in terms of quality, but it was better than the mystery meat burgers available in the parking lot at Toidutorn (Food Tower). It lasted just a few months, despite my frequent business. To my knowledge, that is the complete history of Indian cuisine in Tartu.

Back to Tallinn, though. I have had Indian coffee several times, and while I can’t say I have ever had a craving for cardamom or ginger in my coffee, it’s quite good from time to time. We opted out of coffeeing up at Chakra, however, because we had to meet some friends at the Reval Café on Müürivahe Street, again in the Old Town.

The coffees and lattes were delicious, as were the fresh pastries. Well actually, Mrs. Mingus didn’t care too much for the caramel éclair, but that was just because of the flavor. She gave it to one of our friends, who loved it. The atmosphere was mildly upscale, but still relaxed. The service was friendly.

Several small glass shelves adorned the stone walls, offering unusually beautiful examples of how candles don’t have to be for snobs alone, but can in fact be cool. I went to go explore the long room in the back to take a couple photos. It was fairly dark, and I tripped on the unmarked step in the middle of the floor. Be careful of that if you visit the Reval Café.

The friends we met were in fact not just friends, but family. Sort of. I’m not quite sure how to refer to one of them. My partner-in-law? My sister-in-law’s partner. This is an extremely nice man who, later that night, would get me in trouble with the police. And the other was my niece and godmingus—Mrs. Mingus’s sister’s daughter. We left in a hurry to go drop off their bags at the Hotel Vertigo. Only a couple hours until the week’s main event—but more on that next week.