Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Steffani

“Daddy, what’s a guido?” my daughter asked. She had overheard a friend talking about the previous night in a Pärnu nightclub called Sugar. I told her it was a talking mime who doesn’t know he’s a mime. “But if he talks, he’s just a clown.” Good point, Little Mingus. And our experience in Sugar was indeed something to laugh at, especially the part about all the driver hats turned sideways.

A group of us had wandered onto the terrace of the club, lured by the prospects of a free glass of champagne. Seated at the opposite table was Tanja Mihhailova, of recent Playboy exposure. Definitely more interesting to look at than Tanel Padar, whom I seem to see every time I leave Tartu. While ordering sushi at the bar, I was interrupted by a sugar daddy who “desperately needed a pencil and paper.” He then returned to his table where they were having a Sex and the City party. Pärnu’s awesome.

We left for a local bar that I think might be one of the coolest places on Earth. The Veerev Õlu, or Rolling Beer. While paying in cash for a twenty-kroon beer, a man walked up to the fifty-year old bartendress and slapped her on the bum. She laughed heartily and asked if he wanted another drink, waving her arm toward the tap. Her arm was in a cast. I asked what had happened. “I went to a fiftieth wedding anniversary and got in a fight.” A few minutes later I helped her escort a woman in a gigantic electric wheelchair who was too drunk to steer it. Pärnu’s awesome.

And why were we in Pärnu this specific weekend? The International Hanseatic Days, a festival that travels around to a different, former Hanseatic city every summer. Five years ago it was in Tartu. It’s a mix of medieval show-and-tell, folksy concerts, handicrafts and greasy pork on a grill. While I try to go to the local Tartu event every year—I simply love this kind of thing—my description pretty much sums up the whole affair. Pärnu did a good job of hosting it, too, although I had trouble finding my way around. It wasn’t marked very well. But I think that was probably my problem.

Pärnu Beach is nice enough. Clean, large, beautiful parks all around. But swimming there is not the best. The beach is on a very shallow bay. If you want to get into deep water, you have to walk out a very long way, and the waves are miniscule. Still, we go every year. Traditions have to be practiced, after all, even though we might not always understand why. We enjoyed our morning coffee and doughnuts on Nikolai Street, for example. I couldn’t fit all the plates on my tray when I carried it to the table outside, and when I went back in for the last coffee, the cashier snapped at me, “You left your coffee here!” These women are tough.

Another tradition is pizza at a place called Steffani. According to their website, “delicious food smells stimulate your senses, colours rejoices your eyes and everything radiates pleasant feelings.” And it is colorful and it does smell good. These people are smart. The long lines make people hungrier, thirstier. Often, the line extends far out from the gate and up the street. I guess they can’t help it though. The restaurant is not exactly small, and the outdoor terrace is rather large. It’s just that popular. There’s another Steffani closer to the beach, but I prefer the main restaurant, also on Nikolai Street.

Steffani consistently serves the best food in Pärnu. Their pizzas are not amazing, but they can be extremely spicy—a welcome break from frozen fish fillets heated up on a grill in the festival area. However, I feel I’m not doing their food justice. It’s not amazing, as I said, but it is definitely well worth the wait and repeated visits. I’ve been coming here for years, after all. Were Steffani in Tartu as well, I’d probably eat one of their pizzas once a month. A friend raves about their burritos wiht hot beef meat, which I’ve not tried. Must stick to tradition.

I would strongly suggest ordering a pan pizza. The crust is much better. One of our friends ordered a regular crust, and was disappointed. Mine was good. I can’t remember what it was called, as the menus are different, but it had sundriese tomatoes on it. Mrs. Mingus enjoyed her crisby cheese and beacon pizza.

Krista—the waitress—was at our table in a flash. “Would you like something to drink while you look at the menu?” Absolutely polite, even though she was in a hurry. She listened and provided information, as opposed to the more normal “I don’t know” or “We’re out” that you would normally hear if you ask a question.
—Yes, please. What beers do you have?
“Saku, Saku Kuld, Saku Tume,” and she continued to name off the selection, committed to memory. Not very common. But no local Pärnu beers.
—I’ll take a Kuld, please.
“Just a moment!” And she went to get our drinks. Saku Kuld is the only beer from the Saku Brewery that I can drink. The rest of it tastes like lake water. That might have something to do with it being brewed from lake water, but I prefer beers from the Tartu Brewery, which is brewed from river water. Something about stagnant versus flowing water.

The line was starting to grow. We’d come at the right time. Every person standing and waiting for a table to up and leave was facing the dining area, unhappy frowns revealing their hunger. “Stop looking at me and eat, dammit!” they seemed to say. We table folk, however, were all consistently behaving like the sugar daddies and guidos and other such nonsense from the nightclub. “Look at me, I have what you want, and I’m enjoying your envy.” Standing in that line can give you sympathy for the Bolsheviks. Sit as far away as you can, so you can ignore the hungry masses.

videoAfter dinner, we made our way back to the festival. There was a hillside with people dancing on it. Listen carefully and you can hear, “Feel the connection, between your hips and your knees”. So I touched my thighs. Investigating the tent city—each tent represented a Hanseatic city—revealed a German porter with a line as long as at Steffani. “Sieben Komma drei”, Christian der Barmann answered, when I asked how strong it was. Twenty-five kroons for a half liter of beer that would last you the rest of the night is not too shabby. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any good German Bratwurst. During Tartu’s International Hanseatic Days, there was a red, double-decker Bratwurst bus. Infinitely more palatable than sardell. Where I’m from, “brats” are the popular equivalent of Estonian shish-ka-bobs.

Another relic of German history was to be seen on an Estonian man’s T-shirt. And this guy had a family, too. Nicht gut. After I photographed him from behind, I stood in front and looked at his shirt from maybe half a meter away. He was watching of course. I looked him in the eyes, shook my head and walked away. Then I felt like an idiot for having given him the attention he so desperately desired. But I did like his sandals and grey socks.

One new thing I discovered in Pärnu was a Pagaripoisid café. Why not in Tartu? It’s the best bakery in Estonia. That’s only good for breakfast though. For lunch at one of the grill tents we ordered a plate of hand. As I was finishing it, a man walked up to me. “I’m missing some fingers,” he explained. And he sure was. Only two on one hand. “Can you give me some money?”
—I’m sorry, I apologized, I never carry cash.
“But you just paid in cash for your food.”
—True, but that was the last of it. I had exact change.
And it was true. I didn’t have any money whatsoever. Then I started licking my fingers clean, one after another. They were greasy. He walked away, and I immediately realized what I had done. Again, I felt like an idiot, this time for having given a man attention he did not desire. I belonged in that nightclub, with the other people who were completely unaware of their environment, unsympathetic to the plights of others. At least I had helped the woman in the wheelchair. That made up for it somewhat.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pierre Cafe

A couple and a half years ago, it was my birthday. I treated myself to some Estonian-made military boots. That is a decision I have not regretted. There is one friend—an ultra-nationalist who can find no fault in anything Estonian, except for the boots—who says things in Estonia are good enough as they are, that there is no need for change or improvement (he doesn’t like my blog), but the boots are crap. I say they’re warm, durable and comfy. What more could you want?

And so I proudly wore these new, tall and black boots out of the store and marched down to Town Hall Square to celebrate my birthday with the Mingus-in-laws in a café called Pierre Cafe. Not once did I slip on the snow or ice left by middle-aged shovelers as a practical joke for those who would wear high heels in deep winter. Not once did I lose communication with the nerves in my toes from the bitter cold of Christmas. As I walked into the front door of Pierre, I was instantly flooded with a warm, glowing coziness of golden light and shimmering tapestry.

Before sitting down, I exchanged handshakes and hugs. Mrs. Mingus started laughing, however, saying I was finally starting to fit in. Something about skinheads wearing similar boots. I shrugged it off. I’m no bigot, and everyone knows it. I give everyone and everything a fair chance to fudge things up, and then I give them another. After that, I start to develop opinions. My opinion of Pierre was that it was slightly expensive, the portions were not too large, but the food was good. The food from the menu. The daily lunch specials were often better. For around fifty kroons, self-serve and single-trip, you just can’t go wrong.

But that was a couple and a half years ago. With so many new joints opening, two kids and less time, I am finding it increasingly hard to visit my old haunts. I did get coffee outside a few times last year. Pierre’s coffee is good—not wonderful, but good. I leave “wonderful” to describe what is served in Café Truffe, almost next door. Pierre, however, has a play corner in summer. I liken that to coating yourself in green Off when you’re deep in the woods. Instant relief.

At my birthday dinner, I couldn’t help but order some Provençal dish. It’s a French café, after all, with another café in Tallinn’s Old Town. It was good. Not wonderful, but good. Enough to order every time I went there, and enough to go back for.

It is with precisely this attitude that I marched into Pierre a couple and a half weeks ago with a group of friends, hungry for Estonian-made French food. This was a decision I regretted. For starters, I couldn’t find any French food on the menu. Pierre hadn’t taken my nationalist friend’s advice, and had changed the whole menu. But not improved. It’s not natural when you look at a menu in a French restaurant, and the first thing you see on the entrée list is Tandoori chicken.

Time to order the wine. Out of twenty-four wines, five were French. Only one French red. The menu itself was quite an œvre. Attractive and cute, but the proofreading was medium-rare. I just don’t get how someone can pay good money to print out a menu that clearly took a long time to compose and plan, but they can’t be bothered to do a simple spell-check before sending it to the print shop.

There was also some confusion de nationalité as well. One of the best salads I can remember—the Salade Niçoise—fortunately was on the menu. It means Nice-style salad. I ate this on a regular basis when I lived near Nice. It varies from place to place, but the common denominator was that this recipe always had green beans, boiled eggs, anchovies and other raw vegetables served on a bed of lettuce. Pierre’s version unfortunately had two pieces of lettuce. A salad of eggs, fish and potatoes. And it was called a “Nizza salat”. “Nizza” means “Niçoise”. In Italian. In a French restaurant. In Estonia.

Our waiter—Kristjan—was quick and polite. I enquired about the “Firenze beef” on the menu. “What is the Firenze beef?” I asked.
—It’s beef, in Florence style.
“But what is it?”
—It’s how they eat beef in Florence.
“But what does it mean?”
—Oh, it has marinated plums and red wine sauce, Kristjan said matter-of-factly. A quick search on Google reveals just seven results for “Firenze beef”. Two of them are in Asian soup recipes.
“But what cut is it?”
—Tenderloin. Definitely tenderloin.
I opened my mouth to order it, but he interjected.
—No, it’s not tenderloin. Maybe it’s “external filet”. (Beef cuts here differ substantially from British or American cuts, so it’s impossible to accurately translate them, as they often consist of multiple Western cuts.) No, he continued, it’s not that, either. I’m not sure what it is.
“Oh. Could you ask?”
—Well, Kristjan said while grimacing, it would take a few minutes. And I don’t think the chef knows anyhow.
“I’ll take the salmon. ‘Pierre’s Salmon’. What does ‘over-baked’ mean, anyhow? The ‘over-baked vegetables’.”
—They’re cooked, and then they’re cooked again.

The rest of the table ordered, and then the food came out. Didn’t take long. Everyone else’s food came out, that is. I was left dry. After my companions finished, I asked if my dinner was by chance ready as well. “Two seconds,” was the reply. And then I was eating. The salmon was good—a thick cut, much better than the usual thin filet elsewhere, and it was deboned, too—but the vegetables were truly over-cooked. The menu did not lie. I cannot be sure, but they tasted surprisingly similar to steamed veggies from a frozen supermarket bag.

One of the farners at the table raved about the chiken (sic!) in his salad. He offered me a piece. Yes, very good. “However,” he mentioned, “the salad is just pure iceberg lettuce, and it’s soggy.” Mrs. Mingus couldn’t finish her soup, either. "It tastes like Knorr," she complained. In fact, no one in our party was satisfied. “At least it’s cheaper than it used to be.”

After I finished, I went to the jean to wash my hands. No soap. Luckily I hadn’t touched the fish. I dried my hands on the bath towel and went back to the table. They had ordered the bill, and dividing it into parts was no problem, though we did have to go to the register to pay by card. I suggested that we get another drink, but I was overruled. “Let’s go to Illegaard or Möku for a beer instead,” came the overwhelming response. “They serve food, too, if we get hungry later.”

At least Pierre still offered the same types of bread, or pain—one even has nuts in it…delish! Yet as much as it pains me to write this about a former favorite—I had been saving Pierre for a sure-win review—I will give them another chance. It might take a few months, but I won’t let this experience change my opinion just yet. I would, however, recommend that they bring back the little electronic boy stirring fudge outside. That added definite charm to Tartu’s Town Hall Square. And lose the tapestries on the chairs. They just get wrinkled up under your legs.

A couple of the people in our party asked me, “But what did you expect? The food here has sucked for a couple and a half years. Didn’t you know?” Honestly, no, I didn’t. At least the consistency of their service is better than that of their food. But the truffles are still good. I like the lemon.

Meanwhile, my Estonian-made boots—three winters and hundreds of kilometers of walking later—are still in perfect shape. You just have to put some love into what you make.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Fabulous Gourmet Club

There is a running joke that several of the Americans living in Estonia are undercover operatives for the Central Intelligence Agency. Probably in search of the missing reactors from the Soviet-era naval base in Paldiski. While I cannot openly admit that I myself am an agent, I am authorized to say that I regularly enlist the help of several informers. What follows is a full account of a crime recently committed in Tartu. The crime is that this food is not more readily available.

The Fabulous Gourmet Club, first brought to the public’s eye twenty years ago in a documentary titled The Freshman, continues its clandestine activities. The local ringleader is none other than “the Romanian”, of whom I have been known to write. For extraordinary prices—the aforementioned film contends it is a million dollars, but in the current economy it is only five hundred fifty kroons—gourmet enthusiasts can eat the last surviving specimens of various endangered species. The film, in one instance, documents the consumption of a Komodo dragon.

In the back room of Illegaard, a popular underground bar in Tartu on Ülikooli Street—a fitting venue, really, for epicurean mafiosi—the various members began to assemble for the most recent meeting of the Fabulous Gourmet Club. When all members were accounted for, the Romanian called them to order. But ordering wasn’t an option. The menu was already fixed—an eight-course meal with eleven separate dishes.

First were the appetizers—a strawberry doused in chocolate, followed by carbonated grapes in tarragon syrup and focaccia with tapenade. My informer says these did indeed whet his appetite, and that the focaccia was among the best he’d ever had. Among? No, ignore that word and repeat the sentence.

Gazpacho is similar to Mexican salsas in that both are mainly puréed and of raw ingredients. The Romanian, however, gelatinized his gazpacho and served it with a spicy Catalan herbal sauce. This novelty of preparation was new to my informer’s palate, and he thoroughly enjoyed it. Gazpacho in general is not completely unlike a Bloody Mary, and it is refreshing. Which is what it is supposed to be. That’s why the Spanish eat it in their hot climes.

Next it was time for the first endangered species—pâté of bald eagle served with fig compote. Of course the Romanian could not advertize bald eagle on his menu, so it was listed as duck. The bald eagle pâté was a group favorite among the elite club members.

Barbequed Iberian lynx—one of Europe’s most endangered species—was the next dish. The menu had it listed as beaver, however, and it was presented in a phyllo basket over asparagus. The portion was small of course, and some bites were tougher than others, but it most certainly did have that “gamey” flavor that many hunting enthusiasts so cherish. My informer recounts that the more he ate, the more he became accustomed to the taste, and began to quite enjoy the lynx.

At this point, there was an intermission in this fine dining experience. Several of the members stepped out to the staircase to enjoy hand-rolled Cubans, while many of the others approached the bar to order a drink. “What’s going on back there?” Krista the bartender asked my informer.
—We’re having a—
At this point the Romanian stuck his head out of the kitchen door and stared him in the eyes. The informer continued:
—Don’t ask me about this business, K.
“Is it true?”
—Don’t ask me about this business.
And the Romanian winked and disappeared once more to the hot kitchen. All was well.

As an appetizer to the second half of dinner, mango sorbet in passion fruit was placed on the table. An interesting combination that really worked. The mild sweetness of it had the effect of causing everyone to become hungry for more.

Black ink from a giant squid in risotto with tiger shrimp and green mussels were the next course. My informer claimed the rice was a bit underdone for his taste, but a prominent local chef at the tables as a guest countered by stating that it was perfect. Other members of the club said it was the best risotto they’d ever had. The mussels were indeed memorable.

One of my first memories from France was ordering a plate full of mussels for almost no money. I was a bit squeamish at first, eating them right out of the shell, but as they were so good I couldn’t stop eating them. There was a shopping mall in Paris with a cafeteria-style restaurant that served mussels as well. Mussels were everywhere! Just like French fries in America and boiled potatoes in Estonia. I can only imagine what wonders the Romanian grew up eating.

My informer forgot to take a photo of the pygmy hippopotamus, but the very same animal from the Tallinn Zoo, before its untimely demise, is in this image. Can you guess which one it was? The menu listed it as a rack of lamb with yam and date purée. The rock salt sprinkled on the meat added especially potent flavor to this specialty of the Romanian. Illegaard’s owner, who did a wonderful job of hosting this meeting of the Fabulous Gourmet Club, later called and offered to sell an extra leg of the hippopotamus, as I hadn’t been able to attend the dinner. I declined, citing my ignorance of how to cook it.

There were two desserts. The first was a goat’s cheese truffle served with a walnut topped in a caramelized tower of sugar. This was a bold thing to offer on a menu whose choices you can’t refuse, as there are a great many people in this world who despise goat’s cheese, but it worked. I was assured it was fabulous, as the club’s name will claim.

The final dessert was listed as “Chocolate Oblivion”. This needs no description. The flavor and texture, I was told, were even better than what the last image would lead you to believe.

***

Presumptuous is what I would be were I to tell people how to find happiness, especially when the real number of unemployed in Estonia currently surpasses twenty percent. Casino revenues in this country have deflated to near-record levels. Yet the damage to visitors to casinos has skyrocketed. I’m not talking about habitual gamblers, but those who turn to drink and Gin Rummy to lament their long-term unemployment or approaching financial doom and who hope to “get rich quick”. The house will always win.

Instead, I would like to suggest that these people take just a fraction of the money they would lose on any given night (hey, where do they get all this money anyhow?) and treat themselves and their loved ones to a dinner similar to the Fabulous Gourmet Club. You can still drink.

Lay down your mystery meat, relinquish your ketchup and experience true food for just one night. It will make you happy, if for just that one evening, and may—just may—clear your head enough to allow you to make a better plan of action than merely sitting back and allowing bad banking to wallop you in the butt. You would be astounded at how beneficial good food can be for your psychological health.

***

After the Fabulous Gourmet Club’s dinner party had concluded, the Romanian stepped out and received his due applause. The members filed out of Illegaard one by one, anxious to attract little attention from the customers in the front room.

If this type of dinner is served elsewhere in Tartu, I do not have the connections to find out about it. My informer is keeping his eyes open, however, as am I, so that I may attend a future meeting. The cost may indeed be exorbitant, but it is money well spent.