Friday, July 30, 2010

Taverna

A very long time ago, a young Mingus found his way to Estonia to learn the language. He had visited before, and wanted to visit again. An extra tongue or two could only help him in his planned career as a farner. What he didn’t count on, however, was meeting a young Mrs. Mingus. After a lengthy wooing, he one night found himself on bended knee before her. This was unplanned, but he felt compelled by something poets and lyricists have long been trying in vain to define. As a result of her “Sure!” in response to his proposal, the two celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary this week in a little restaurant called Taverna.

Out of all the fancy, over-priced places available, why would we choose Taverna? They did the catering at our wedding. Taverna and I have had a long, oft-neglected relationship. The first time we met, I was severely famished, and ordered a pizza. This pizza was nearly entirely green, it was covered in so much dill. As I put the first slice in my mouth, for some reason I inhaled, and all the excess dill that had not clung to the melted cheese flew into my lungs. The other patrons watched the farner who apparently did not know how to properly eat pizza while he suffered his dill-induced choking spasms.

For the next year, I ordered all my food ilma tillita (no dill) wherever I went, to the grin and chagrin of many a waitress. The phrase had a double meaning in Estonian that no one wanted to clue me in on, and it’s very hard to go to the kitchen and tell the chef to not sprinkle something on top of the food.

I am not alone in my newfound dislike of dill on food. As the Romanian recounted one evening, he had repeatedly instructed the kitchen staff at Wilde, or rather Vilde, about not committing this flavorcidal crime. Meeting after meeting, reminder after reminder, the dill found its way to the customer’s platter. He gathered his miscreants to a corner of the kitchen, picked up the ceramic dill bowl, and Frisbeed it against the tiled wall. That got the point across. I’ve often wondered how many innocent people the Romanian has thus saved from choking.

The manager of Taverna was very professional and helpful in helping us plan the dinner at our wedding reception. He still greets us on the street even today, and their website still shows images of our wedding dinner. However, Mrs. Mingus wrote to the e-mail address listed on their homepage to enquire about our anniversary party. No reply. I guess some restaurants haven’t realized yet how many paying customers they could lose by not checking their mail from time to time.

But we were persistent. “Twenty people? Not a problem,” Krista the waitress answered on the phone. “But we can’t seat that many people together. Is that alright with you?” The staff were indeed polite and friendly this recent evening, and while I would expect attention from a waitress, I would not expect her to remove two pillars in the center of the dining room to satisfy my seating whims. There was also a bit of confusion while ordering, as we were all paying separately. But again, we were twenty people. It’s understandable.

What I didn’t understand, though, was why it took Krista so long to give us menus. When she finally did, she stood by us while we perused the drinks list and then took our orders. The menu offered a Bloody Mary in English, so I ordered a Verine Maarja. She understood me only when I said the name in English.

Twenty-five minutes later, we were still thirsty. I approached the bar and saw our drinks on a serving tray. No staff anywhere. When our beverages were served, the ice had melted in my tomato juice, and it was very watery. Still, I can’t complain too much because nice, attractive cocktails were the same price as Alexander beer.

A bottle of sparkling wine costs only a hundred and thirty kroons. It was a cheapish Ukrainian bottle, but that price is still unheard of in a good restaurant. Yes, I am calling Taverna a good restaurant. The presentation was tasteful yet not over the top in snobbishness. Some of the entrées were a tad on the salty side, but they were filling and enjoyable to eat.

Whenever I go to a restaurant, though, something odd always happens to me regarding my order, service, and so on. I am a magnet for the bizarre. Perhaps this is what coaxed me into starting this blog. My tradition for dining on our anniversary is to order fish. Usually salmon. (Remember, the l in “salmon” is silent!) When the dinners began to arrive, I was left hungry. Again. Just like in Pierre.

Krista eventually approached to inform me that there had been a mistake in the kitchen. Instead of my breaded salmon cut, the salmon pasta had been prepared. I could have that, if I wanted, or I could wait another twenty minutes for the proper meal to be magicked up. “No thank you, I would like the food I ordered,” I firmly stated. Any restaurant in the States would have given me something for free from the menu, or comped the whole meal. This is not the States, however, so I did not expect it. “Never let a customer leave unhappy” is, however, something it would be wise for all Estonian businesses to learn. Competition is tight right now. Every customer counts.

The fish was very good when it arrived, even though there was a gigantic piece of dill on the plate. But the food made up for my extra half hour of hunger. I didn’t want a problem on such a special night. And hell, I even left a tip, because Krista was sometimes hard to find, but she catered to all our wishes, kept her cool and was, well, she treated us like people. We weren’t an annoyance to her, like in so many other local restaurants, despite the customer being the reason the waitress has a job in the first place. I did feel bad though, because out of all twenty people who came, I was the only one to leave a tip.

Everyone else also complimented the food. Not exquisite, but for the price I will definitely not complain, and I will definitely continue to dine there. And order pizzas. The combinations of toppings are very Estonian, but here it works. Pearl onions, pork and the Holy Trinity of Tartu—blue cheese, pineapple and red bell pepper. My favorite is the Caribica. If you order the family size, you should understand that the thick crust is usually a bit raw in the middle. Better to order two larges or smalls. There is no medium. Other local pizzerias offer medium, large and maxi. There’s no small. Slight mathematical misunderstanding there.

Taverna is on Town Hall Square, immediately across the street from the bridge. The new outdoor seating appears attractive, but when we were there Tartu had just been drenched by a storm. Upon leaving, we saw the staff drying off tables and chairs, rather than letting the air do its thing over the course of several hours, like so many other outdoor cafés do. The other thing I liked was that we had ordered a large meal, on par with or perhaps better than places such as Atlantis, and definitely as mouth-watering to look at, for much less than half the price.

We also saw a double rainbow over the river, a fine view from the outdoor seating. After visiting a bar for a final drink, our friends and we all parted ways, thanking each other for an enjoyable evening. “Why didn’t you want to have a romantic dinner, just the two of you?” we were repeatedly asked. Because we already know what we have in each other. It’s not that we wanted to flaunt our happiness in front of our friends, it’s that we wanted our friends to be happy with us. A wedding itself, and the anniversaries that hopefully follow, are merely symbolic. We have no wish to celebrate a symbol. Celebrate happiness. Celebrate the fact that up until this point at least, you have someone to love, and that both of you together have the wisdom and patience to continue to have someone to love.

But that’s just how we feel. Marriage, partnership and relationships in general mean different things to different people. I would never feel that my marriage is threatened, for example, by two atheist men who want to get married for love, or by two Christians who get divorced because of adultery. That’s a way of thinking I will never understand. “Why get married at all?” a man may ask who celebrates traditional folk music in Viljandi every year. “It’s pointless. My partner and I have been together for twenty years, we made a family. We’re not married.” Yeah, well, I won’t say you’re wrong, but marriage is every bit a tradition as eating blood sausage by a tree you cut down from the forest and stuck in your living room.

From a certain point of view, you could say that the only successful relationships are those that end in the unintentional death of one or the other person involved. People do get divorced in their seventies and eighties. When I reach that age, I will chuckle when I hear an old octogenarian friend say through his dentures, “I broke up with my girlfriend.”

A fitting and bizarre end to the evening: on our way home, all the street lights were off, and as we reached our building, we saw dark figures moving around, hiding in our doorway, then sprinting across the street. They rolled on the grass, hid behind cars and aimed their assault rifles at us. I approached one and asked why he was pointing a gun at passersby. “It’s a training exercise,” Private Kristjan explained. I asked him if it would have perhaps been a good idea to let people know that the Estonian Armed Forces would be hiding under their windows that night. “It was on television and the radio.” I didn’t see any posters in the neighborhood for people who don’t watch television or listen to the radio. But at that moment, I felt our neighborhood was very safe. I carried Mrs. Mingus over the threshold of our door without looking over my shoulder.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tartu Hanseatic Days

Over the past few years, the fast-food industry has been under mild pressure to improve their products in terms of health. Instead of just French fries, you can now choose from salad and carrot sticks. Even jumbo potato wedges. But you’re still consuming a mammoth burger and Coke. Coke Light (or Diet Coke in North America) is one of the most offensive misnomers in the world of healthy eating. By using aspartame in place of sugar, diet drinks actually increase your appetite for carbohydrates. Junk food is still junk food.

In much the same way, the Hanseatic Days, or Hansa Festival, or Hanseatic Festival Days, or whatever the official name is in English (I think there isn’t one) keeps improving itself. In order to stay successful, a product needs to be reinvented ever so often to avoid seeming stale. This year’s Hansa thingy in Tartu was called the Harmonic Tartu Hanseatic Days. As I’ve previously stated, it’s one of my favorite events of the year in all of Estonia. This year in Tartu it was apparently more musical than in past years. The only difference I noticed—apart from the main stage being relocated—was that it was smaller. It’s been getting smaller every summer.

There were only a handful of food tents, and they all sold exactly the same junk food. The tent I used to visit every year was, I think, Kalevi Köök. I believe they were Armenians. The shish-ka-bobs were huge, served with onion, and the baklava was amazing. They weren’t there this past weekend. I had to settle for Setu Köök. Why? Because out of all the places that offered grilled meat, boiled potatoes and frozen veggies grilled fresh from the bag, this was the only place that had no line.

I ordered the shish-ka-bobs. After I paid, the woman who worked there—Krista—opened a cooler and pulled out a stick of dried up meat and gave it to me on a plate. That’s when I noticed it was the only food tent lacking a man with a beer belly bigger than Mikk Saar’s ego slaving over a greasy round grill. I felt cheated. I felt like I was being served imitation junk food. And I was out of cash and had to eat it. I could have asked for my money back, but that would have involved an expert opinion, and in the best-case scenario I would have got a replacement stick of meat at next year’s Hansa thingy, which I will definitely go to either way. I’ll just bring my own grill.

videoThen Mrs. Mingus and I took the kids to the children’s area. They were afraid of the questionable entrance to the balloon house, so they decided to get their faces painted instead. As we were waiting in line, that’s when I saw the man in the next picture, taking photographs of our children, and others’ children. I’d seen him before, last winter when the city sculpted a fantastic ice village on Town Hall Square.

That day in winter, I noticed him skulking around, photographing kids. He appeared to be alone, but I couldn’t be sure, so I just kept an eye on him. For half an hour, I watched him capture image after image, and I finally pointed him out to some friends. They’d already noticed him, and we agreed he was potentially dangerous. I started trying to take a photo of him with my poor-quality camera phone, and he noticed me, avoided me. At that moment, I saw a random police patrol slowly approaching, and the man turned around instantly and walked the other way.

The police were very interested in my description of the events, and set off to look for him, based on this image. They did not catch him—he was gone too fast—but they asked me to send them a copy of the photo. I did. And so when I saw him again at the Hansa thingy, he apparently recognized me too, and started to leave quickly. I caught up to him and let my fury intimidate him into not fleeing. I asked why he was photographing kids. “I’m not.” I repeated my question with some more heat in my voice. “Children are just so beautiful. I love taking pictures of them.” I told him I was going to call the police, and that we would wait together. He complied. He’d been through this before. He was calm, and pulled out a book from his black bag.

Twenty minutes later, the police arrived. I recounted my story and registered an official complaint while they checked his identification on-line. He was released, but if he ever hurts a little child, he will already have a record. Yes, taking photos of kids is not illegal. He’d broken no laws that day. But the police did make him delete the shots of my daughters. They even thanked me for calling them. “It was unquestionably the right thing to do,” Officer Kristjan stated. If you see this man, play close attention to him. If you're a parent, you'll sense the same alarm going off in your head.

It’s strange though, you know? A man who is potentially dangerous is released, but a man who commits a violent crime and laughs about it is also released? Late this winter, I wrote about street violence in Tartu. The victim of one of the incidents was David Haslam, a farner. Well, he’s English. He’s a foughnuh. He was in town for his art exhibition, which opened two days later. He had to attend it covered in bandages. While walking with two Estonian friends on Tiigi Street in Tartu at night, two other Estonian men, Alvar Sillaste and Martin Kramin, attacked them with mace. One of the Estonian victims managed to escape and call the police. The attackers singled out David and repeatedly kicked him in the head and face. They were so engrossed with kicking this man to a pulp that they only noticed the police when they were being handcuffed. They hadn’t noticed the flashing lights on the squad car.

David was taken to the hospital. Later, I contacted Indrek Mustimets of the city government, asking if he had any information on this. He replied that he did not believe David was taken to the hospital, because there was no record of it. David has photographic proof of his visit to the emergency room, as well as all the paperwork. The police said two individuals were arrested for a drunken street fight that night. David was instructed by the police not to talk to anyone (including the British embassy) about what had happened because it could somehow affect the pending court case.

The court date was in the past few days. As expected, the criminals were set free. They pleaded guilty and were given three years’ probation. If they consume alcohol or drugs, then they are in violation of—what? What will happen to them then? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. This whole case was a tremendous waste of taxpayers’ money. The prosecutor even warned David that nothing would happen. Why have a court if it isn’t going to do its job?

The fact that mace was used was not considered, because the court could not identify which of the criminals had used it. Despite David informing the court that he could, in fact, identify who had used the mace. David’s being a non-Estonian was also not considered, because the police officers who witnessed the anti-foughnuh slurs were not asked to testify. Martin Kramin said, “It wasn’t because he spoke English. I’ve worked abroad.” (Norway, in fact.) “I was just too drunk.” Well, I’ve eaten peanut butter, but that doesn’t mean I like it.

These two criminals showed no remorse. Anyone who’s taken high school psychology will notice that Kramin, in the interview, only looked at the reporter when listening to a question, but looked any which way while speaking. That indicates a lie. And alcohol is just an enabler. The real you comes out when you’re drunk.

I’m sure Judge Ene Muts did a very professional job of following directions, so I cannot hold her in contempt for freeing these two clearly dangerous fuckwads. Minister of Justice Rein Lang said five years ago that he wanted to lower the number of prison inmates in Estonia by roughly a third. Compared to the population, Estonia has the highest number of inmates in the European Union. Almost four times that of Finland. My question is, if two men get off for a violent, unprovoked crime directed at a random foughnuh, what do you have to do to actually go to prison? And why are there so many of these even worse criminals in Estonia?

Many Estonians will point out that about half of the prison population is Russian, yet they make up only a quarter of the national population. That may be true, but these people must realize that there are still twice as many Estonians in prison per hundred thousand population as in Finland. These “even worse criminals” and anyone else who would commit random acts of violence are proud of their country, as they should be, and celebrate their freedom despite their incarceration. Yet they live their lives based on their old Soviet mentality. They may wear modern clothes, having abandoned denim bodysuits and Nike tracksuits, but Coke Light is still Coke, and junk food is still junk food.



***

Recently I spent the night in Tallinn’s Old Town. At night I was thirsty, so I filled a glass with tap water. It was yellow. I took a bottle home and photographed it next to a glass of Tartu tap water. I’m so happy to live in Tartu. Sometimes I have to wonder though: as Tartu has very little crime reported, is it because there is no crime, or because it’s just not reported? Perhaps Tartu’s water is just as nasty as Tallinn’s, but it’s somehow manipulated? It sure looks clear though, and it tastes good.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Kohvik Komeet

Cheesecake. It’s been on my mind for quite a while, and I’m not quite sure why. For the longest time, I thought I’d forgotten about it. Maybe that was because Estonia had no cheesecake to offer—at least not what I considered cheesecake. Most of the cakes I’d eaten here were various types of flavored foams topped with gelatin, and the occasional layer of floury cake on the bottom. The kind that requires baking. These cakes were good, and very easy for me to grow to adore, but then several restaurants and cafés suddenly started offering American-style cheesecakes. No more foam for me, thank you.

I grew up with cheesecake, but I never really liked it until I had some in a restaurant called the Cheesecake Factory in Atlanta during the Olympic Games. Our waitress that night—Crystal, if memory serves correctly—told us a funny story as she delivered a gargantuan slice of cheesecake almost ten centimeters tall, topped with a thick coat of blueberry sauce. A celebrity had been in the restaurant an hour earlier, and he’d dropped his wallet. A little boy found it, and used the picture on the driver’s license to locate the owner, not recognizing the man’s name or face. The celebrity thanked him with a one-dollar tip straight from his wallet. Cheesecake has forever since made me think of Donald Trump.

So far this year, I have made cheesecake three times, each time improving on my own recipe. I think cheesecake should have a sourish flavor. Lemon zest is the best way to go about this. Unfortunately, only one restaurant has realized this. Vapiano, in Tallinn. Hands-down the best cheesecake I’ve had in Estonia. But still not that sour. The runner-up would be Kohvik Komeet (Comet Café) on the top two floors of the Solaris mall in Tallinn.

The café itself—the part with the roof—is tastefully and simply decorated with marble tabletops and no dangling tapestries. It’s the outdoor section—the part on the roof—that beckons to me every time I find myself in Tallinn. It provides a magnificent view of the Old Town from just a couple streets away, and the kids love it too because of the pond and flowery labyrinth. I paid more attention to what they grew there on my last visit. One section has herbs and berries. I assume they serve these to customers, so you could say it’s a partly organic café.

My very first time there, however, was, um, a bit strange? We sat down around a round table on the terrace, blinded by the sun. Magnificent. Our waitress—Krista—arrived only eight minutes later and gave us menus. She nodded only after I said hello first. We each ordered a dish, and she returned in only eight minutes with my salad and my kids’ meals. We refrained from eating, however, because Mrs. Mingus hadn’t been served yet. Also because we had no forks or knives. Assuming Krista would be right back, we patiently waited another eight minutes for her to reappear somewhere. And when she did, I asked about Mrs. Mingus’s food, and the silverware. “Right away,” she assured us. She then delivered food and silverware to the neighboring table.

Eight minutes later, I approached the bartender—Kristjan—to ask for silverware. He was not happy. He led me to the wait staff station out on the terrace and gave me a fork. “Sorry, there are four of us,” I timidly said. He grunted, went back to the station and returned with three knives. “Sorry, um, could I have four forks and four knives?” —Make up your mind, he responded while shaking his head.

Back at the table, Littlest Mingus had lost her patience and had started eating her creamy pasta with her fingers. At that moment, Krista walked by. “Excuse me, could we please have some napkins? And my wife’s food? Thanks!” Eight minutes later, I got up again to go ask Kristjan for a few napkins. Luckily he had some behind the bar. He gave me one. I thanked him.

My feta salad was good. Definitely not amazing for the price, but it was large and filling, and the chef certainly hadn’t skimped on cheese. The kids devoured their pasta, which they usually don’t do. Eating out with them is a waste of money and it makes me fat. Mrs. Mingus thoroughly enjoyed the homemade black bread with my leftover feta.

When we were finished, I went to look for Krista and asked for the bill, also cancelling Mrs. Mingus’s unarrived dish. Eight minutes later, she arrived and apologized, giving us a ten-percent discount. Or maybe it was five. We paid up and went downstairs, where I knew the waitress. She was an old friend, Kristiina, back from Brussels for the summer. I recounted our tale from the roof and she assured us we’d be taken care of. And we were, very well. Thank you, Kristiina!

Mrs. Mingus ordered the tomato soup, and it was truly exquisite. I ate cheesecake. The strawberry topping might have come from the roof garden. Kristiina even comped the soup when we paid, because we had to pay a lot for parking due to the long wait up top. This is why I’ve been back there so many times since. Good customer service. It brings people back. Instead of asking, “Where should we eat?” a satisfied customer will state, “I want to go back there.” Hint, hint, oh so many eateries in Tartu! Noir’s got it right, though.

But the roof terrace is so nice. Why don’t we have something like this in Tartu? I remember when the new Kaubamaja mall was finished, there was talk of a rooftop café. Never happened. There is a similar terrace in the Tasku mall, but it’s fairly plain and apparently reserved for conference attendees. The ones who go to mall conferences.

Every couple of months, the cheesecake improves on average, everywhere. It shouldn’t be long until, if I find myself in America eating cheesecake, I’ll say, “I wish I had some good Estonian cheesecake!” Oddly enough, I’ve only had strawberry toppings here. I pointed that out to Mrs. Mingus, who reminded me that it was currently strawberry season. I countered that January was not, however, strawberry season. The best toppings according to my taste are blueberries, and sour cherries. Both grow well in Estonia. This autumn, I look forward to potentially trying apple cheesecake. I think sea-buckthorn cheesecake might actually be something amazing, as it’s very sour. What a great idea! Next time I make a cheesecake. Komeet had something with sea-buckthorn, but not cheesecake.

***

On a side note, while there is a lot of talk about how the Tallinn–Tartu highway is the deadliest highway in the European Union, it is also one of the most entertaining. This photo is taken from the parking lot of a roadside café somewhere near the halfway point. The proprietors are very particular about where you park.

And I always love how the roadside produce vendors advertize their goods in the singular. A sign that reads kartul (potato), or hernes (pea). Once they’ve sold their one potato, they’re going home. But on rare occasions, the vendor gets a little mixed up. This is from a village called Adavere. The owner didn’t want to proofread his sign.

Further south, the honor system gets used. “Just take a bag of potatoes and stick the money in the box. And don’t take the cash that’s already there. I’ll come pick it up tonight.” It’s charming and refreshing, actually. Reminds me of when I was a kid, we never locked our doors. In Tallinn, I hear about people’s car tires being stolen. But not by the Latvian border. They trust us with their tubers.

Then again, there’s a bar in Tallinn—I think the name was Shot Bar or something—that serves interesting, well, shots, some of the names of which are in the last photo. That says a lot about how open-minded people are there.