Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sõprade Juures

On the very last weekend of the very last month that could in any way be considered summer, Mrs. Mingus and I found ourselves doing the very last thing we would have expected—waiting to eat dinner at three in the afternoon outside on Town Hall Square. I even tried to stop it, but as evening approached, we were bound to stay and eat our dinner, which had finally been served. Watching the good people of Tartu greatly helped us while away the time.

“Since the kids are gone now, should we go get a coffee and enjoy the weather?” Mrs. Mingus asked, as we drove away from her parents’ house.
—I’ve had enough coffee today, but a glass of water sounds good. We have all afternoon to do anything we want, I replied. It’s only two o’clock.
“I think the tables are still out on the Square. Let’s go there.”

There was some sort of science exhibition going on, something involving bikes. A DJ was standing by the fountain on the Square going on and on about them. Maybe to promote the new bicycle lanes popping up everywhere. I love how the city is painting all the crosswalks red, too. I assume it’s so hurrying motorists won’t be distracted by splat marks.

The roads in the Old Town had been closed off, and we were offered no warning until we saw the signs that read, “Road Closed”, blocking further progress to our preferred free weekend parking zone. The four cars behind us were equally surprised, and we spent a quarter of an hour trying to turn around.

We ended up parking way off to the end of the downtown area, by Kaubamaja. I was glad, actually, because I was eager to see the progress being made on revamping the promenade from Riia Street to the Square. Ancient Soviet asphalt being replaced en masse with brand new cobblestone. I think the area near Zum Zum, immediately by the Square, is very tastefully done. The rusted metal boxes around the trees are a surprisingly positive addition. They remind me of the new hospital facilities, with their rusted metal façade details. I’m serious—I do like it. I’m just worried that it might be a bit too trendy, quickly turning into yesterday’s scrap. Like the old Hansapank building on Barclay Square. Ultra-modern a decade ago, now ultra-out-of-place and ultra-for-rent.

After sitting down at a table in a place called Sõprade Juures (At Friends’) with a good view of people, and in the sun, we started perusing the menus left out by the previous customers. Where’s the water? There it is. With or without bubbles? With. When I first came to Europe, I couldn’t believe how people would purposefully drink carbonated water. At a café in East Berlin once, I was greatly annoyed that I couldn’t get a glass of water. They only had the bubbly. “Tap water please?” —You can’t drink it. You’re not from here, was the reply. I trusted the waiter’s gastric opinion and ordered a glass of sparkling water. It was like drinking Sprite while holding your nose. An acquired taste. Now I quite enjoy drinking water with an injection of carbon.

We waited for the waitress. “You know, it’s half past two now. Maybe we should get something to eat. That early lunch we had at eleven is already long gone,” Mrs. Mingus suggested. Not a bad idea, so I glanced at the menu, and was delighted to see a full list of Estonian national foods, something I had been looking for of late. Herring, cottage cheese pancakes, potatoes, eggs, mushrooms, liver and “brawn”. By “brawn” they meant sült, or headcheese. The parts of a pig you normally wouldn’t eat, molded in a gelatinous solid from its own juices, served with vinegar. I like the flavor, but I’m a texture maniac and can’t get past the meat jelly aspect of it. Apparently “brawn” is British English for boar meat, too. The only green thing I saw on that menu of traditional Estonian food was a pickle. I decided on a main dish of turkey instead. Served with baked tomatoes.

The waitress—Krista was her name—approached us twenty-five minutes later, just before three. We ordered. Krista thanked us and left. Ten minutes later, I got my glass of water. Some friends walked by and joined us. “I’m pretty hungry,” one replied. I asked if they wanted to eat with us. “No, this place takes forever. We’re going to get something to eat on Rüütli Street, around the corner.” We were left alone again.

Krista ran in and out of the restaurant, servicing and waiting on other people waiting at tables. A random waitress approached us. “Your food will be ready soon. Very sorry for the wait.” —Who was that? I asked Mrs. Mingus. She didn’t know.

A few minutes later, our friends walked by again. “Still waiting?” they asked with a smirk. “We’re already done.” At four o’clock, I finally began to get annoyed. —I’m going to find our waitress and cancel the order. I want to go to Rüütli Street.

I saw Krista walk into the restaurant next door—Suudlevad Tudengid (Kissing Students)—and I followed her to the bar, where she was ringing up someone’s order. “Excuse me,” I said.
“I’m very sorry, but I have to cancel our order. We have to leave, we don’t have any more time to wait.”
—I’m sorry, but you need to speak to your waitress about that.
“You’re our waitress.”
—No, I work here. You’re sitting next door. You need to speak to someone from there.
“But you took our order.”
—Yes, and I gave it to your waitress.
I was beginning to feel like someone was carbonating my stomach. “Can you tell me who our waitress is then?” I desperately held on to my patience.
—Sorry, I don’t know who she is.
“But you just said you gave her our order.”
—Yes, that’s right.
“So you do, in fact, know who she is?”
—I don’t remember.

Jaded, I left the restaurant and proceeded to go back next door. Mrs. Mingus was talking to that same random waitress. Kristel was her name. I heard the end of the conversation, “…give you a discount for your wait.” A minute or two later, our food was served.

I had forgotten to ask Krista or Kristel to hold the Santa Maria potato seasoning for my French fries. They were doused in it. The turkey was mediocre. I thought the blue cheese topping would be interesting, but it was a bit too strong. By itself the turkey was bone-dry, a common problem with this poultry. But only if you don’t know how to cook it. It’s a North American bird, and the most common variety available throughout most of Europe is, if memory serves correctly, a cross of this wild turkey with a Danish pheasant. When I cook a turkey for Thanksgiving, it’s very moist and juicy, pleasant to eat. This dish was only saved by its savory mustard sauce. If only I had some water, which I had finished an hour previously.

Mrs. Mingus found the fried egg served over her pork to be overcooked, rubbery almost. Ultimately, we were most unimpressed with this early-and-now-late dinner. Sõprade Juures and Suudlevad Tudengid are essentially the same restaurant. They share a kitchen, share seating outside and, from time to time albeit apparently unofficially, they share wait staff.

When we got the bill, we did indeed notice a discount. Sixteen kroons. One euro basically. So I left a one-euro tip. That sounds pathetic, doesn’t it? One euro for a dinner tip. Sixteen kroons doesn’t seem that bad though, at ten percent. People are right, we’re going to feel very poor in three months.

The way I see it, this restaurant is in a very good location. The size of its outdoor presence could easily fool unsuspecting visitors and farners into thinking that this is the flagship restaurant of the city. The reputation it has among the locals for being slow is well-founded, and quite honestly I think the city should step in and tell them to hurry up their service. Our food was warm when served, but if the kitchen can’t handle this many people at once, it should be enlarged. It presents a clear and present danger to tourists. They could all die from hunger.

Obviously I’m exaggerating, but it’s still ridiculous. When I paid by card, like I do everywhere, I was surprised that I was asked to sign for it. Don’t we use personal identification numbers now? It had been so long since I had signed anything with a pen that my signature looked like a child’s scribbling, instead of an adult’s scribbling. But the jaans were clean and spacious. I am thankful to Sõprade Juures for allowing me to spend the entire afternoon outside, enjoying the last nice, warm weather of the year.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Where Are They Now? Volume II

After fifty reviews of restaurants in Tartu and around the country, I’ve been asked if it was my intention to retire Tartu – City of Good Food the way I sent my previous blog the way of President Arnold Rüütel—replaced with something green. That’s a good question, and the answer is even better: no way, I’m just getting started!

For this jubilee review, during these economic times and considering all the turmoil the restaurant industry has suffered through, it seems appropriate to recap who’s still around, changes that have been made, and tales of subsequent visits. There is a theme, as well. Ketchup.

I’ll start with paraphrasing a keen observation from this blog: “The whole world is trying to curb the fast-food culture. Estonia, however, seems to be expanding it.” In the past year, there are a number of mystery meat burger outlets that have appeared—City, Le Bus, Fasters and Teine Koht, just to name a few. The last one means “Second Place”, depending on how you translate it. Even if you call it “Another Place”, the name is less than appealing. I tried it once, got the rukkiburger (a standard burger on whole-grain black bread). Forgettable, but open all the time. It’s on Barclay Square in a former casino.

Recently, on the way to Tallinn, the Mingus family stopped at the Lõuna Keskus mall to get a quick bite at Le Bus. When I reviewed it, I mentioned the difficulties of eating without a plate or tray. This time, I asked Krista the waitress for a tray. “We don’t have any,” came the confused reply.
—What are those flat looking things stacked up next to the microwave? I asked.
“Those are trays.”
—May I have one?
“Of course.”
—And I’d like some ketchup as well, please.
She proceeded to pull out a tube of ketchup, and asked me to pay for it.
—Could I just have some ketchup on a drink lid like I did last time? I enquired, motioning toward the large plastic bottle in front of me.
“Oh, that’s hot dog ketchup.”
—Hot dog ketchup? What’s the difference?
“Hot dog ketchup is for hot dogs. These tubes are for everything else.”
—It’s ok, I don’t mind.
She hesitantly took the bottle of ketchup and squirted a perfect ring around the perimeter of the drink lid, the way she would on a tubular hot dog bun.
—How much is it? I offered to pay.
“Nothing. Hot dog ketchup is free.”

When a visiting friend wanted to go out for a beer, we found a new place on Rüütli Street called Möku, which means “wimp”. Tiny little place, but a good atmosphere. We got hungry, so I asked Kristjan the bartender if they had food. “Yes, we do. I would recommend the baguette with kebob meat.” So we ordered it, and Kristjan picked up the phone to place the order. “I’m sorry, they don’t have baguettes right now.” I asked where he was calling. City. Möku is just too small to have a kitchen, but they have a delivery deal with City, right next to Barclay Square. I asked for a kebob instead. “Do you want pita bread with kebob meat?” It was actually pretty good. Can’t quite figure out what animal “kebob meat” would come from though. A camel? It tasted like beef.

Though still not as good as Alvi Kebob. I’m unsure of how many owners this place has gone through by now. They have ceased to add jalapeños unfortunately. Recently I waited for fifteen minutes to place my order while I watched Krista the food assembler try in vain to salvage a hamburger bun that had broken apart on the grill. Eventually she tossed it and put a new bun on, quickly serving it to the guy waiting outside. When she came to take my order, I ordered a tortilla with kebob meat. Here, “kebob meat” is supposedly duck, chicken and turkey, all somehow on the same skewer. “I’m sorry, we’re out of kebob meat.”
—You’re out? What is that? I pointed at the tower of durcken meat.
“Kebob meat. But it’s not cooked yet.”
Disappointed, I left. Why couldn’t she have volunteered that information while I was patiently standing there? I’ve had problems with Krista before, however. I speak with an accent in Estonian of course, but when I ask for a kebob, it’s pretty obvious that I’m asking for a kebob. “A burger?” When I asked for extra “yalapennos” I saw smoke coming from her ears. Or maybe it was from a burning bun on the grill behind her. But it’s still the best kebob with kebob meat in Tartu.

One of my favorite places for lunch, Ungari Köök, almost kicked the bucket this summer. Business was slow during the heat wave, yes, but the reason the owners considered closing was so they could go back to Hungary, where the climate for doing business is a bit warmer than Tartu. “I had a complete plan to build a restaurant downtown across the river, by Atlantis. Although the city helped us with all the paperwork, we felt the resistance to our idea, and ultimately they decided to keep the empty grassy area.,” the owner recounted to me. Rumor has it the city has also blocked other attempts to open a delicious langosh and soup kitchen accessible to pedestrians in the immediate downtown area.

The way I see it, the park by Atlantis is nice, but it’s relatively unused and unlit as well, a bit dangerous in the dark. It was populated with restaurants before the war, but because it’s just a grassy knoll these days, any attempts to rebuild after the war are shot down by politicians hiding in City Hall. Sounds like someone just wants a bribe. But business is booming in the Selver parking lot at the corner of Turu and Sõbra Streets. Must be a reason.

Last week Mrs. Mingus and I went to Vilde to enjoy that amazing grill stone meal, the one you cook yourself at the table. The Romanian saw me and invited me to the kitchen for a full tour after the meal. I had never been in a restaurant kitchen before. The only times I ever see them are on television, usually as a setting for a gangster gun fight or when the police discover a cadaver in the meat locker. “We’re changing our menu this month,” the Romanian explained. “We’ll still have the grill stone, but it will be for two people, it will be cheaper by thirty percent and more food will be served. We have to ax the lamb chops though. That’s half the cost right there, for such a small amount.” That’s too bad about the lamb—one of my favorite items—but at least it will be more affordable if you don’t want to organize a dinner party to try it.

When we stepped out of the kitchen, we heard uproarious laughter coming from the back room. “What’s happening?” I asked.
—Comedy night.
“Wow, I didn’t know they had live comedy in Estonian.”
—No, it’s in English, he explained. Some farners put on shows here sometimes.
“English? Is it any good?” I asked.
—Well, I haven’t had a chance to watch much, as I’m usually in the kitchen, but from what I’ve seen, it’s really good. They sell out all their shows.

Mrs. Mingus and I caught the last half hour of the show, and it truly was hilarious. The first time I’ve ever seen “stand-up comedy” live, and it was in English in Estonia. In Tartu. Word on the street is these guys have open-mic nights in Möku every month. I think Tartu just got a lot more fun.

The main chef from Moka (not Möku) has relocated to Illegaard, and has made quite an impact on their food. The Authentic English Bloke who owns the place let me sample an English-style doughnut, as I mentioned in a previous review. I went back for their pizza. They didn’t skimp on the toppings, and the crust was pretty good. I prefer deep-dish over thin crust, but I still enjoyed it. Good competition for La Dolce Vita, but for less than half the cost. I look forward to trying the other “non-bar food” in this bar.

While visiting friends in Southern Estonia, by the Russian border, we decided to try the Seto tsäimaja once more. The food is good there, but the service is a disaster. Kristõ, who takes orders, is fairly rude. “You can’t order food right now. No potatoes.” When asked, it was revealed that they were only then starting to boil more potatoes.
—Couldn’t we just order a main course without potatoes?
—Does that mean no?
—No yes, or no no?
“I can’t sell you food without potatoes.”
—Why not? I don’t mind.
“I wouldn’t know how to charge you for it.”
—I’ll pay full price. We’re just really hungry.
“Come back in half an hour. Should be ready then.” And she proceeded to turn down the next customers as well.
—Excuse me, I still haven’t ordered yet.
“We don’t have any food.”
“We have soup.”
—Great, I’ll take three soups, please.
“It’s cold.”
—Is it supposed to be cold?
“Do you want it cold?”
We drove to Põlva for mystery meat burgers. They were out of ketchup.

I have had so many odd experiences with eating, but don’t get the wrong idea—it’s only mildly more bizarre than eating out in the States from time to time. And I have yet to see Parmesan in a regular American grocery store that isn’t already grated and sold in a green can. Here, the stuff is plentiful. Nopri Talu (Nopri Farm) down south near Vastseliina sells an experimental Parmesan that is only available from their shop. I really hope they start selling it elsewhere soon, because the Alfredo sauce I made with it was unbelievable.

Apart from the fatten explosion (meaning, fast food), overall quality and service in Tartu has jumped by leaps and bounds in the past year. Everyone who visits me asks for authentic Estonian food in a restaurant. There aren’t many places for that, and the two or three locales I can think of aren’t that great. But I’ve had incredible Estonian food before. Just not that often in a restaurant. Why is that? Our visitors always ask Mrs. Mingus for her Estonian recipes after dinner.