Friday, December 30, 2011

Where Are They Now? Volume III

Tomorrow night, New Year’s Eve, is a big night for me, as it will be my fourteenth New Year’s Eve in Estonia. Much bigger than last year, as that was only my thirteenth. And this year’s been a big year for many people in many ways. The economy started to recover, I fought for my life, many countries fought for their futures, many in Japan lost the fight with just a few moments’ notice, but most importantly, Tartu’s restaurant scene changed drastically.

Of prominent infamy, if I can say that, is undoubtedly the “Illegaard Scandal”. Most say that the owner skipped the country, stealing loads of dough from the bar and leaving a mass of debts, only to start over again in another country. This is not entirely true. He did skip the country and leave behind debts, but he did not start over again in another country, and he did not steal loads of dough because, well, there was none to steal. That’s why he left. Doesn’t excuse it of course, but it’s not quite what people think. Rumor has it the owner of the property (Illegaard was rented) acted foolishly as well. She has quite a bad reputation in Tartu. But those chili cheeseburgers are sorely missed.

Other losses this year before we move on to the newcomers: the Žen-Žen Buffet (not the main restaurant!)—it was decent, but way too expensive for what it was, and they were often out of rice. Confucius say, Chinese restaurant that run out of rice also run out of business.

Gruusia Saatkond—this is another classic example of poor management. It was brilliant, fast, delicious, cozy and affordable when it opened almost a decade ago. By the time it closed, service was hard to come by, prices had tripled, portions had halved, and it was cold inside that restaurant.

Vilde Lokaal—they’re not going anywhere, thankfully! But the head chef, the elusive Romanian, is, unfortunately. I do not know the details, but I hope the replacement is at least half as talented. But I did finally check out one of those comedy shows they hold every month. I saw the one a couple weeks ago, entirely in Estonian (but the host spoke English). There were a couple foreigners performing in Estonian. Tickets only five euros for two hours of non-stop laughter—what more could anyone possibly want? Well, I want more, so I’m going again.

Now for the good stuff: in the old Žen-Žen Buffet premises is now a new restaurant called Meat Market Steak & Cocktail. I haven’t had a chance to go yet, but it certainly sounds promising, although on their Facebook page I didn’t see many steaks or cocktails. The décor seems tasteful, however.

Illegaard is still open, but no food apparently.

There’s a new self-proclaimed nightclub where Gruusia Saatkond used to be. A nightclub, in a venue the size of my living room and bedroom. They offer food though, so I’ll check it out.

Right next-door is what I consider the Newcomer of the Year—Vein ja Vine. The name is Estonian, and means “Wine and Buzz”. Buzz as in alcohol-induced, not Lightyear. At first I thought it was a strip club, because I read the name in English. I look forward to reviewing it when the tables are put out in warmer weather, because “the wine bar”, as locals call it, is best enjoyed outdoors. The clientele are great, as are the staff.

I really like how Rüütli Street is slowly but surely filling up with restaurants, cafés, bars and such. Bit by bit it’s also being cobblestoned, the old Soviet-era asphalt disappearing. To make the place truly perfect, the city government should close it off to cars (and trucks!) entirely. Rüütli is a pedestrian street with a lot of traffic.

On Christmas Eve Father Mingus (he visited Estonia for the seventh time) and I took the kids to Town Hall Square. Although there was no snow, the dancing and free soup created quite the holiday atmosphere. Tartu is getting better at this every year. Perhaps next year, if there is no snow again, they could provide a snow machine? Heh-heh, that would be cool!

The city government, in their infinite wisdom, recently held a public brainstorming session on what to do with the river. Seriously, WTF? This river’s been here how many years, and the mayor just now noticed it? I can see it now, the mayor walking over the old Soviet crumbling eyesore of a bridge, the one redheads like to have sex on: “Where the hell did that come from?!” he exclaims, pointing down at the water.
—I don’t know, sir, Krista the city secretary replies.
“Did you know about this? Did you know that was there?”
—Yes, sir, I did. We all do.
“It’s so wide, so big, so wet! I’m going to…I’m going to name it after my mother!”

One of the genius ideas put forth was to build a dolphinarium. No comment. But allow me to submit an idea. One that is crazy, unorthodox, insane. Sacrifice some of the trees along the riverbanks and build cafés, bars, restaurants—buildings that don’t look like they’re made from prefab Legos—and put up lots of easily washable umbrellas to protect would-be patrons from all the mess those hundreds of thousands of birds leave every day.

Maybe even a city amphitheater, for nice, outdoor concerts in the summer, that are too small to fill up the Song Festival Grounds. Make all the seating out of Plexiglas, so you can see the dolphins swimming underneath.

But until that’s done, please respect yourselves by only eating at good places. Head uut!

Sunday, November 20, 2011


A while back I noted there was not much available in Tallinn’s Old Town in the way of food after eleven at night. There are a couple mystery meat kiosks, and also this place called Taco Express. It’s nasty. I’ve talked about it before. A friend suggested I check out a place called VS. The sign outside calls it “Kohvik VS” but all its menus, indoor signs and webpages call it “Café VS”. So café vs. kohvik. “Mingus, café is kohvik in Estonian.” Thank you, Anonymous.

I was in Tallinn for two nights, staying at a friend’s. It was the night of the big game—one of the Irelands vs. Estonia. Around four in the morning, the doorbell on the intercom rang.

“I’m staying at my friend’s place, in apartment three, but I don’t have the key. Can you let me in?” the slurred Irish speech was heard on the speaker.
—This is apartment three, you idiot. My host was visibly annoyed.
“Oh. Um, then my friend is in apartment four.”
—Nice try.

When we left the next morning, the Irish guy was asleep on the stairs inside the door. Asleep in a pool of his own vomit. Someone in the building had fallen for the trick, and the guy had fallen on the floor. My friend nudged him awake by gently tapping on the clean part of his back with his shoe and told him to leave. When we returned later, one of the other tenants had left a nice little sign on my friend’s door. There was no evidence of any stranger having created this work of modern art, and so we took the blame. The Irish guy just needed a place to sleep and splatter. It was a huge, organic mess.

Reinu Pizza has a museum in Tallinn, but it goes by its Estonian acronym—GAG. Pass this place if you’re coming from the train station, turn left at the Savisaar sign, go past the warning sign, go through the bar district and continue out of the Old Town for another ten minutes to get to VS, on Pärnu Road. It’s open late. Real late.

I went with some friends after going to the movies. The menu is long, the prices are acceptable, the portions are big, and the kitchen is visible. I had never been able to watch chefs at work, and now there were two such restaurants in Tallinn alone—VS and Vapiano. Apparently hygiene is a problem in the food industry, so these venues seek to reassure customers. If only they could do something about cashiers in supermarkets. So many times I’ve seen them wipe their noses and then weigh my vegetables.

One of my friends ordered some pasta dish. She said it was a bit bland. Another friend ordered a wrap. I don’t understand wraps. Vräppid in Estonian. The first time I’d had one was here, in fact. I thought it was an improperly made burrito, so I avoided them for years. I didn’t know they had become an international phenomenon during my time here. They’re pretty good usually.

I decided on the English breakfast. As it was English, it was nothing spectacular. A fried egg, fried tomato, sausage, bacon, beans…English vs. American breakfasts are interesting. The latter usually sports a stack of pancakes and something called a breakfast sausage. I love those. The closest thing to a breakfast sausage in Estonia is the grilled sausage in lamb intestines. It’s very close, in fact—the main difference is that with lamb entrails vs. breakfast sausage, you at least know what you’re eating. The American breakfast sausage might not even be made of material that was once alive. But it tastes good.

My host jokingly said, “I bet they have twenty kilos of bacon in the refrigerator here.”
—Yeah, you could probably just walk right in there and take it, I responded in jest. We’d had a couple beers. We were being silly.
“And do what with it?”
—Cover the walls, floor, ceiling, tables and chairs and the bar with bacon. A bacon bar.
“You probably shouldn’t do that,” Krista the waitress had meanwhile arrived to take our orders, overhearing our conversation and responding in English.
—Of course not, I reassured her.
“Seriously, don’t take the bacon,” she insisted.
“Don’t put bacon all over the place.”
—We were joking.
“I would have to be the one to clean it up,” she was getting more and more irritated.
—I’d like the English Breakfast, please, I tried to change the subject.
“OK. And anything else?” Krista asked.
—Extra bacon please. I couldn’t resist saying it.
She just stared at me, wondering if she could trust me to not line the windows with salty pig flesh.
“I’m sorry, I can’t give you extra bacon,” she finally decided.

It was me vs. the waitress. She won, because I simply didn’t feel like explaining that it was just a joke. My friends have since been back to VS. Each time, they ask for extra bacon, while looking at the ceiling. They ask where the bacon is stored. They ask how much it costs, and who does the cleaning. Krista still doesn’t get the joke. I’ve been telling everyone I know that if they happen to go to VS, ask about the bacon.

In hindsight, I remembered there had been two tables of Irish football hooligans. They’d been causing problems for Krista, and she apparently hadn’t been able to differentiate between our accents. She thought I, too, was from one of the Irelands. That explains why she just couldn’t take a joke, even though it wasn’t directed at her. But when it comes to Tartu vs. Tallinn and waitstaff understanding the often patronizing behavior of patrons, the result is a tie. I am beginning to understand why no waitress in Tallinn or Tartu has ever asked, “How are you today?” It’s not because she doesn’t care. It’s because she doesn’t want to know.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Kebab Pizza

“Eat my shit!” a man named Jukka screamed in a heavy Finnish accent. I think his name was Jukka. Someone kept saying, “United States of Jukka”. He was frantically nailing wood to an outhouse in a field in an effort to lock in a fat man who was equally frantically trying to get out. Pants down, he started crawling through the hole in the seat, getting covered in what Jukka had just suggested he eat, as they flooded the small room with tear gas. It was disgusting, it was uncalled for, it was playing loudly on the television while I was eating a Finnish kebob.

A little research revealed the show is called The Dudesons. Just so you know. I was eating in a new place on Narva Road in Tartu called Kebab Pizza. There can be no mistaking it—they sell kebabs and pizza. An interview I read with the owner revealed that he originally wanted to sell soup, too, but “Kebab Pizza Soup” wouldn’t fit on the sign.

The owner, Kristjan, said in the interview, “There are kebabs available in Tartu in a few places, but they’re not real. I don’t know if the seasoning is different or what, but something is wrong.” He also admits to having spent time in Finland (i.e. construction worker), and liked the kebabs there, so he decided to try out his own kebaberia in Tartu. And good for him! Honestly, I did enjoy my meal, and the price is right at three euros. He also had financial help in the form of several döners. Ha!

But I have to say I find it at least a bit odd he would use a Finnish kebab as his template. Kebabs are Turkish originally, specifically German Turkish, which was probably copied in Denmark and eventually made its way to Finland, and now on to Estonia. I had to remove a few pickles from my kebab.

As I studied the menu for the first time, I couldn’t quite figure out how this particular kebab enthusiast had decided to interpret an authentic kebob. The first thing I smelled when I walked through the door was ketchup, although I didn’t actually see or consume any. The kebab with freaks, first on the menu, seemed good. I asked about it.

“What is your kebab with freaks?” I asked.
—It’s a kebab, with freaks, Krista the waitress dryly replied.
“No bread?”
—We don’t serve leib here.
“No, I meant is it wrapped in a tortilla or something?” I pronounced “tortilla” correctly, the double ell pronounced like a wye.
—Of course it’s not in a tortilla, she corrected me with a double ell sound. It’s rolled in pita bread. It’s the kebabirull.
“Oh, ok. And what kind of sauces?” Please don’t be ketchup! Please don’t be ketchup! I silently prayed.
—Salad dressing and kebab sauce.
“Kebab sauce? What’s that?”
—It’s the stuff in this bottle.

She pointed to a bottle behind her that said, sure enough, “Kebab Sauce”. I ordered one. She said it would take about ten minutes. I was in no hurry, but I still couldn’t understand why it would take ten minutes to roll a kebab and squeeze out some sauce. But I think I know why now. I could hear all sorts of chopping and cutting in the kitchen. My roll/wrap/kebab was served with a smile. There was a basket on my table with a bottle of red liquid in it. Alas! ‘Twas no ketchup, but Tabasco! Awesome! The kebab thingy itself was nice and toasty warm, not scalding hot like when it’s fresh from the microwave, and even the lettuce and other fillings were warm, as was the pita. That was very nice, I must admit. But the pickle…

I found out about this place in the Postimees Online newspaper. Fifty comments. Most of them, as usual, from retarded monkeys. Some gems from among them:
—I hope it’s a real kebab, like in Sweden.
—A pureblooded Estonian don’t eat no kebab, our food is barley and pork.
—The main ingredient on white flour, lots of fat, some salad/onion/cucumber/tomato slices and the money will flow.
—We really need a diner where they offer sauerkraut and barley and fresh milk for a normal price.

The last two comments aren’t worthless, however. They’re critical of the fast food culture, and pine away for what they consider healthy food. The last comment, as you might not have noticed, mentions nothing about food with color, such as salad and onion and cucumber and tomato. And fresh milk, while indeed tasty, is loaded with fat and a whole host of other health risks. That’s why pasteurization was developed.

Other comments talked about name laws. While I strongly support local business using Estonian names and words (why be embarrassed about your language, Estonians!?), I think that with this place in particular, not much of a difference would be made if it were translated. Pitsa Kebaab. That’s because the foods themselves are imported concepts. You don’t hear tales about Uncle Vello, who lived three centuries ago, and his amazing noodle. No. Today, you hear about boys named Kevin-Ritšard who eat topsikoogid and tšipsid. Where did all the barley go, you might ask while sipping on a two-liter plastic bottle of Karuõlu (Bear Beer)?

But this place is nice. The guy had the guts to open a new place that didn’t offer mystery meat burgers, and from my experience today it was “quite normal”, in the Estonian sense (that means “pretty good” in Language). Hopefully he won’t get lazy and dependent on store-bought, pre-made ingredients and turn into a food assembly. I will definitely visit again, but I do hope he changes the channel on the television.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Years ago a friend had a house in Võru County that was robbed. The thief took everything. Dishes, towels, furniture, electrical wiring, even a plank of wood from the floor. There was one lamp that apparently was not to his liking, however, as he left it there. He didn’t forget to cut off the plug though, and steal that, too.

Our friend was devastated, of course. She invited us over to have a few drinks and complain about the crime. But Mrs. Mingus and I had good news to brighten the mood at this small party—we had just that day discovered we were going to be parents. An interesting spectrum of emotions that night, ranging from rage and loss to delight and elation. Then our friend’s sister showed up with a pastry that changed my life forever.

A small, white cake, hard frosting on top, with a layer of apple-flavored something or other in the middle, nestled between what seems to be a sort of short bread. “What is this?” I asked in utter bewilderment. “It’s amazing!”
—It is Alexander’s cake.
“Who’s that?”
—No, in Estonian it’s “aleksandrikook”.

The next day I looked everywhere. I tried each different aleksandrikook I could find, all of them more or less disgusting. Some had chocolate swirls on top, some had pink with chocolate swirls on top, and they were all dry. Too dry to consume. It was like eating old hay. Then I found the right one: Pagaripoisid. Pagaripoisid (Bakery Boys) is a bakery factory in Tallinn. They have a small chain of cafés in various cities in Estonia—not, of course, in Tartu, however. This cake is my favorite store-bought pastry in the country.

Our friend’s thief was caught, and confessed. He served a month in prison and was ordered to pay for damages. He is now (or perhaps still is) an unemployed alcoholic. He will never reimburse our friends for his crime of desperation, and will eventually die a pauper.

In summer of last year we installed a water system at our summerhouse, also in Võru County. Fresh stream water, purified by a good water filter as well as a network of beaver dams upstream. After a long day of healthy, hard work in the yard, which is my passion in hot weather, we could finally take a shower in amazing water. (I was surprised…the water you bathe in really does matter!)

Just two months later, Mrs. Mingus went to check up on the place, and discovered the sauna had been robbed. The thief took everything. The water pump, water boiler, shower curtain, shower, a bucket, almost-empty bottles of shampoo, a bar of soap that probably had a hair dried on it, the pipes running along the walls, the outside lamp, and half a roll of toilet paper.

This reminded me of a story I once heard. A thief on Saaremaa robbed a house and took a dump under the tree by the window he’d entered through. He then wiped himself with his phone bill, which of course had his name on it, and he was quickly arrested. He was released three days later. At the same time, a newspaper headline announced that Edgar Savisaar had been missing for three days.

I was at home enjoying an aleksandrikook with my kids when my wife called, in tears. “They took everything,” she sobbed. I told her to call the police, and when they arrived more than half an hour later, they began their investigation.
“It’s very unlikely that we’ll catch your thief,” the officer said.
—But what can you do to catch him? my wife pleaded.
“We’ll just register what was stolen, and it will enter the official statistics.”
Then I had an amazing idea. It was risky, it probably wouldn’t work, but it could change the course of Võru criminalistics forever. Take fingerprints!
“He won’t have left any,” the officer tried to get out of doing his job. He was pressured to dust for prints, and found some on the window that was broken into.
“The prints won’t be on record,” the officer tried to get out of doing his job. A few months later, we got a call from the Võru police. The thief had been caught red-handed, emptying out another house. As it turned out, he had robbed more than twenty houses in the area, leaving prints which—the officer was right—were not on record, but which could now be linked to the man himself, because the officer had been pressured into dusting for prints. He confessed to all the crimes, and was due to stand trial.

I bought some aleksandrikooks to celebrate. By this time, Pagaripoisid had changed the color of the frosting to pink. It still tasted the same. That is the wonder of modern chemistry. Pink frosting tastes like white frosting, and pink powder can catch a criminal with white-power tattoos on his arms.

We drove to the Võru police station to file charges, and answered specific questions about the price of each item stolen. Luckily we had receipts for everything. The detective would only tell us his name, but we found out—by accident—that the criminal would have full access to all our personal information, which had been required by the police in filing our charges against him. Address, email, telephone, children, how often and when we went to our cabin, and so on. Such is the legal system in Estonia. The detective, I think her name was Anne Pihus (she had talent in the palm of her hand!), raised a stink when we demanded that our personal information be removed from the case file, but she eventually complied.

I searched for the thief on-line, and found him. He owed money to half a dozen banks, creditors, casinos and so on. There was no way we were ever going to get any money back from this asshole, who had apparently never done a hard day’s work in his life. Then a couple weeks ago, I looked him up again, just a week before his scheduled trial. He now had a Facebook account, and I could see photographs of him. He was a musclehead. A member of three different gyms and weight-lifting clubs. So that’s how he could single-handedly lift the boiler off the wall while it was still full of water. You could see the tattoos on his arms, one of which was also anti-gay. Sentencing him to jail would obviously be futile, because he was so homophobic he would not be able to properly enjoy his prison time.

Then his trial was just last week. He didn’t show up. I sent him a reminder about it on Facebook, as Mingus, which of course is my real name. He didn’t respond. He did, however, manage to sell his Võru apartment in an auction, for eleven thousand euros. How he was allowed to keep this with all his debts and crimes is beyond my comprehension. And doesn’t skipping trial count as contempt of court? Shouldn’t the police have immediately gone to arrest him? Apparently the Võru police don’t use Facebook. This morning, while sitting in Pagaripoisid headquarters in Tallinn, on Vana-Lõuna Street, enjoying an aleksandrikook fresh from the factory floor, I looked him up again. He’d updated his current city to Madrid, Spain.

I know of someone else in Madrid. At least he used to live there. The local Nazi ringleader Risto Teinonen was hiding out there for years. Now he’s been kicked out of his own Nazi party because—surprise, surprise—he’s actually gay.

The staff are polite in Pagaripoisid, but ordering a coffee seemed somewhat tricky. “…and I’d like a coffee too, please”, I asked politely.
—What size? Krista the waitress asked.
“Just a small.”
—We don’t have small.
“What do you have, then?” I was a bit confused already.
—We have medium and large.
“How can you have ‘medium’ without ‘small’?” I just couldn’t resist exploring the logic behind this.
—What do you mean? Krista asked.
I explained the theory of medium being a comparison of small and large, and that without the former, you could not have a comparison.
—Do you want a medium or a large coffee? she asked, getting exasperated.
“I would like a small coffee, which you call a medium,” I compromised. But she actually smiled, finally realizing the oddness behind their sizing system.

But regarding the thief—I’m not angry that I won’t get money back, but I am annoyed that I won’t get my time back. The time I spent installing the system, roughly twenty hours, and I will have to do it again. Come to think of it though, I will have paid for the water system twice, once it’s replaced, and I would have probably paid an equivalent amount a third time as well, in the form of tax money spent incarcerating this worthless person who in no way contributes to society. Now it is Spain’s problem. He will go to jail there eventually, I am sure.

But wait! I will, eventually, pay that same amount twice more for his more expensive Spanish prison expenses in the form of tax money spent on a financial bailout. So I can’t quite decide if the police are doing anyone a favor by freely allowing the thief to skip the country. Estonia basically already has the highest percentage of its population in prison in the European Union, and it has to let other countries help clean up its mess by letting its criminals go to these countries to export their skills.

Why can’t Estonia export pastries instead of criminals? They could make a killing on these aleksandrikooks. Export cake to pay for its criminals. I don’t think Pagaripoisid is the best pastry company I’ve ever tried. Far from it. But I do think it’s the best in Estonia, and the aleksandrikook is heavenly. The main reason why is that they are not afraid to use flavor and moisture in their products. Eesti Pagar, Astri, Pere Leib, Lõuna Pagarid, and other similar bakery chains are just boring and dry. Some of them make good kringels, but that’s about it. Fazer is decent, but their products are available absolutely everywhere, and they’re Finnish, not Estonian, so I can’t really include them in this list. Unless of course you take into account that many of their factory workers undoubtedly come from Estonia to escape prison time.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sämmi Grill, and Sohva

“Grassroots” is a term used to describe a popular movement that has risen from several places at once, from the bare basics. A grassroots movement begins without leader, it begins without aim. Many are criticizing the “Occupy Wall Street” protests that have popped up all over the world for these very reasons. It obviously started in New York City, then spread. There are now Occupy Wall Street protests in Canada, Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Japan, Australia, Germany, Holland, Russia—except in Russia they’re calling it “Occupy Estonia”.

Just kidding.

And the main slogan all these disgruntled people are using is “We are the ninety-nine percent”, meaning they are not happy because they are part of the majority of the world, not the wealthy elite. Even in Tallinn the other day, there was a small group protesting in front of the Parliament. The movement is spreading here, slowly but surely. It’s picking up speed in Narva, though. Just yesterday, thousands gathered in the pothole-infested asphalt parking lot in front of City Hall, chanting, “We are the ninety-nine percent…who don’t speak Estonian!”

Just kidding.

Some readers have written me lately, asking that I not make fun of Russians. “Say ‘our eastern neighbors’ or ‘non-Estonians’ instead,” I’m told. What a ridiculous request! A country of almost a hundred and fifty million people, a hundred and fifty times the size of Estonia’s population, and I should refer to them as “non-Estonians”? By that logic, the whole world is non-Estonian.

Genetically, we’ve recently found out, Estonians don’t have very much in common with the Finns, contrary to traditional Fenno-centric thought. Instead, Estonians are virtually indistinguishable from their southern neighbors, and the millions upon millions of non-Estonians in the northwestern corner of Non-Estonia, to the east. The only differences really are language and certain cultural/behavioral aspects. Estonian is not a Slavic language, yet the neighbors to the south do speak a Slavic language. Slavic languages, of course, stem from the Non-Estonian language branch of Non-Estonia. Therefore, from this moment on, I will use the term “proto-Latvian” to describe the people who “democratically” elected a former KGB agent their president and live in the land of Non-Estonia.

But all joking aside, we’re all on the same team, even though we don’t always know it. We all want to be happy, safe, comfortable, warm, loved. These are innate wants, wishes, desires, requirements. You could even call these things “grassroots” human needs. Problems start to arise when we get organized in our pursuits of happiness. When we allow people to lead us, and when these leaders disagree on the best way to be comfy, and that’s not safe. Languages branch out and become unintelligible to one another, churches split and form endless denominations, governments have non-stop parties, corporations avoid taxes with their endless affiliates and subsidiaries.

The United States used to have an unofficial motto, “E pluribus unum”, which loosely means “Out of many, one”. Then a few decades ago Congress made the new and official motto “In God We Trust”. I seem to remember something from history about a separation of church and state. Instead of celebrating our plurality, our diversity, we now chose to favor the religious. But that’s what all this “Occupy Wall Street” stuff is about. Favoritism.

Another popular phrase in Latin is “Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno”. Most would be familiar with this phrase in relation to the Three Musketeers. Soviet Russia and the early United States had the first part of this phrase in common at least. One for all. One land for everyone, or as it happened in later Soviet history, one loaf of bread for everyone. But today, the protesters are fed up with the “All for one” attitude of what they call the “One Percent”.

Now, you’re thinking, what the hell does any of this have to do with food?

Twenty years ago, there was basically no restaurant culture in Estonia. The few places where you could eat all served the same things. There just wasn’t that much that restaurant-owners could buy in terms of diversity of ingredients. Pork, cabbage, potatoes, pickles and ketchup (cucumbers and tomatoes, respectively, in summer).

Then there was a revolution. We’ve all seen the old Soviet-era Estonian commercials for lemonade and minced chicken. Tallegg, Estonia’s premier chicken manufacturer (yes, “manufacturer”…they’re not free-range), introduced the “chicken patty” (kanapihv in Estonian). The chicken patty is what I refer to as “mystery meat”. Roadside kiosks across the country sell these in oversized white buns under the name “hamburger”. But it’s not a hamburger. It’s a mystery meat burger. You can buy them by the hundreds in the frozen foods section of every supermarket. And frozen French fries. This is the most popular food in Estonia even today. It is an evolutionary step in restaurant culture, for it “combines” ketchup with mayonnaise, it replaces cabbage with Chinese cabbage.

Their biggest fans are the ninety-nine percent. They are the leaderless, they are the aimless, they are…are you ready? They are the rullnokks.

Of course, there are alternatives available. But only the one percent can afford them. Beef instead of mystery meat? Forget about it, unless you are able to drive a new BMW instead of a used one. Proper salad instead of Chinese cabbage? Forget about it, unless you are able to own a bank instead of build one. Barilla on your pasta instead of Felix? Forget about it, unless you are able to talk to people instead of text them.

Mystery meat is full of chemical additives. Potato seasoning is full of unhealthy salt. White bread buns, soda, sour cream, potato chips—all full of fat. Estonia is the unhealthiest country in the European Union. Yes, all this stuff is extremely popular and, well, let’s face it—it’s easy money. But if you open a fast-food joint, you are committing manslaughter—unintentional homicide. The same can be said about burning coal or gas to keep warm or drive around, and a number of other ordinary, everyday activities as well. But this is a food blog. I’m just talking about the food. So allow me to speak for the ninety-nine percent (even though I am a non-Estonian): We demand better.

Or instead, maybe a better thing to do would be to speak to the one percent (even though I clearly do not represent them): It’s your responsibility. But you don’t care. And neither do they, because they don’t know. So nothing I’ve said in this review really matters.

Oh right, the review! On the way to Tallinn, somewhere near the halfway point, eat at Sämmi Grill. You’ll see signs to it on the highway. The interior is crap, as are the side dishes, but the beef is excellent. And when you get to Tallinn, do not eat at Sohva. I think it was on Rataskaevu Street in the Old Town. The interior is excellent, but the food is crap.

I was in a hurry to catch a train and I stumbled across this attractive basement restaurant. “How long does it take to serve your Houseburger?” I asked Krista, the waitress. She looked at a woman on a sofa reading the comics in the Õhtuleht newspaper.
—How long does a Houseburger take? she repeated my question. The woman replied that it would be less than ten minutes.
“Ok, I’ll order one then.”

And in three minutes, a plate of fries covered in potato seasoning was delivered to my table. The Houseburger was steaming. Steam is what happens when you microwave bread. The bread was soggy. The grated cheese hadn’t melted inside the white bread bun. Kanapihv. I began to wonder if, when the concept of a beef patty was introduced to Estonia, someone hadn’t translated the wrong word. Does “pihv” really come from “beef”, even though it means “patty”? Anyhow, there was a pile of Chinese cabbage, a slice of cucumber and tomato each, and a small dish of sour cream. As hard as it is to admit it, I would have preferred ketchup. This cost six and a half euros. Go up the street a bit, get a much better burger for the same price in Drink Bar.

Sohva is where the one percent go to be seen eating mystery meat. Photographs were not allowed.

Monday, October 3, 2011


The following dialogue is taken from “Tipp Kokk” (Top Chef), a classic Estonian film starring Toomas Kruuse and Valve Kiilmaa:

“Top Chef was created to teach TBS. Tomato Based Sauce. Ketchup. You are the top one percent of all kitchen food assemblers. The elite. Best of the best. We’ll make you better.”

This past weekend the Mingus family decided to try out a new Russian-themed restaurant on Kompanii Street, right around the corner from Town Hall Square. The premises used to be a nightclub called Who Doesn’t Like Johnny Depp? A more appropriate name would have been Who Doesn’t Like This Place? The answer to that question explains why it quickly went out of business. Then it was called Gläm, which as you can tell by its name was an Asian restaurant.

Now it’s called Vassilissa, named for a Russian fairytale. Setting itself apart from the other Russian joint in Tartu, this one serves—wait a minute, they serve exactly the same foods. Lots of herring, sour cream, pickles, potatoes, deep-fried stuff, and vodka. In fact, menu-wise, it’s not really that different at all from Estonian restaurants, either.

“You just cooked an incredibly brave dinner. What you should have done was boil your potatoes! You don’t eat in this restaurant, your customers do! Son, your ego is cooking food your customers can’t appreciate.”

We ordered our food and a couple coffees. I was surprised to see that the coffee—when it was delivered in just a couple minutes—was served in mugs labeled “Café Noir”, which of course is another restaurant in Tartu. The competition. Is it just me, or is that a bit odd? I went on a tour of the A.le Coq brewery, and at the end they served beer. But they were out of A.le Coq, so they served Saku. Nah, just kidding. Maybe the mugs were stolen.

The menus are nice enough, except they, too, are a tad misleading. Instead of the word “Vassilissa” written on the cover, it’s an advertisement for a winery. Our kids, however, really enjoyed the play corner. It’s conveniently located off to the side, enclosed in soundproof, bulletproof glass that maximizes parents’ dining enjoyment and protects innocent children from the FSB.

I overheard another customer, a large, bald man dressed all in white drinking red Louis Latour wine, ask Krista the waitress how to get to the terrace, which he could see through the window at his table.
“Where’s the door?”
—If you would like to smoke, just go outside.
“Noh yeah, where’s the door?”
—It’s over there, she said, pointing to the main entrance.
“I want to go here,” he motioned to the window.
—It’s closed for the season.
That was a shame. What could be but probably wasn’t considered the nicest terrace in Tartu was closed on this beautiful day. The tables and chairs were still outside, however.

“You’re a hell of a food assembler. Maybe too good. I’d like to bust your butt, but I can’t. I gotta’ send someone from this vocational school to Top Chef. You screw up just this much, you’ll be cooking in a cafeteria full of rubber dog shit in Annelinn.”

The kids’ menu offered wieners and fries and ketchup. Mrs. Mingus ordered Chicken Kiev from the Louis Latour menu. I took a bite. It was delicious, in fact. And quite honestly, the potatoes were truly amazing. No potato seasoning. After a few bites, however, she complained it was getting a little too greasy. As for my selyanka (commonly translated to English as “thick Russian soup”), it was alright. I’ve had better. The rule for good selyanka is the same as good Mexican. The best is always found in the worst places. We enjoyed our visit to Vassilissa, so it stands to reason their soup would be average.

I’ve been tricked into eating a lot of ketchup lately. I had to ask. “Don’t,” Mrs. Mingus protested. “It’s going to be embarrassing!” I told her to watch and learn.
“Excuse me,” I asked Krista. “This selyanka was very good. Could I ask what’s in it?” She seemed generally pleased that I was happy, and eagerly proceeded to tell me all the ingredients from memory, and even a couple variations for preparing it. I was so impressed. This had never happened in a Tartu restaurant. “So there’s no ketchup in it, for example?” I timidly asked.
—No, no, of course not! she answered with a real smile. The service was quick, polite, overall a very positive experience. What it should be. I tipped accordingly. Most Estonians say they don’t tip. I say they should. I have no reservations about paying for a smile. Scowls are free anywhere you go in the world.

When I reached home, I looked up the “Tartu Kutsehariduskeskus”, or Tartu Vocational School. This is apparently where they teach Tartu’s food assemblers. I think I finally understand why most of the restaurants serve basically the same stuff, and why the more gourmet food always consists of what I call the Tartu Holy Trinity—red bell pepper, blue cheese and pineapple. The vast majority of the teachers and instructors were themselves educated in food assembly in the same school, or the Agricultural University. And their teachers and mentors were taught during the Soviet occupation. These people are taught to use ketchup on pasta, just like Estonian driving schools teach their students to back into parking spaces.

“You’ve lost that loving feeling, oh that loving feeling. You’ve lost that loving feeling, now it’s gone, gone, gone…”

Monday, September 26, 2011

WuPa Meals

A Finnish man who was being transferred to America decided to hire an architect to build him a new house. He asked that a sauna be built in the basement and gave specific instructions on how this was to be done. When he and his family arrived, the architect gave them a personal tour of their new home. It was a beautiful house, and he took particular pride in leading them to the basement, opening the door to the sauna. And what a beautiful sauna it was! The Finnish man, however, was a bit shocked to see wall-to-wall carpeting on the floor.

On Küüni Street in Tartu, among the myriad of other fast food joints that have appeared in the past couple years, there is a new place called WuPa Meals that sells bratwurst. Bratwurst, you may ask? It’s a German sausage. Russians may read the word and think “brother sausage”. WuPa Meals, you may ask? Hip-hop fans might get excited about the Clan. The Wu-Tang Clan.

Mrs. Mingus told me about the sign outside that advertised “German sausage”, fully knowing that I would be there within a few minutes. When I arrived, I just couldn’t believe my eyes. It was true. You can now buy “brats” in Estonia. Why am I so excited about brats?

Where I’m from, brats are a regional specialty. They are as common on the grill as “šašlõkk” in Estonia, and like šašlõkk in Estonia, brats are an imported concept, like racism. We typically boil them in beer, then throw them on the grill. You can buy them at bars, ball games, fairs and festivals. Fat men stand in the backyard sprinkling water on the coals to put out the fat flames dripping from the meat. Brats are served in a large hotdog bun with ketchup, mustard and sauerkraut. Estonians should be familiar with all three of these condiments.

Mine was served in a most peculiar manner. I was reminded of the Finnish man’s sauna. The brat was on the plate, next to the bun, which had been sliced in the wrong direction, ketchup and mustard on the side. This was the first time I’d ever eaten a brat with a fork and knife. Cut off a piece of meat, dip it in mustard, dip it in ketchup, make an awkward movement of putting the fork in your mouth while simultaneously biting off a chunk of sliced bread. But at least it wasn’t a standard hotdog bun. Freshly-baked mini-baguette.

But it was good. I grew up eating brats, and I can honestly say this WuPa brat was decent. Is it imported? Local? No clue. My only suggestion for the owners is that they serve it like a hotdog, and consider making sauerkraut available. Stick a grill outside too, serve them to go. They’ll make a killing! Less than two euros. This is a great, wonderful alternative to the mystery meat burgers that run rampant through the streets of Tartu.

Everything is cooked as it’s ordered. That said, ask Krista the waitress to serve the brat in the bun in the proper manner. If you order fries, ask her not to put potato seasoning on it, or salt. That was simply overpowering. Here’s an idea: when I make fries at home (not very often), I bake them, put them in a paper bag, sprinkle in some garlic salt, paprika and chili powder, close the bag and shake the hell out of it. Chili fries rock.

In WuPa Meals you can also get baguette sandwiches. Not sure where they get the baguettes from, as I didn’t smell anything resembling a bakery when I was there, but these baguettes are free of burned cheese on top and they are relatively free of spelling errors as well. Most places that have any sort of baguette describe them as “baquettid”, “bägett”, “paakueetid” or even “pägot”. That last one is a tad offensive. WuPa is the one place in Tartu that appears to have cared enough about their business to put their menu through a simple brat-damned spell-check before printing it out.

Afterwards, I went to the shop to buy some gum. As I walked through the security gate at the entrance and turned to go straight to the only register open, a rather tall man, studenty-looking, rushed in front of me with his basket and then snail-walked, not letting me pass. We got in line. One item at a time, he slowly emptied the contents of his basket onto the conveyor belt. Sour cream, bread, a kohuke, doctor sausage, a Red Bull. One…at…a…time… Krista the cashier gave him an exasperated look. Then it came time to pay.

He pulled out his wallet, which I could see was completely empty save one card. He flipped through his wallet so slowly that even time got bored and started going in the opposite direction. He put his wallet back in his pocket. It was now three minutes earlier than when I entered the shop. He searched his pockets, turning them inside out. Now it was yesterday. He opened his wallet again, located the single card and put it in the payment terminal. He entered his code over the course of the last decade and then it was my turn.

Even though time was moving in reverse, Krista had somehow become an elderly woman. I wanted the man to move so I could pay before she retired. As I was handing her the pack of gum, the man interrupted and asked for a bag. Krista mumbled her dying words, “Ten cents”, then collapsed into a pile of dust. The man pulled out his wallet again and began the whole routine once more. I put exact change on the counter and started walking away. The man grabbed my sleeve and asked, “Can I have ten cents? I can’t find my card.”

I walked outside and almost got trampled by a horse. The rider shouted at me in German, eating a bratwurst. It was the day before the Second World War. I walked to the Estonian border and changed the direction of the arrow on the road sign that would tell the advancing Nazi and Soviet armies how to get to Estonia.

Seventy years later, when time caught up, Estonia had been spared the war, the occupation, the now-defunct political ideologies and massacres and deportations and decades of forced ketchup-consumption. Estonia had been free to develop in its natural manner. It was richer than Norway, the roads smoother than Sweden, the trains more modern than Denmark, there was not a single shaved guy in construction pants standing outside his old BMW drinking a Red Bull complaining about gay people. The man from the shop was walking ever so slowly down the street with a bag full of vegetables. I walked into a new restaurant that had just opened called WuPa and ordered a brat. It was served with chili fries and sauerkraut. Krista the waitress was smiling. A Finnish man moved to America and his sauna was still carpeted, however.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Mrs. Mingus and I had a craving for muffins. I’d recently made beer muffins with graham flour. Delicious. We wanted to see how they compared to Võru’s finest muffins, so we drove to Kohvik Muffin, on Freedom Street. In a beautifully restored house, the first thing you notice upon entering is a cake stand. No muffins. The bar is covered in a selection of homemade pastries. No muffins.

“Do you have muffins?” I asked the waitress, Krista.
“No, never? Or you’re just out at the moment?”
—We’ve had them a couple times. Why? she asked.
“Because your place is called Muffin.”
—Right, but we’re not named after muffins.

She said this in a tone that suggested, “You should magically know this.” Magic muffins. Now that would be a great gimmick for a bad restaurant. Pass them out to all customers before their food arrives, and people will enjoy their meals! They’ll get the munchies, too, and order more food. Great idea especially if you serve cakes, like Café Muffin.

The menu shows breakfast is served all day. They also have a section titled “Steaks”. These aren’t your typical steaks, however. They have cheese schnitzel steak, chicken steak, trout steak and pasta steak.

“What kind of steaks do you have?” I asked.
—We don’t have steak here, she replied matter-of-factly. I should have magically known. I could really go for a magic muffin.
“Because your menu has steak, but there’s no steak.”
—We have pizza.
“Oh.” I looked at the four pizzas on the menu. Chicken, something else, something else, and minced meat. “What kind of meat is it?” I enquired about the last one.
—Minced meat.
“Right, but what kind?”
—Minced meat. She looked at me like I was stoned.
“Beef, pork, mixed, chicken, turkey…?”

Naturally. Minced pork is an internationally favorite topping for pizza. I asked more about the pizza. Krista assured me everything was made from scratch in the kitchen, including the crust, and that their pizzas were huge, for at least two people. I was intrigued. I ordered the chicken pizza.

Mrs. Mingus ordered the daily special. Chicken and potatoes. In my mind, I ate several magic muffins. This made me hungry enough to eat a two-person pizza, and I would enjoy anything they served me. Mrs. Mingus’s food came first. It was amazing! I was completely in love with the wise selection of Santa Maria seasonings. The potatoes had potato seasoning, the chicken had poultry seasoning. The peas and green beans mixed in were fresh from a Bonduel can.

Ten minutes later my pizza was served. “Enjoy!” Krista said.
—Thank you.
“Would you like some ketchup and mustard as well?” I looked at her. Yes, she was talking to me.
“Ketchup and mustard? For your pizza?” The poor girl was just being polite and trying to do her job well. And she was.
—No, but thank you. I nearly gave myself a bloody lip I was biting down so hard in an effort not to laugh.

Smothered in athlete’s cheese, my pizza was perfect food for the munchies. I was jealous I hadn’t ordered the daily special, but luckily the pizza had the exact same chicken on it. Pizza Santa Maria, it should be called. Or maybe Pizza Santa Maria di Heinz, or di Felix, to describe the sauce as well. When you’re as stoned as I wanted to be at that moment, ketchup on pizza is exactly what you want. With mustard.

Luckily my kids ate the pizza. They finished it in a couple minutes, wasn’t so big after all. And as I had had so many magic muffins, I was still hungry. “Let him eat cake,” Little Mingus told her mother. We each got a slice, and I ordered one of the homemade pastries, a maple syrup thing topped in sliced almonds. I have to say this was delicious, regardless of how stoned I thought I was.

The cake and pies were lime, orange and jam. The jam couldn’t be identified, but it was red. Strawberry? Raspberry? Don’t know. Wasn’t too impressed. The orange pie tasted very good for the first couple bites, but it left an aftertaste that stayed with me for a few hours. Orange-flavored burps. Not very pleasant. The lime pie was very good. I make a lemon pie, and this was very similar. However, I could clearly recognize the green colored sugar available in any shop. That specific shade. Real lime should be more than enough to color it green. Was anything here in Muffin actually made from scratch, and not assembled from pre-processed food additives?

A good friend of mine has also eaten here. To quote him, “Muffin’s warm food blew chunks.” My response: “You just have to be stoned to enjoy it.” This place was packed, after all. It filled up right after we arrived. There was a constant line at the counter to order. They all magically knew all about the steaks on the menu. They were regulars, they liked their ketchup, and they wanted more. Each table had three or four adults sitting in complete silence, patiently waiting the twenty minutes for their meals to be assembled in the factory kitchen. They had all eaten their magic muffins before sitting down and staring at the table.