Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pizza Grande

“I’m starving!” Mrs. Mingus flatly stated at eleven at night in Tallinn after a concert we’d recently attended.
—Where do you want to eat? I asked.
“Where can we?” came the reply. We weren’t too familiar with the after-hours food scene in the Old Town area of Estonia’s capital, so we asked our friends—foreigners who were long-term residents of the area and locals alike. Apart from the couple of kiosks that served mystery meat burgers soaked in a ketchup-and-mayonnaise potion, the unanimous answer was: Taco Express.

Tex-Mex food in Estonia? Is it authentic? Keep in mind that “Tex-Mex” is the term used to loosely describe Americanized Mexican food. No, this place was not authentic. We’d eaten at Taco Express before. This was hardly standard fare Tex-Mex. More like “Est-Mex”. Everything was straight from a jar and smothered in the ill-named “Athlete Cheese”—the cheap Estonian equivalent of North America’s fabled spray cheese for crackers. Taco shells served soggy. Nachos accompanied by sour cream and not salsa. Did we have a choice?

We waited for Krista the cashier to approach the register, and then placed our orders. Just before paying, she volunteered the most unusual information: “It will take at least half an hour before your food is served.” The restaurant was empty. We cancelled our orders and left. We were tired.

To be honest, I’m surprised at the lack of food available late at night in the capital of an entire country. Especially a capital that is representing all of Europe as its “Capital of Culture”. Like I said, there are those mystery meat burgers from Tall Egg that are assembled and sold everywhere…but is that how Estonia wants to be remembered by legions of visiting looters from the British Isles? Even Tartu has ample food in the late hours. And on top of that, Illegaard has arguably the best burgers in the country now, orderable until two. There’s even a Tex-Mex burger. At only two and a half euros. Whole-beef patties imported from Ireland.

Our host assured us he had snacks at his home. But our host was a notorious bachelor, and a Texan on top of that. We shared a package of flour tortillas. Just the tortillas. At least we weren’t hungry, and we did get some semblance of Tex-Mex. Ah, to be a gringo.

On the way out of town late the next morning, I decided that I couldn’t wait for the food on the train, that I wanted a quick, cheap, tasty and filling meal. I knew just the place: Pizza Grande, on Väike-Karja Street. According to the name, it was Tex-Mex!

Now, I am very familiar with this place. Over the past five or so years, I have taken at least ten visiting friends and family members to eat here. All are satisfied. “I didn’t expect pizza like this in Eastern Europe!” and “Good crust!” are common responses to the standard in-meal question most commonly asked by polite hosts: “So?”

This place is cool because it is literally located in a hole in a wall. Word on the street is it’s popular with the Russians, but when you’re sitting inside you wouldn’t know, because no one is talking. They’re all busy eating. After walking through a tiny, cozy courtyard, you descend the steps to the bar, where you order. A small is large enough for a hungry man, and a large is enough for three men with small appetites. That is, if you can all agree on what to order.

The selection is broad, and you can substitute ingredients at your whim. But do not dare bring your own drink into this establishment. Otherwise you are liable to be fined, or worse—your drink could be confiscated! Wait a minute, fined? Who’s going to fine you? Get caught drinking something you brought and I can fully understand having your drink being taken, being asked to leave or—most humanely—being asked to pay for a drink, but a ticket? That sounds horribly Danish.
“You must pay penalty. No own drink here.”
—Um, yeah, sorry about that. How about I just put it away and order a new one from the bar?
“No, you must pay fifty euro for break rule.”
—Come on, man. Be reasonable. I walked in with a bottle of water. It’s hot outside.
“No hot in Estonia. Pay fine or no pizza for you.”
—Sounds good to me. I’m going to Taco Express!

I can’t remember what I ordered, but it was a somewhat spicy pizza, with slices of jalapeños on it. Mrs. Mingus ordered a creation with pesto and chanterelles. Her pizza was interesting. Somewhat in the bad sense of the word. Chanterelles just didn’t fit with the whole concept of “pizza”. But that’s personal preference, and I was still very satisfied—as always—with my pizza.

The condiments are interesting. Apart from salt, basil and oregano, there was also soy sauce (soy sauce is always popular on pizza, right?) and not just ketchup, but a selection of ketchup—normal, and spicy. That is one thing America should learn from Eastern European pizza. Ketchup is a sorely missed ingredient in Chicago pizzerias.


Yet I do highly recommend this place. I don’t crave it, like I would crave a deep-dish calorie bomb in the States. But the premises are nice, and you can even have it delivered. Apparently there’s a pizza delivery service for any pizzeria in the city. What a great idea for business-owners. Instead of paying for your own fleet of acne-crusted moped-drivers without a license, there’s just one service for everyone. You call, order from anywhere you like, and they deliver. I assume it’s that simple. I don’t live in Tallinn and so haven’t tried it. I wonder if you can pay by card on your front doorstep.

That would just be too bad to be true, on second thought. Accessibility of junk food is a true hallmark of a modern, Western society. Instead of the old-fashioned method of hunting for hours for food under the drunken influence of Suka—I mean Saku—you just touch a piece of plastic a few times, wait a short while, pay by plastic for a plastic bag full of cardboard boxes, and inhale until you have to loosen your plastic belt. Now here’s a novel, modern, Western idea! A fresh salad delivery service! Visitors would definitely remember that one.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ülikooli Kohvik

During my university days, I had the privilege of studying at no fewer than four schools in as many countries. Each had an official cafeteria for students, with the exception of one—the University of Tartu. And when I say “official”, I mean a whole network of places for students to dine in, at subsidized prices. You can buy meal tickets, vouchers, holes punched in a tram-style passcard—or in the case of my alma mater, the student card was used as a debit card.

These places were pretty good, too. Obviously my American school had separate pizzerias and burger joints, in addition to the standard cafeteria-tray fare of wholemade dinners dished out by angry lunchladies who somehow got promoted from the local elementary schools. Hairnets and nametags. A sixty-something woman named Olga (yes, we even have Olgas in the States) with an ample collection of facial warts that, both theoretically and hopefully, should not testify to the quality of the food served.

But what about the Ülikooli Kohvik, or University Café? Isn’t that the flagship restaurant of a university that has survived more wars than an Estonian octogenarian? No. It occupies university-owned premises, yes, but it is a private operator. Not to fret—the lunch specials in the café part are more than decent. Yet before I get to that, I should state that the “studenty” part, downstairs on the first floor, was being remodeled when I went for this review.

In the late nineties, when I arrived in Tartu, I kind of think I remember this place serving food. Mostly pastries, if memory serves correctly. You could buy coffee as well, but if you wanted sugar or milk, you had to pay an extra five senti or so. Per spoon. They would watch.

Then the whole building was completely gutted and refit. In all honesty, the entire complex is the most attractive and inviting eatery in all of Tartu. Despite still having to pay extra for sugar. That didn’t last long though. These vestiges of Soviet mentality are disappearing. You still have to pay for ketchup at local franchises of international fast food chains (but not in Finland!), but hopefully the condiment police will soon focus on more pressing issues in Tartu’s restaurants, like keeping food stocked (I have heard of three occasions in the past month where City Burger—guess what they serve—has been out of burgers).

Now suddenly I remember why I haven’t been to this place for years. It’s just a funny story now, as I’m sure nothing like this would ever happen in Tartu in this modern age of WiFi and instantly-available restaurant reviews. When Mrs. Mingus was expecting our first child years ago, we tried out the new Ülikooli Kohvik. She had a craving for herring, sour cream and onion on dark bread—an Estonian classic. Easy to prepare, quick. She waited for forty-five minutes.

When it was finally served by Kristiina the waitress—before she moved to Brussels—there was a tremendously long, bright orange hair smothered in the sour cream.
“Excuse me,” my wife said. “There’s a hair in my food.”
—It’s not mine, Kristiina replied.
“It’s not?”
—Of course not.
“But it’s orange.”
“I don’t have orange hair.”
—Perhaps it’s your husband’s?
“He doesn’t have long, orange hair, either.”
—What do you want me to do?

It was clear that an apology would not be given.

“Could you bring a new sandwich?”
—Yes, but you will have to wait.
“How long?”
—Probably the same. Or you could just pull the hair out.
At this point, I interrupted. “Just bring the bill for the coffee. We’re not paying for this.”
—But she took a bite.
“Well, not exactly. She tried, but as you can see, the bite is still on the fork, intertwined with your hair.”
—That’s not my hair.
We paid for the coffee and left to find a bald waitress in another café.

Years later, Mrs. Mingus and I took the Little Minguses to the playground and then for lunch in the Ülikooli Kohvik. A beautiful warm, sunny day, hints of autumn wafting over the newly cobblestoned city streets. The second-floor terrace is a mystery to me: why isn’t this the main bar of the university? It’s amazing. It’s underused. It’s populated by lost tourists with gray hair and scarf-wielding university professors who forgot they were on sabbatical.

As I made my way from room to room to photograph the simply splendid interiors, I was nervously followed by our waitress—Krista—who was afraid I might try to take the leftovers on the tables from some conference that had supposedly ended that day. Or the day before. I assured her I was just an avid customer, not a crumb thief.

If you buy the favorably-priced daily specials for just over three euros, the café is generous enough to give you a glass of water. On the house. In most countries, as far as I know, it’s actually illegal to charge for tap water.

On this particular day we were served roast beef. It was delectably tender. The kids bragged of how they could eat without using a knife, unlike grown-ups, who needed knives for soup even (kid logic). They simply broke the meat with their forks. The accompaniments, however, were savagely average. Surely the great chefs and cooks and food-assemblers of Tartu’s vast array of restaurants can come up with something better than meat doused in sauce next to boiled and skinned potatoes and Chinese cabbage salad with shredded carrots and chunks of beet. J’aime bien manger de beet.

Sadly there is often little diversity in Tartu, on many levels. But is diversity actually a good thing? The jury seems to be out on that one. Several people’s concepts of diversity would definitely contradict with those of Merkel or Sarkozy. Or maybe now even Cameron. Or maybe not. Personally, I think diversity enriches.

We did, however, enjoy the atmosphere so much that we went back again the next day, this time just for coffee. Mrs. Mingus had a latte that was simply too sweet for her to finish. My inner Yankee, luckily, has an awe-inspiring tolerance for glucose.

On the way out, I noticed something I’d never seen before—a shop for university memorabilia. How in the world they translated the Estonian on the sign, “University of Tartu memorabilia on sale”, to “University of Tartu souvenirs available at [the] office of the Student Council” baffles me. But it’s there. You can get mugs, pins, maybe a shirt, postcards and such. The website needs to be updated though, as Estonian URLs are now diacritically-friendly. Instead of, it can be tüü I guess could even now be tü.ee. The wisdom of enforcing that would obviously be questionable, however, as exchange students from the university’s fine partner schools in the States (for example University of North Carolina satellite schools) might have trouble accessing the server with a standard English keyboard.

Monday, August 1, 2011


“There are tons of great places to eat in Tallinn. They have so much variety there. The food’s good, you get a large portion, and it’s not really that expensive. It’s nothing compared to London, or Paris, or even Stockholm of course, but it’s not bad. Tartu, on the other hand, doesn’t have a single good place to eat. Probably because of the students. They’ll eat anything.”

This was said during a conversation I recently had with an Estonian friend who had grown up in Võru and now lived in Tallinn for six months. His job requires him to visit Tartu twice a month, often overnight. And like most “Generation Next” Estonians, he somehow managed to travel to the four corners of our spherical planet. He has an extensive planking collection in a Facebook photo album from five continents. And of course, Australia is one of them.

“What do you cook at home?” I then asked him.
—Nothing special, he replied. You know, the usual.
“No, tell me,” I pushed. “Are you that guy at the shop who buys a bag of kefir, a half loaf of black bread, a tube of bologna and a ‘kohuke’ every evening?”
—No, he grinned. Not anymore. I’m the guy who buys grilled chicken and boiled potatoes from the hot deli at the shop. I got a raise three months ago.
“And could you afford to eat better?”
—Yes, of course. But I would have to get a cheaper car. I love my car.

I knew I couldn’t trust his opinions on food any further than his travels had broadened his culinary horizons. How could you critique Parisian cuisine if “Parisian-style” boiled potatoes from Rimi could satisfy you on a daily basis?

But enough of that. Let’s get to the first review since last year. And why so long, some might ask? I don’t know. To quote my older child, who’s not very old: “Words! I ran out of words!”

Mrs. Mingus and I recently celebrated another anniversary. We decided to eat on Tartu’s Town Hall Square and people-watch. What are the choices? Taverna, Truffe, Pierre, Sõprade Juures, Suudlevad Tudengid, that other place that has changed names every other year for a decade, and Kapriis. We chose Kapriis. It’s the only restaurant on the Soviet-built side of the Square.

The interior is a tiny bit tacky, with unidentifiable hanging objects scattered about the ceiling. But for the size of the place, it can pack a lot of people in there. In a cozy way. They don’t have the normal circular or square tables taking up three times as much space as they should, like in most other eateries in Tartu. In Kapriis, the walls are lined with comfortable, soft benches, with long tables in between individual chairs. A few circular or square tables fill up the middle of the dining area for those who want to watch television while they eat with friends.

The menu is not robust, but the flavors of the sauces are. Being a beef man myself, I ordered the most expensive item on the menu: beef tenderloin in red wine sauce. Eight euros. Wow. The last time I wrote a review I was quoting prices in kroons. Where can you get an eight-euro steak in Europe? It wasn’t amazing, of course. It’s on Town Hall Square. Nothing on Town Hall Square is amazing. But I get ahead of myself.

My steak was rare. Better flavor that way. Yet for some reason I couldn’t really enjoy the taste of the beef. Maybe that’s because I couldn’t taste it. The red wine sauce, while good, was simply overpowering. Mrs. Mingus ordered the less expensive beef filet. It was wiry, tough, but it had some sort of garlic sauce. A thick, flour-based sauce. Bad for the arteries, and it couldn’t do anything to save that slice of cow, but it did compliment the boiled potatoes that covered most of our plates very well. I ate my steak and her potatoes.

The vegetable side, however, was good. I thoroughly enjoyed all four bites. You can’t go wrong with stir-fried zucchini. Never. It’s always a sure win. Euro for euro, this is a good place to eat.

I couldn’t help but wonder, however, how the other restaurants on the Square kept their licenses, or stayed in business. Well, wait just a moment. Pierre and Taverna are acceptable. Taverna has decent pizzas (some of them) and Pierre generally offers a nice, cheap lunch buffet (puhvet in Estonian). Truffe is…it used to be good. Expensive, but good. I don’t know about nowadays as I don’t eat there any more. But I have a beef with two other restaurants that I think should be closed down for two reasons.

Restaurants on the Town Hall Square of a city the size of Tartu should be closely scrutinized by the city government. These establishments are, in effect, the flagship diners of an entire half of a country. It is unacceptable to be served cold crap by an angry waitress more than an hour after first sitting down. But tourists think that because it occupies the prime real estate in the city, these places would divvy up the best prime ribs the city has to offer. They walk away angry, and hungry, and realizing that their expectations of Eastern European food and service have just been justified.

I’m talking, of course, about Suudlevad Tudengid and Sõprade Juures (Kissing Students and At Friends’, respectively). They are the same restaurant, the same, massive restaurant with a tiny kitchen. That’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is they are two restaurants owned by the same person and both share one measly kitchen.

“Hi, I’d like to order this and that,” Mrs. Mingus and some friends and I ordered one summer afternoon.
—We don’t have this, and we’re out of that, Krista the waitress timidly replied.
“Oh. Um, can we get that and some of this then?” we asked.
—Yes. Are you hungry, though?
—Are you hungry?
“Yes,” we cautiously answered. None of us had ever been asked that at a restaurant. Images of being offered toilet paper for sale at the Tallinn bus station’s pay toilet years ago flashed into my head. “Why do you ask?”
—It will take at least an hour.
“Why? An hour? Are you serious?”
—Well, we only have one kitchen, and we are a large restaurant. You could even say we are two restaurants, and we share a small kitchen.
“There’s no way we could get food faster? What if we order something simple?”
—I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do.
“Yes, there is. You can cancel our order.”

That was the third time I’d unsuccessfully tried to eat there in a row. Even the newspapers continuously give these restaurants less-than-tolerant reviews. And if people can get this pissed off by boiled potatoes taking a long time to be served, how do these places stay open? Tourists alone can’t do it. What could the reason be? What could it be…?

People are tolerant of being screwed over. Not so much the Next Genners, at least not as much as their predecessors, who served in the Red Army twenty years ago. It’s funny the things people are tolerant of. Brown food is alright, but not brown people? OK I won’t go there right now. But it is ironic. To me. A little. Hee-hee.

And that is why I write restaurant reviews. Embarrass those who deserve it, praise those who merit it. The idea is to, what? Make myself look like an ass? I’m pretty good at that. It would be a waste to not use my talent. My only talent, to be fair. But I do have good intentions.