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.


Neiu M said...

I have lived in Tartu basically all my life...and it´s not so bad. The Town Hall Square places are really really bad, that´s true. But for example La Dolce Vita, Gruusia Saatkond and okay, even Noir, these places are quite good. In La Dolce Vita the portions are large and the food is always tasty and delicious - simple Italian food. But yes, about the Town Hall Square places, well.... let just say that I would like to forget some of the food experiences that I´ve had there.

Mingus said...

Yeah I agree with you, there are some cool places to eat in Tartu. The opening paragraph, however, seems to be a somewhat common opinion. Not mine, but common nonetheless.

Guillaume said...

You're much too categorical about zucchini never going wrong. In the early days of our operation, to my mortification one that had been stored in the refrigerateur for a few days worked its way into a batch of sauteed courgette that was going out to a table of very distinguished diners. It is only to be hoped that the bitterness of the gourd was soon trumped by the gall over the election result in that year.

Proprietor and Head Chef, Le Vieux Nizzicuille, Põlva County

Pene said...

If you only go to these places for dessert & coffee, you still have to wait to get served, but you don't have to wait an hour for your order.

Happy anniversary!

Meeri said...

People go to those restaurants because of its prime location. It's The Town Hall Square! I mean, ironical or not, but that's where people have always gathered right? It's the ideal spot to sit, people-watch, enjoy a nice afternoon or warm evening with your fellow townies.People tolerate the bad (more like horrible though) service and bland meals for that.
In a way it's better than the town hall square in Tallinn, crowded with tourists and over-priced pretentious restaurants.

Justin F said...

I always liked Kapriis. I spent many an afternoon there having a late lunch back when I was in Tartu. I think it's under-rated among the choices in the square.

While I agree with you about the somewhat mediocre choices in Tartu's square, compared to Tallinn it's miles ahead. Basically no locals in Tallinn go to the cafes in Raekoja Plats because they are overpriced and low quality. At least in Tartu, there are plenty of locals and at least the prices aren't too bad.

Juc said...

I´ve lived in Tartu almost all my life, except for the last few years, when I´ve been travelling and a lot. In the beginning of this summer I went back to Tartu for a holidays and started my foodblog entry with similar words like you have here - generally I do not consider Tartu to be a place where one can eat out very well (or something like that). Truffe used to be my favourite place in Tartu for years and I thought that Truffe food is as good as you can get in Tartu. But I was wrong, I found out, when I had dinner one evening in Vilde. Have you been there? I´m sure you´d like it. I actually like Dolce Vita also... and that´s about it, I think, for Tartu! :)

Mingus said...

The Vilde review is at this link. I should probably update it in the near future. They have a "health café" downstairs now.