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 tyye.ee, it can be tüüe.ee. I guess ut.ee 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.


Anonymous said...

Is UT really paired with UNC? Weird...

vulturesign said...

BTW an excellent UT-themed red wine "Ülikooli punane", (actually a Central Valley, Merlot from Chile with a picture of UT of the label) is available at the University Cafe.