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…”