Tuesday, January 10, 2012


“Let’s go to that Greek restaurant for lunch today,” Mrs. Mingus suggested this past Saturday.
—Greek restaurant? In Tartu? I asked. Odd how they just now had Greek food in the self-proclaimed “Athens on the Emajõgi River”.
“No, it’s not in Tartu, it’s in Luunja,” she corrected me. Luunja is a small village a short drive from Tartu. In a few years, it will be a suburb. It’s locally famous for cucumbers. Cucumbers that cost three times as much as imported Spanish cucumbers. But I tell first-time visitors to Tartu that Luunja is actually famous for nukes, not cukes. The huge, industrial greenhouse there emits a powerful glow in the nighttime sky that is very visible from Tartu. The nuclear weapons that would be used for an attack on Western Europe, my story goes, were stored in Luunja, but there was an accident, and now the residents of Tartu have to leave for six months every five years to avoid radiation sickness. “Let’s go to Tallinn tomorrow,” visitors then reply, “immediately when we wake up.”

We loaded up the kids and set off in the direction of the imaginary radiation cloud. Several wrong turns later, trying to follow the directions to the Greek restaurant, we finally found it. “Closed today”, the taped-up printout on the front door read. I told Mrs. Mingus that the owners were probably going to be gone for half a year.

So we drove back to Tartu. “Where do they have a playground?” I asked.
—The new Ränduri restaurant in Tasku (the mall) has a nice one, Mrs. Mingus replied.
We walked through the sporting goods store to enter the restaurant over the bus station, the third such restaurant of a chain that started in Võru. Very cozy, very attractive interior, nice playground. Order from the bar. No one at the bar. Five-minute wait, still no one. “Where else is there an inside playground?” I asked.

Dedi Cafe (sic!) and Bistro is on the top floor of the other mall in downtown Tartu, Kaubamaja, which means Department Store, which is right across the street from Tasku, which means Pocket. I hadn’t been there for years. When the Little Minguses were still taking naps in their baby carriage, we would go to Dedi often for coffee. I remember ordering a crêpe once with some sort of Indian spice mix all over the ham-and-cheese filling. It tasted exactly like the Indian food available in almost every other Estonian restaurant. Palatable.

“Third time’s a charm,” I said as we sat down. Krista the waitress promptly brought us menus. They had a special page for holiday dishes. I ordered the spicy holiday beef wok. I like beef. The wife ordered a bowl of chicken pasta, and the kids shared a crêpe with ratatouille filling, a vegetarian dish. We ordered just a couple minutes later.

While we were waiting, we sent the kids to the play corner. They were back in an instant. “There is a violent man on the television,” Little Mingus explained. I looked and saw a man running with a bloody ax on the screen in the play corner.
—Just sit here with us, I told the kids.
“Now I’m going to have a nightmare,” she complained. “Like with Darth Vader.” I had a hard time not laughing.

Twenty minutes later, I turned to see if our food was going to arrive soon. The chef was not even at his station. “I don’t get it,” Mrs. Mingus said. “Usually the food is really fast here.” Above the chef’s station was a chalkboard that advertised “minus fifty percent”, and nothing else. I assumed it meant half the staff was on vacation for half a year.

I browsed the menu again, and noticed that soft drinks were twenty percent more expensive than beer. But beer was cheap here. The atmosphere in Dedi is nice, in fact. Nice view, up on the third floor. I should point out, however, that we were in the restaurant section, not the buffet section. The buffet, if it hasn’t changed, was super expensive by the time you actually went to pay, as you had to buy everything individually. It really added up quickly, and frankly was sort of bland.

Mrs. Mingus said, “I need to buy a new wallet, and I know they have a sale downstairs. I’ll be back in just a minute.” Five minutes later she was back with a new wallet. Then the food was served. To be perfectly honest, I found my spicy beef wok to be absolutely boring. It was mildly spicy, yes, and it was perfectly crunchy, but there just wasn’t any taste. No soul to this food. It was even topped with dill. I didn't know people still cooked like that in restaurants. Dill and beef. Mrs. Mingus had to give her pasta to the kids, as they didn’t like their ratatouille crêpe. “It tastes like a rat made it,” Little Mingus joked in reference to the movie.

The ratatouille filling was indeed disgusting. Noxious, I would even say. It was like eating vegetables in acid sauce. It hadn’t gone bad, I knew exactly what the problem was. Canned tomatoes. They are very sour. Must add sugar and then boil for a long time. Some herbs and spices—flavor, to put it bluntly—would not hurt, either. “I don’t get it,” Mrs. Mingus said. “Usually the food is really good here.”

So rather than eating, Mrs. Mingus began to transfer the contents of her old wallet to the new one, and noticed that the zipper was broken. The part that you pull with your fingers was missing. She assured me she had inspected it before buying it. This had happened in the last ten minutes, but she could not find the little piece anywhere. She went to take it back to the shop.

“Mmm, this pasta is so good,” Little Mingus said. “It tastes just like butter.” Mrs. Mingus returned, rolling her eyes. “They wouldn’t give me my money back or exchange it,” she informed me. I hesitatingly asked why. “They’re going to send it off for an expert evaluation. Maybe I’ll get a new wallet or refund in thirty days.” The Estonian Consumer Protection law is anything but that.
—But you just bought it. Clearly it’s defective, I insisted.
“They said there’s no proof of that, and that I might have broken it on the escalator.” It was at that moment that I decided not to send back the ratatouille crap. I mean crêpe. It would do no good.

Mrs. Mingus, who was a regular in this fine dining establishment, noticed that today, the chef was a man. “Usually it’s a woman,” she pointed out. “She knows how to cook.”

We got up to leave, and I walked to the bar to pay, waiting for the woman in front of me to finish. When she did, I stepped up, card and receipt in hand, and Krista the waitress just walked away to wipe off dirty tables and remove completely empty plates of food. For dinner that night I made vegetarian tacos with beef. Mmm…yummy.


Anonymous said...

Ahh yes, Estonian customer service, where they assume every customer is trying to cheat them.

It probably cost them more the have the wallet inspected than to just give you a new one.

Helena said...

You should return the wallet.

I bought a handbag from Esprit (at Tasku) a couple of weeks ago. 2 days later, the bag basically fell off my shoulder as the strap got "disconnected" from the bag.

I also thought "oh crap" but decided to return to the store. The manager wasn't there, so they took my number. The next day the manager called and asked me to come by to get my money back.

I was pleasantly surprised. No hassle, no accusations... nobody tried to tell me it was my fault. Because it wouldn't have made sense to claim that I deliberately tried to rip off the strap from a bag that cost 55 euros.

Of course, I won't buy any handbags from Esprit but I can recommend the service.

And the sad part is that I haven't found a comparable bag :(