Monday, October 8, 2012

Fontaine Delisnack

There have been a lot of recent studies of late. One suggests that redundancy is increasingly becoming a growing problem in literature. Another study, carried out by Italian researchers, reveals that male genitalia are shrinking every year. A similar French study reveals that Italian researchers only study themselves. And furthermore, the crazy, whacko views of misinformed people who are mistaken about something only tend to be reinforced when presented with facts that refute their insane, nutty opinions.

This would help to explain the evangelization of my home country despite the discovery of the Higgs boson. “But there’s a reason it’s called the God Particle”, they counter. The star of “Real Time with Bill Maher”Bill Maherwould likely refer to it as the "Willy boson" (“Willy” and “Bill” are both short for “William”).

This would also help to explain why Estonians are increasingly beginning to firmly suspect that all Latvians have six toes. This is a stereotype whose origins I was too lazy to research, but regardless of Latvians’ supposed polydactylous tendencies, I can assure you that on my recent trip to Riga, the shoes on sale looked normal. I did, however, see a street vendor pedaling frozen ice cream (“saldējums” in Latvian, if you’re not Estonian and so didn’t know that). He was wearing sandals and only had four toes on each foot. But his toes, like all Latvians, were super long, so total toeage was still equal. I’m trying to create a new stereotype, you see. And all Latvians have a Pioneer sound system in their cars. That’s also a stereotype.

Mrs. Mingus and I were meandering down Teātra iela (Theater Street) in Riga when we happened upon a place called Fontaine Delisnack. Their Facebook page calls it “Fontaine Deli Snack” and describes it as “slow fast food”. Interesting information available under Basic Info on this page: their food styles are breakfast, burgers, Chinese and delis. What’s your favorite food style? Breakfast and delis. Their specialties are—breakfast, lunch, coffee and drinks. Their services are “good for kids”. That’s a bit dodgy, to be honest.

But being a self-described burgermeister, I had to try their…burger. I watched the chef preparing a burger for another customer. He opened an individually packaged package of ground beef made of bovine flesh (I’m still feeling redundant) and proceeded to cook it. This is much better than the usual hamburger patties that are purchased by the restaurant frozen and already shaped. This burger was shaped by hand. I took a picture of him holding and preparing it, but as most Latvians do not appear when photographed, I am not including the image in this post, as floating beef might frighten my younger readers.

I did have to ask if fries were included. They were not, so now you know, too. But Fontaine’s slow fast food wasn’t actually that slow. Within just a few minutes our burgers were served. In a paper pouch. I wanted to ask Kristīna, the waitress, for a plate, but as most Latvian waitresses do not appear when called, I had to go to the bar and ask. “You need a plate?” she asked in reply to my question.
—Yes, please. Two, in fact.
—There are two of us.
“No, I mean why do you need a plate?”
I did not know how to respond to this question. I contemplated telling her that I was Estonian and so did not know how to eat from paper, but I ended up just telling her that I would just feel more comfortable with a plate. She did not sigh, however, and complied with my request.

The fries were a bit crunchy, smothered in Santa Maria’s pan-Baltic requirement for post-Soviet-hood—the potato seasoning—but they were served in a disposable cardboard box, American-style (well, that is, when you eat at slow fast food establishments in the US). The burger itself was actually fairly tasty. It was cooked perfectly, as was the bacon. Nice and juicy. The bun was a bit crunchy though. I think the bun chef and the French fry chef were the same, but they were working behind a mirror so I couldn’t see them (the man in the photograph of the bar is not Latvian).

On the way back to Estonia, we stopped at a gas station. This place was pretty cool, in my opinion. Boardwalks with gazebos among tall pines, a pond, an air pump, and the new Latvian prototype of the 4-D camera. I found a map of the premises. Interesting words. Oddly enough, parked right next to it was a dairy tanker, transporting milk, with the Latvian word for milk printed in huge letters on an image of a bag of milk on the side (“piens”). So when you’re in Latvia, you can buy a big old bag of piens if you want.

Not to sound unfairly disrespectful of other peoples’ languages, I would also like to point out that there is a man in Estonia named Tiit Annus. He hasn’t consumed Latvian milk now for twelve months but he also doesn’t speak English either, because if he did, he would probably be rather annoyed with his parents.

On a more serious note, I’ve always heard there is a bit of enmity between the Estonians and the Latvians, mostly because of what became of “Baltic solidarity” after independence was restored. This is just hearsay, mind you, not based on fact (even if I heard a fact though, I would ignore it because I’m American). The Baltic States were united in their drive for freedom from the Soviet Union. Once they succeeded, Estonia grabbed on to Finland and Scandinavia as tightly as they could, and somewhat ignored Latvia and Lithuania. Which is understandable of course, given the situation.

Estonia’s economic recovery has been much stronger, for example, resulting in their switch to the euro, while Latvia did not qualify. A recent study carried out by Estonian researchers reveals evidence to support this. Another recent study carried out by Latvian researchers reveals that Estonian researchers only study the same four or five people (see the quotations starting on p. 80). And yet another recent study by me reveals that if you publish anything, you should probably run a spell check befroe publishing it.

Yet despite international stereotypes, I just hadn’t met that many Latvians in all my years in Estonia. I didn’t have an opinion of them. I do now. The twenty or thirty Latvians I actually got to know during my trip all had one thing in common: they were very enthusiastic. It was very easy to converse with them. They are eager to laugh. They are fun. Regardless of whether they have an extra toe or not, they do seem to have a sixth sense for what you are going to say next, they all speak at least two tongues, and your average Latvian man doesn’t look down his noses at anyone.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


We spent the entire summer at our cabin one weekend. We went to Kuressaare twice, Pärnu three times, Tallinn eight times, Võru fifteen times, as well as stops in Põlva, Rakvere, Põltsamaa, Elva, Viljandi, Türi, Haapsalu and…Rapla. Rapla was an interesting place, surprisingly developed. What I mean is, Tartu is Estonia’s second city, so you'd think everything else in Estonia, Tallinn aside, is not going to be as nice in terms of infrastructure, right? Think again. But that’s not the point of this post.

The first time I was in Estonia I asked for something distinctively Estonian. I got kama served in kefir. Kama is a mix of different types of flour (barley, pea, and so on) that is mixed with various foods, mostly served today as a dessert. It kind of tastes like dirt, and if you like dirt, you’ll like kama. I never thought I would crave dirt for dessert, but I do. Dirt grows on you if you eat it enough.

So when Mrs. Mingus suggested lunch in a place called Kamahouse, in Tallinn at the corner of Kopli and Ristiku Streets, I didn’t expect much. “The burgers there are pretty good, I hear.” I imagined dirt mixed with pork and spicy ketchup for ten euros. It’s art.

But no, immediately upon entering it feels like a mix not of dirt and pork, but of Europa and Americana. The owner is an artist, as you can see by the use of red. The service was quick, friendly and polite, and each waitress wore a tag on her butt that read, “Hands Off!” Krista, our waitress, was kind enough to allow me to photograph hers. But only after she removed it and placed it on the table. I’m talking about the tag.

I have to say that the Kamahouse Burger was actually very good, especially at five euros. Served fast, with fries ordered separately. And this was the first place in Estonia (at least that I’ve seen) that offers a free refill on coffee. All too often restaurants are rigidly greedy and unbending in their thirst for money. One place in Tallinn charged me a whole euro for a glass of undrinkable, yellow tap water. I sent it back. “It smells like your toilet,” I complained. “You ordered it,” the waitress informed me. I still had to pay because she had already put it in the computer and couldn’t be bothered to delete it. The same place also charged me four euros for a Coke. These prices were not on the menu.

But not Kamahouse! Free refill on coffee, and other hidden goodies that Westerners take for granted in their own countries. Even the toilet offers you a choice, based on how badly you need to go. Coffee here (and remember, free refill!) costs one euro, according to the Bewerage Card. Lots of bewerages available here.

So as summer is over, I would like to compare some of my experiences from around the country.

Best burger: Sadhu in Kuressaare.

Worst burger: Pub Vaekoda in Kuressaare.

Most interesting justification for pricing: Ränduri Pubi in Võru. I eat and drink coffee here fairly often. Earlier this summer the coffee was substantially cheaper. Served in stone mugs, I just like it. I look forward to it. It’s still cheap, but it’s almost twice as expensive as it was a couple months ago. Here’s my conversation with Krista, the waitress, upon ordering:
“The coffee here used to be sixty eurocents.”
—No, no. It’s always been one euro.
“Always?” I asked.
—Yes, Krista replied.
“What was it two years ago?”
—Ten kroons.
“And how much is ten kroons in euros?”
—Um, about sixty eurocents.

Best sense of humor: the meat market in Tartu. I bought a carton of thirty organic eggs, got home, opened it up and found what is in this image. In English: “Please don’t eat us, we’re babies”.

Best overall dining experience: Meat Market Steak and Cocktail, in Tartu. The name says they just have one cocktail available, but that’s not true. A separate review of this place is coming soon, but I just have to say one thing about it here. We ordered a full meal. First was delicious bruschetta with bacon, and a board of food piled high. We were stuffed, and enjoyed our meal. But then Krista, our waitress, asked how we liked our steak. We hadn’t finished yet! The food was so good, and so much of it, that I wanted to “enjoy it in reverse”, if you know what I mean, just to feel human again in my stomach. Serious overeating involved in this restaurant. Soovitan! (The next image is from Meat Market, but the new Blogger software is very difficult to use.)

Worst overall dining experience: Citi Pubi, in Pärnu. At least, I believe that was the name. We sat down and decided to get one of the sandwiches from the menu. We had already ordered juice for the kids, so we couldn’t really leave. “Sorry, we’re out of sandwiches,” Krista the waitress informed us. I ordered soup instead. “Sorry, we’re out of soup.”
—What about this? I asked.
Krista frowned at me, saying nothing.
—What do you have then?
“We have sausages,” she eagerly replied. Despite the well-stocked nature of this place, the service was polite.
—Alright then, sausages for everyone!

Four plates of Estonian viinerid were served, three to a plate, surrounded by a mountain of fries literally dripping with potato seasoning, and a spoonful of shredded carrot. At that moment the large speaker behind my head came on, as it was time for the deejay to go to work. “Excuse me, could you turn that down? It’s right in my ear,” I kindly asked. I was told that it wouldn’t be fair to the other customers, who wanted to listen to Phil Collins.

Most interesting conversation with a taxi driver: Reval Takso, in Tallinn. I’ve been using this company for years. Cheaper than in Tartu, normally polite service, and fast. This time, however, was just funny. I stepped into the taxi early one morning, eager to get back to Tartu after a work meeting in Tallinn.
—Morning. Train station, please, I greeted Kristjan, the taxi driver.
“Seriously? I just came from there.”
—Sorry, but that’s where I need to go. (I already knew this was going to be fun.)
Kristjan sighed that heavy, Estonian sigh, then called it in over the radio. He said, “Get this: I just came from the train station with that foreigner. Now I’m going back. With another foreigner.”
—Um, you do realize I’ve been speaking to you in Estonian, right?
“Yeah,” Kristjan said. “But you don’t understand anyhow.”

Thursday, June 28, 2012


Everyone else seems to be going West these days, so we did, too. We took a week’s vacation in Kuressaare, in Saaremaa. That’s the main island off Estonia’s western coast. The last time I was there was also the first time I was ever in Estonia, so it was very good to revisit and re-evaluate some of my first impressions.

And my first impression of Estonia was—võileivad, or sandwiches. Except an Estonian sandwich is a half slice of bread with one of a million possible toppings, most of which contain fish, pâté, cheese or ham. To welcome me, the family I stayed with that first, fateful night laid out two full tables of sandwiches. I shied away from the fish and pâté, but that was also the first time I’d ever tried what I now consider my favorite Estonian food—garlic cheese on toast. 

Today, however, most traditional Estonian sandwiches have been replaced with various types of so-called “hamburgers”. Kiosks sell a large bun with a patty of mystery meat, shredded cabbage and carrot, and a ketchup and mayonnaise mixture that is dolloped on by the liter. But every once in a while…every once in a while…you get a delicious burger. But I’ll come to that in a moment.

The Mingus family arrived in the evening and we were hungry, and wanted to eat dinner in the sunshine. The only outdoor terrace (there are quite a few) that still had direct sunlight at that time was a place called Pub Vaekoda, on the main drag. I ordered the “Vaekoja Hamburger” with fries.

“What’s this burger like?” I asked Kristjan, the waiter.
—Um, it’s a patty in a bun.
“No, I mean what’s on it?” I specified.
—A patty? Kristjan seemed quite confused by my question.
“Is it a beef patty?”
“Pure beef, not anything else?”
“And what else? Tomato, onion, and so on?”
—Tomato, onion, and something else.

I could see I was getting nowhere, but this looked like a reputable establishment, so I took the plunge. For the kids, they wanted fish sticks. Kristjan said the plate was huge and that one portion would be enough for the Little Minguses. Mrs. Mingus ordered the burger as well.

A few short minutes later, the food was delivered. The kids’ plate was a mountain of over-salted fries, and three fish sticks. Not three each, but three total. Mrs. Mingus couldn’t eat more than three bites of her burger. The bun was rock-hard and the meat…I didn’t know what it was, but it was not beef. She left with the kids to go get something in the shop to eat in the hotel room.

When Kristjan returned, he asked how we liked it.
“Not very much, I’m afraid. You said this hamburger was pure beef. I know beef, and this is not beef.” He said he would go ask the chef, then returned a moment later.
—Yes, I’m sorry, it’s only fifty percent beef.
“What’s the other fifty percent?” I asked.
—The chef didn’t know.
“Where do you buy them from?”
—They’re made here in our kitchen, from locally raised and bought meat.

I didn’t want to know how they didn’t know what they were cooking in their own kitchen, so I just asked for the bill. Even though our dinner was only fifty percent food, Kristjan did give me a ten percent discount. Twenty euros for that.

The next evening, however, we ate at a placed called Sadhu. The “Sadhu Studio Mega Wild Boar Burger” intrigued me. It was the same price as that thing across the street from the night before. I was not expecting much. But I can say now that it is one of the top five hamburgers I have ever had in my life. I’ve never been a fan of wild boar, but this patty was simply succulent, so tender! Even the bun was delicious. The roasted potatoes were perfectly seasoned with fresh herbs, a wonderful mild, homemade salsa in place of ketchup, and a freshly fried egg (a lot of places will serve fried eggs that were actually fried hours—or days—before). I went back the next day and ordered it again. Still amazing.

The rest of the family was also more than satisfied with their dinners. But the kids were restless. They quickly tired of playing with the gigantic stuffed tiger from the sofa nearby. They can only play “Don’t Steal the Tiger’s Stripes” for so long, after all. I asked the very friendly waitress, Krista, if she had any entertainment for the kids. She brought back some paper placemats and a couple packs of crayons. Why she didn’t offer them immediately, I don’t know, but the Little Minguses were occupied for a whole hour, coloring in the pictures and playing the games on the printed placemats, and we ate and sat in peace. That’s a near-impossible feat when you eat out with the whole family.

I asked Krista where the restaurant had bought them, as it had an Estonian web address on it. Krista replied that they had just bought them an hour earlier, and the seller was still sitting in the other room. I went to go talk to her, because this was the first time I had ever seen anything like this in Estonia. Usually our kids were just bored in restaurants.

The seller, “Kristiina”, was more than willing to talk to me, and told me all about her experiences with dealing with loads of restaurants all over Estonia. I grinned with interest. “I have customers everywhere, but it’s hard to sell in Tartu. Tartu businesses just don’t want to make their customers happy, I guess.” That sounded very familiar. “We also offer customized placemats, too,” she continued. “A lot of hotels order those.”
On our way out the door, I asked Krista the waitress to give the chef my compliments. She smiled broadly and thanked me kindly. On the other occasions when I’ve done the same, in other restaurants of course, the waitress has actually frowned in confusion and simply replied, “Oh.”

The next day I took the Little Minguses to Kuressaare Castle, built in the fourteenth century. There’s a ton of educational stuff to see there, but if you go to the watchtower, I would advise against taking children. First you have to go through a dark, dingy corridor that shows what appears to be the dungeon. My older child asked, “Dad, what is this?”
—It’s the dungeon, I think.
“What’s that?”
—That’s where they put criminals.
“There are criminals here?” she asked in alarm.
—No, not anymore.
“I don’t like it here. I want to leave.”
At that moment, in the darkness and without warning, the sound of a lion roaring blasted from some unseen speaker. It was loud. My younger daughter started shrieking in panic, and the older one yelled at me, “Dad! Why did you bring us here?! You’re making my nerves get old too soon!”

We left without seeing the watchtower. But I began to wonder why they would have a lion roaring in the castle. Did they have a lion there? Was this one of the three lions that are on all the national insignia of Estonia? Did lions traditionally call the Estonian countryside home? Why not a lynx? Those exist here, and the President’s name is also “lynx” in Estonian (Ilves). Well, for better or for worse, I no longer have to read a nightly fairytale to my kids that takes place in a castle. Castles are too scary, now.

So a few brief bits about the rest of our vacation on the islands:
—Check out the Kaali meteorite craters, right off the main highway;
—Check out the Panga cliffs on the northern shore of Saaremaa;
—Check out the windmills in Angla;
—And whatever you do, do not attempt to eat on the ferry from the mainland to Muhu, as you literally will not have enough time to finish your food.

Overall a fun, fulfilling vacation. Soovitan!

Friday, May 4, 2012

An American Wedding

Recently I was lucky enough to be invited to an American wedding. After two flights of fourteen hours’ airtime, I found myself jet-lagged in Los Angeles, California. As if I needed to specify the state. But I spent a week there, and I can honestly say that I did not see a single stereotypically obese person. Not one. Most people were in fact in very good shape. Despite the fact that you have to drive for half an hour to get to a shop. I, however, went for daily walks, and a lot of people were staring at me as if I were from Europe.

This is an account of all my gastronomical experiences during that week.

First my friends and I went straight from the airport to a fast-food joint called In-n-Out Burger. Very good for the price, and if you know the secret password you can get all sorts of extra toppings (ask for your burger and fries “animal-style”). The cashier guffawed when I accidently asked for my fries doggie-style. Oops. Luckily I was saved by the Bible verse printed on the bottom of my cup of root beer.

Still on Estonian time, we began the bachelor party (which means we started the party at two in the morning my time). Picked up by a stretch-limo Hummer, this was the most ridiculous vehicle I have ever been in. But the three on-board bars helped pass the hour of driving time between stops. Basically, the whole party was taking a tour of local breweries. And there are many, many fantastic breweries.

First stop was the Noble Ale Works, in Anaheim. We sampled no fewer than eight pale ales and India pale ales. Average alcohol content about fifty percent more than an A.le Coq. Each of these recipes would no longer be available in a couple of months, as they are only brewed once. Constant innovation and experimentation. Each ale was a work of art.

Next stop the Playground, in Santa Ana. More amazing beers. All of it brewed on site. At this point I should mention that we were all wearing kilts. Not that it’s relevant, but nine guys wearing kilts consuming high-class beers was a bit different than nine guys in Tartu drinking Bock in Pirogovi Park dressed in denim.

I should also point out that these pints of joy cost about four euros each. That’s all. For another fifteen euros at a classy joint whose name I cannot remember (might be because of the Manhattans we consumed during the hour to the next stop), I ordered an amazing salmon dinner, in addition to the broad selection of appetizers. And yes, that salmon was delicious, but I am proud to say that Estonians can out-salmon Americans with their eyes closed. And soon after the salmon, my eyes were closed, too. My body just could not take the jet lag and booze. Luckily I had loads of room in the limo to stretch out and snooze.

The next day we ate a late lunch at some random restaurant in a marina in Long Beach. Very juicy beef patty, excellent Provolone and…ketchup. Yes, Americans eat ketchup, too. We just don’t use it for spaghetti sauce.

The day before the wedding was the rehearsal dinner. The Stone Brewing Company in Escondido, just north of San Diego. The food was succulent, and I don’t need to mention that the same applies to the beer, if you can use that adjective for beer. But the premises…the best layout I have ever seen. A gargantuan complex, large boulders everywhere (hence the name), and frogs. Once the sun set, conversation was difficult if you were outside due to the frogs. And they were real, as well. I was sure that because this was in the middle of a desert, and because it was America, it was just a sound effect. But I found no hidden speakers, and after my eyes adjusted to the low light in the park, I actually began to see the little amphibians jumping around.

The waitress, Christine, approached our table. What followed was a series of unanswered questions. “Hello, and how is everyone doing this evening?” Christine began.
—How are you? my friend asked.
“Would you like to order drinks?”
—A Stone Pale Ale, please, he said.
“Would you like to try our house special?”
—Where’s the toilet? I asked.
“Um, what?” Christine appeared visibly frightened, almost offended.
—Do you mean the “restroom”? my friend suggested.
“Okay, like, wow! The ‘restroom’ is…do you know where the downstairs bar is?”
—I can find it, thank you.

My friend reminded me that “toilet” was impolite in these United States. I responded with, “Oh, shit, you’re right!” The other people at the table looked at me like I lived in Europe. “So you live in Europe, right?” someone asked me. I said yes, that I lived in Estonia. They thought for a moment, then continued with, “So yeah, you live in Europe.”

On Saturday, we had the wedding itself. I believe that my favorite aspect of the ceremony and festivities—apart from the Southwestern décor, food, venue (the Bernardo Winery in Rancho Bernardo) and so on—was the company. The bride had three bridesmaids and a “bridesdude”. Two of the bridesmaids also brought their girlfriends. Homophobia, also known as “social immaturity”, just wasn’t an issue. Everyone enjoyed everyone’s company for one of the most joyful, memorable nights you could imagine.

As for the wedding food, it was a Southern theme. Pulled pork sandwiches with mustard sauce, baked macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes with chicken gravy, plus “street tacos” with grilled mahi-mahi.

But the fun could not last forever. On the way out of San Diego the next day, we stopped at the crappiest looking Mexican dive we could find. Remember, in the States, crappier is better. For just six bucks I savored every bite of my beef burrito, cheese enchilada, refried beans and Mexican rice.

On the way to the airport we stopped for coffee and bagels. A simple onion bagel, that dense, savory big brother to the donut. Quite often the food in the States is very good. There is definitely variety. But I actually cooked that first night, and quite honestly had trouble finding fresh ingredients, like fresh mint, Parmesan that wasn’t processed and sold in powdered form in a green can.

I love visiting the States, but I’m happy here in Estonia. It’s good to come home. The day after my jet lag was over, I baked fresh onion bagels for breakfast and homemade beef and chicken enchiladas for dinner, followed by an A.le Coq something or other. As I fell asleep that night, the question of why there are no microbreweries in Estonia went unanswered.