Sunday, December 28, 2008

Soul Food

Texas’ best barbecue, according to Texas Monthly magazine, is located in the town of Lexington and open only Saturdays from eight a.m. until the meat runs out (generally around noon). Weekdays, the restaurant’s owner works in a coal mine, and the chef, known as Miss Tootsie, is a 73-year-old former middle school janitor.

Of course, the restaurant has more than a story—it’s got great food. But the story is a large part of its appeal. Which is what I often find myself missing in Estonian restaurants: a story.

A friend of mine likens the Estonian dining experience to eating from vending machines in a hospital cafeteria. Assembly-line dining serving not what’s market fresh but what the wholesaler delivered. Who’ll even care, seems too often the logic of the chef, when everyone is only here to impress each other?

Luckily, that’s changing. Family-run or passionately-run restaurants are slowly sprouting all over Estonia. There’s the Creperie in Kadriorg, Anni Aro’s café in Haapsalu, and and the Chocolaterie in the Old Town. And of course there’s everybody’s old standby, Contravento. I can’t name all Estonia’s soul food joints here—readers will do that in the comments section—but suffice it to say there’s a trend toward restaurants whose interiors do not resemble Nevada brothels and where food itself is the actual draw.

The newest one on that list is the Šoti Klubi (Scottish Club) at the end of Uus Street in the Old Town. What has always been a pretty good bar and average restaurant has become an excellent restaurant with a pretty good bar. Chef Agu Alert supervised the removal of the monster bar which dominated the place and has turned it into a restaurant which is downright, well, European. From your first step in the door, you know it’s a family affair—in this case a family of one. Agu is the restaurant’s proprietor, chef, waiter, barman, and sometimes dishwasher. He’s a one-man show trying to make a go of a place in a market where the pundits say thirty percent of all restaurants will go belly up before spring.

And I’m rooting for him. I want his roe appetizer (given up by the fish under his personal supervision), slow-cooked lamb (the only oven like it in the country), and crème brûlée (not intolerably sweet like most make it) to be around come springtime, when my business picks up a bit and I'm able to dine out more.

I asked Agu how much he was sleeping in order to do every job in the place, and he answered three hours. “You need to get some of those little Knorr’s packages…” my wife Liina suggested. He’d slept so little he found her joke only half funny but resisted bludgeoning her with a rolling pin long enough to seriously respond that nobody would come to eat astronaut or backpacker food.

It it’s true that thirty percent of restaurants will go bankrupt before springtime, then I consider it my job to see that it’s the right thirty percent. Like many others, my business has suffered in this crisis and I live on a lot less than I did a year ago. So I’m even choosier about where I spend my hard-earned shekels. I’ve shunned experimentation and pretense and have gone straight for the soul food—places which Miss Tootsie of Texas might approve of. I want to put good things in my stomach and put my money behind people who give a damn and love the work they do. And if we all do the same, we can count on a beautiful spring.