Excuse me. Appalling puns to one side, Tallinn is a beautiful city full of annoyingly good-looking people and well worth a visit, especially if you take in the Komeediklubi while you’re there (sorry, I don’t speak Estonian, so I have no idea what the name means.) The Old Town is particularly delightful – a lot of the rest is a little Soviet severe – and I was staying in the very pleasant Merchants House Hotel where my room even had its own personal sauna, which made me especially well disposed towards it. This has never happened to me in over a decade of getting other people to pay for my hotel rooms – even the remaining snow around the courtyard embellished the scene in a manner completely alien to, say, the Holiday Inn Express Cardiff, where I find myself writing this, and which, you’ll be amazed to hear, doesn’t even have a courtyard.
This was my second trip to Estonia, in the excellent company of the criminally under-rated (except in New Zealand, where they keep, quite rightly, giving him awards,) Carey Marx and his wife Carrie. Carrie and I were once in a play together where I didn’t say a single word (probably the best kind,) and she is vegan, which I’m fairly sure is regarded in the Baltic states with much the same suspicion that UKIP reserve for mainland Europe as a whole. Last time I visited, Paul Foot and I went to a restaurant just off the main square that was so laboriously ‘Estonian’ all it was really missing was a gift shop, and perhaps a little soul. To be fair, the food wasn’t bad, I’m just naturally suspicious of a menu where every dish begins with the words ‘A traditional…’ We had some cured things and even pork jelly, which is apparently the national dish, now happily marked down in the “Well, I’m glad I tried it…” column.
This time we took a recommendation from the promoter, Andrus, who, in light of Carrie’s dietary requirements pointed us in the direction of von Krahl AED as it apparently had great vegetarian and vegan food and lots of ‘organics’, which is, I believe, a word used to calm non-meat eaters in times of potential stress.
This is terribly unfair, dated and possibly racist of me, but the thought of a vegetarian restaurant in Tallinn didn’t particularly fill me with confidence or much in the way of anticipation. I needn’t have worried, however, as a) Andrus is a bright chap with excellent taste in most things (including comedians) b) Tallinn is a modern, thriving European capital city and c) they also served meat. What you actually had here was a restaurant with a vegetarian section in the menu as opposed to an ‘option’. I have to report there was goat’s cheese (there is always goat’s cheese,) but only in a foam, so that can be excused.
The restaurant itself is in an old house of what would appear to be impeccable Eastern European vintage, which has pulled off a nice line in historical comfortable bohemian, to give it its correct label which I have just invented. Our waiter was both helpful and very enthusiastic, which he managed to convey without being irritating; not always an easy trick to pull off.
Carey opted for a very good chicken salad to start as he is doing his best to behave like a reformed smoker these days, brightened up with pea shoots and alfalfa sprouts (the salad, not Carey.) He sensibly decided to forego the tomato sauce partly because he doesn’t like tomatoes but mainly because it was a salad. Carrie’s vegetable soup was slightly less successful because it was so utterly inoffensive but also because both dishes suffered enormously in comparison to mine. I don’t wish to show off here (yes I do,) but I’d gone the full Estonian and ordered herring on black bread with beet ice cream and it was stunning. The rich dark bread – think malt loaf without the currants – and the sharpness of the pickled fish which would have been a bit much on its own, were complimented beautifully by the luxuriousness of a soft poached quail’s egg, the heat of which was in turn calmed by the ice cream. Not only was this a lovely looking dish, it was one of the most satisfying taste combinations I have tried in a long time and frankly, worth the trip on its own.
The main courses were less exciting. Our waiter had made quite a fuss about how Estonians cook their duck breast, so when it arrived with slightly flaccid skin and just past the point known as pink, I was a little disappointed. The meat was tender and still juicy, but the portion was rather small, and while the cabbage and vegetable rolls provided a nice al dente texture, what was billed as a pumpkin salad appeared more like a slick of liquidized baby food and the Põltsamaa Kuldne fruit wine sauce was fairly unremarkable and a little too sweet. Not actively bad, but certainly suffering in comparison with my starter. Carey also had the duck, while Carrie’s chickpea cutlets were somewhat bland and, I’m afraid, exactly the sort of dish that people are afraid vegans might serve them, with more baby food and a ‘vegetarian foam’ that hadn’t quite worked. Having said that, ‘vegetarian slick’ really doesn’t read quite so well on a menu.
We decide against dessert, as a combination of ridiculously early starts and jet lag meant that we were all in danger of falling asleep in them, and this may have been a mistake. Looking at the menu again, I wish I’d tried white chocolate cream with blueberry powder and sea-buckthorn sorbet – having tried the excellent cooking of Andrei Lesment at Verru, it’s clear that Estonian cuisine is at its best when playing with slightly unusual ingredients and combinations. On this occasion, however, we paid the bill, and at twenty euros a head considered ourselves very well fed in extremely pleasant surroundings. I shall certainly be visiting AED again, only next time I think I’ll probably have ice cream for starter and pudding. And possibly main course as well – I mean, how else am I going to get full value from my sauna when I get back to the room?