an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Over [the] Moon in Kalamaja?

 

Ah, what a difference a definite article can make! “Over the Moon” once described my delight each time I visited my beloved Moon Kohvik (Poppy Café) in my Tallinn neighborhood. And yet now, I’m afraid that the sad time will soon come when I’m “over Moon” and ready to move on. While I’ve only removed the definite article from my title, the reason for my rising disappointment is that Moon’s great owner-chefs seem to have removed themselves from the day-to-day operations of their first restaurant. But first, some backstory.

Before Moon even came into existence, I’d already imagined it would appear in the same way that astronomers use mathematics to predict the location of an unseen heavenly body based on its influence on the orbits of other visible objects. When I left Tallinn in the summer of 2007, I told all my Estonian friends who appreciate good food that the one thing Tallinn was missing was a nice, unpretentious neighborhood restaurant which served great food at good prices. Tallinn needed the kind of down-to-earth bistro where you could just drop by and enjoy a nice meal without having to dress up or feel as if dining were some kind of an extraordinary event. Tallinn lacked that perfect cafe which felt just like home – or at least like someone else’s home so that you didn’t have to wash the dishes at the end of the meal. And then, just as if Roman and Igor – as well as Roman’s wife Jana – had been reading my mind, they opened their groundbreaking Moon Café in Kalamaja in December 2009. As I happened to be visiting Tallinn that month, I decided I had to check it out – and so I fell in love with both the food and the place from my very first bite.

Ever since that first visit, I became a Moon regular – or about as regular as my periodic visits to Tallinn once, twice, or thrice a year would allow. Whenever I was in town, I would make a point of eating at Moon – either by arranging to meet my friends there for dinner or by going there on my own for a solo meal – as I was so impressed with what Moon had done. Moon had succeeded in opening their doors to everyone – from those who wanted a full gourmet meal with drinks to those who were only interested in dessert with tea or coffee. Speaking of tea (most popular with ethnic Russians) and coffee (most popular with ethnic Estonians), Moon became common culinary ground – the kind of place where different nationalities went to meet and eat. It also helped that Moon’s simple but attractive décor appealed to everyone – these days they have a series of lunar phase prints on one wall and various tea and coffee cups hanging from their chandeliers. And so, as I was planning my move back to Tallinn in 2017, I was looking forward to becoming a true Moon regular, increasing the frequency of my visits to one or more a month. The reason I wanted Moon in my orbit – or to orbit Moon – was because of their impressive food.

Moon’s food always seemed to achieve that perfect and accessible intersection between Nordic haute cuisine and Russian home-style cooking. While there are some classic dishes that are almost always on the menu including pelmeni (Russian-style meat dumplings), blini (Russian-style savory buckwheat pancakes usually served with smoked salmon or caviar), or Chicken a la Kiev, most of Moon’s menu was always seasonal. No matter the time of year, you could always count on getting a tasty Russian-style soup – whether it’s okroshka (a cold summer vegetable soup), shchi (cabbage soup), solyanka (a spicy-sour soup), ukha (fish soup), or Ukrainian borshch (beet soup) – depending on what Moon’s chefs had found at the market. And if you were having problems deciding on what to order from their everchanging menu of appetizers and mains, no problem. You could always count on there being one or two different types of pirozhki (savory pies) to try – as well as the twin constants of Grandma’s marinated mushrooms and homemade pickled cucumbers.

Not long after I settled into my new Moon orbit, I noticed things started to change after the restaurant’s founders decided to take things in a different direction and open their new place in Kadriorg called Mantel & Korsten (Coat & Chimney). While they managed to open their second place in Pelgulinn – Kolm Sibulat (Three Onions) – several years ago without allowing anything at Moon to slip, these days their first born feels rather sadly neglected.

Yes, Moon can still pack them in on a week night – especially after it was discovered by Finnish food tourists – so you might want to make a reservation if you plan to go. And, yes, even an eclipsed Moon is still better than most other Tallinn restaurants on their best night – especially if you stick to the Russian classics like pelmeni and Chicken a la Kiev although they aren’t quite what they used to be. And, yes, I can understand that it must be tiring to cook the same dishes year in and year out and that the seven-year itch makes you yearn for new things. But isn’t maintaining that same high standard over the long run what a good restaurant is supposed to be all about? And is it really too much to ask for at least one Tallinn restaurant to have a business plan marked out in decades rather than years? After all, Tallinn’s Gotsu has proved that given the right focus then culinary continuity can be maintained. And several of my favorite U.S restaurant have been going strong for over thirty years even after changing chefs as many as a dozen times. In other words, the average life-cycle of a restaurant can be extended with the right hands-on approach.

What has changed then? To start things off, Moon’s menu is no longer as interesting or quite as seasonal as it once used to be – and even the physical menu and its online counterpart seem to have suffered as well. As if corners are being cut, both the online and print menus feel as if they’ve been jammed together to save paper or space – even Moon’s blackboard menu is mostly empty and special-free these days. Yes, these simplifications may only appear to be cosmetic at first but they point to other underlying issues. For example, when Moon’s front of house “A Team” moved to Mantel & Korsten, they left behind mostly a brand-new rookie crew. Yes, I miss Moon’s veteran wait staff who used to recognize me – especially when the new team seems to miss at least one beat on every one of my most recent visits. Once I had to remind my waitress to bring me bread. Another time, a different waitress failed to bring me the vegetarian version of the blini I‘d ordered – and then still charged me for the caviar that I didn’t order. In the original Moon, such oversights would’ve never happened as Jana kept a careful eye on everything. These days, unfortunately, such disconnects appear to have become the new normal.

But as my love for Moon has always been about the food, my biggest disappointment has been the equally frequent slip ups in the kitchen. Once I went to Moon as I had a craving for their delicious pelmeni – only to find out that the cooks hadn’t bothered making any that day. Then their fish is no longer as carefully sourced as it once – no one was exactly clear where my most recent pike-perch came from. And to top things off, I was even served the first entrée which I couldn’t eat – instead of cooked rabbit I was given a slab of raw meat. It seems that the schnitzel had been so cold (or frozen) that it only managed to thaw but not cook in the pan. And no one in the kitchen even noticed …. Fortunately, a veteran waiter happened to be working that evening and so I didn’t get charged for what I couldn’t eat. Again, when Roman and Igor were working in the kitchen, none of this would have ever happened.

However, I did see a little Moon beam of hope during my most recent visit. Once again, the kitchen has started serving amuse-bouche snacks to start off each meal. So maybe, just maybe, someone in the kitchen might be enjoying what they are doing once again …

OK. Enough said – although I do have one final set of observations. Before I even started writing flatfish, I decided that I wasn’t going to write any negative restaurant reviews. If I didn’t like a place, I would just ignore it – I would simply pretend that the place didn’t exist in the same way that I would never plan to go back there again to eat. But Moon is a very different and special case. I hope, therefore, that my tough-love review has been both bitter and sweet. After all, Moon was once my favorite restaurant in Tallinn. And so, I guess I’m hoping that Jana, Roman, and Igor might just hear my culinary cri de coeur and decide to return to Moon’s orbit to give their first love the full attention it so richly deserves. And I guess I’m really hoping for that happy ending where Moon shines again in Tallinn’s night sky just as brightly as it once did.

 

You can find Moon at Võrgu 3 which is an easy walk from Tallinn’s Old Town if you go down Pikk (Big or Long Street) and out through Suur Rannavärav (the Great Coastal Gates). You can also reach Moon by taking the no. 1 or no. 2 tram to Kopli (the Paddock) and getting off at the Linnahall (Town Hall) stop or by taking the no. 73 bus and getting off at Kalaranna (Fish Beach Street). 

Image: A half-cup designed by Kasimir Malevich and made at the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory in Leningrad – essential if you’re in a hurry and a Russian acquaintance wants you to stop by “literally, for half-a-cup of tea.”

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