I almost laughed my ass off before I managed to get through the door at the New York Estonian House, a members-only social club in Midtown. I had called earlier in the day, and the friendly club manager agreed to let us sample the club’s Estonian cuisine. As we approached the club, the bartender and chef—who were enjoying a cigarette outside—recognized us immediately: “You’re the gourmets! Welcome!”
I looked around, slightly confused. Us? Gourmets? Nope. Just two dudes who appreciate random, home-cooked ethnic food, especially if the food involves salt herring and craploads of booze.
Right from the start of our meal, the bartender—an incredibly warm Estonian named Urve—took us under her wing, and made damned sure that we had a fun night. Or maybe she was trying to make sure that we wouldn’t remember anything the next day. Not sure which. Either way, it was pretty awesome.
There were only three items on the handwritten menu that night: vegetable and meat soup ($5), beef stroganoff with potatoes ($10), and herring with potatoes ($7). We ordered one of each, of course.
And then the alcohol started. Urve told us that they had several different Estonian beers: Viru (a tasty lager) and two different kinds of Saku, including a dark, sweet, strong ale (6.7% alcohol, far stronger than a Budweiser). We ordered a large bottle of each, of course.
As soon as she saw the herring arrive at our table, Urve yelled at us from behind the bar: “Wait, you can’t eat that without having a shot of vodka first!” We smiled and shrugged while she poured us two shots of Saaga, an excellent Estonian vodka. She even taught us how to say “cheers” in Estonian: terviseks, but I think it came out sounding more like “pervy sex” when we slaughtered the pronunciation. And that was before we really started slurring.
Most Americans would insist that the herring and potato dish looked mildly frightening: boiled potatoes, salt herring, and sliced onions, drowning in sour cream. Not necessarily cute, but it tasted damned good. Salt herring is thoroughly underrated—it’s basically a saltier and less-gooey version of pickled herring, which no longer makes me yak. And it goes wonderfully with boiled potatoes and sour cream. (And no, that isn’t the vodka talking: I’m mostly recovered from the hangover as I write this.) The soup—a brothy mix of vegetables, beef, and dill—was also excellent, especially when accompanied by the dark rye bread that is an obligatory part of any Estonian meal.
The two of us ate slowly, vaguely stupefied by the fact that we were actually enjoying salt herring. We finished the soup and herring before we even touched the stroganoff. As we finally reached for the plate of stroganoff, Urve yelled at us again from behind the bar: “Wait! That’s getting cold! Don’t eat it, I’ll get you a new one!” Slightly embarrassed, we insisted that we didn’t mind eating it cold, and said that we really didn’t want the kitchen staff to go through the trouble of making us a new plate.
But Urve was having none of it: “Trust me, I know. I’m older than you.” How can you argue with that, especially when your tongue is getting fat from too much vodka and Estonian ale?
Before we knew it, the friendly kitchen staff had whisked away our plate of lukewarm stroganoff, and brought us a new one. Absolutely unbelievably nice of them to do that—we were the dumbasses who ordered three meals at once, and we were the dumbasses proceeded to eat ridiculously slowly. The cold food would’ve been our fault, Estonian House, not yours. You’re far too kind. And now we’re slurring a little bit.
As we finished our meals (the stroganoff—served with another mound of tasty yellow potatoes—was also outstanding… nearly as good as Mom used to make, but somewhat less creamy), we drank more beer, and had friendly chats with Aarne the cook and Urve the amazing bartender. At Urve’s suggestion, we chased our meal with glasses of Vana Tallinn, an Estonian after-dinner liqueur that reminded me of a good Greek brandy, but a little bit sweeter, and with a stronger vanilla flavor. We signed the guest books. We started to wobble in our chairs.
Before we left, Urve had one more cultural treat for us: she pointed to the floor of the club, which featured a tile inlay (or at least it looked like a tile inlay at that point in the night) of a blue barn swallow, the national bird of Estonia. She said—with a completely straight face—that it was an Estonian tradition for us to pose like a barn swallow in flight before leaving the club.
At that point, we were willing to do whatever Urve said. I balanced on one leg, and stretched my beak and tail feathers as far as I could in opposite directions. And I didn’t fall down.
At least not until I got outside. You could have lit my breath on fire, and the flames might have smelled like salt herring and sour cream. Estonia is awesome!
New York Estonian House (members only)
243 East 34th Street, Manhattan
Subway: 34th Street (6 train)