#77 Estonia: I am flammable, and love my new Estonian friends

salt herring: real food for real people

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.

remember: we're "gourmets"

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.

you know you wanna sniff my flammable breath

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.

what the soup looked like before I started seeing double

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?

I'm just proud that I didn't knock anything over by accident--woulda been a shame to ruin that tasty rye bread

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.

oh crap, now I really am seeing double

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!

I'm sure I totally looked exactly like this

New York Estonian House (members only)
243 East 34th Street, Manhattan
Subway: 34th Street (6 train)

10 Responses to “#77 Estonia: I am flammable, and love my new Estonian friends”

  1. maria says:

    this is awesome :) i miss that foooooooood :) and i really like youre writing style. and… urve really is the best :)))))

  2. Thank you, Maria! And yes, Urve is the best… and we’re turning her into an internet legend!

  3. Peeter` says:

    In the late 50′s and 60′s, I went to the Estonian house many many times, though the family rarely ate there. However, being of Estonian descent (and speaking te language, though hardly fluent as a native). I visited Estonia last year, stayed with relatives and was fed 100% Authentic Estonian food. Needless to say, it brought me back to my childhood and now, try to cook similar Estonian meals. But based on this article, I do intend to return there soon. Also Try going here just before Christmas and try the Holiday treat “VERIVORST” (I won’t translate in fear you may not want to try it). The cooks invite you to try your hand in making it as well.

  4. Helen L says:

    Wow…..I feel at home when I´m reading the story…..an I´m a Swedish Estonian….

  5. Heili says:

    I love this article! The Estonian House in NYC is amazing – I have many fond memories there. Verivorst is definitely not to be missed, please make a trip back for it, amazing!!! You should also try our beet salad (rosolja) and meat pastry (pirukad) to get the complete Estonian experience!

  6. You’re making me hungry, Heili! I’ll have to try to talk Aarne and Urve into letting me come back for beets and pirukad and verivorst… as long as nobody tells me what, exactly, verivorst is. ;)

    And if anybody reading this knows of somebody in NYC who might have the ability to prepare Finnish or Latvian or Belorussian cuisine, I would love to hear about it! Those three countries have proven to be the most elusive in the region so far…

  7. kathy walters says:

    Before the club was bought by the Estos it was owned by Sicilian Italianos. Hence the bird mosaic in the middle of the floor. IBIS REBIDA!!

  8. Hando Rei says:

    I came to the USA after WWII as a refuge and my mom and two sisters settled in Brooklyn . Although after so many years I have forgotten my Estonian but not the meals mom used to make at home . My mom passed away a few years ago and I miss the food she use to serve us . In reading about the restaurant and the opportunity some non-members had in being able to eat there I am writing to see if I can bring my wife and daughter there to experience the Estonian cooking ? Presently we live in Massapequa NY .

  9. Mr. Rei, thank you so much for the comment! I would very strongly encourage you to call the Estonian House. It’s run by some absolutely wonderful, warm people, and I’m sure that they’ll tell you everything you need to know. I no longer live in NYC, but I would have become an associate member if I were still in the neighborhood–the memberships aren’t terribly expensive, and it’s a great place to hang out and get some real food.

    After you visit, please send me an email or leave a comment here, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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