“Dude, I’m at Noir right now, and I just had probably the best steak ever in Estonia,” my friend urgently called me one evening. “But you have to make sure it’s the same cook. The girl. The guy who works in the kitchen isn’t as good.” I thanked him and said I’d check it out. And I did. And I did learn the hard way, however, that you need to call and ask beforehand. Maybe even reserve a table.
The same friend and I recently made plans to dine in Noir, in an attractive courtyard on Ülikooli Street in Tartu. When we walked in, we got one of two tables that weren’t occupied. The main dining room has maybe eight tables, three of which are large enough for six people, and all of these were occupied by two or fewer people. Fewer meaning one. The small tables were available. The waitress promptly approached us with a smile, and even introduced herself. This is medium-rare in Estonia.
“Hello, I’m Krista. Would you like some drinks while you look over the menu?”
—Yes, please. What beers do you have? I asked, as I flipped through the menus, having trouble seeing anything because the print was so faded.
“I’m afraid we only have A.le Coq Premium at the moment.”
—Then I guess I’d like to have an A.le Coq, I replied with a grin.
Noir is a self-described vinothèque, so I can’t really fault them for having a poor selection of bière. For some reason though, knowing what I was going to order beforehand, I just felt that at that moment, beer would better suit steak. And our drinks were served in under a couple minutes. This means that Krista immediately went and poured our drinks, rather than finding countless other non-customer-oriented things to do, as is the norm in Tartu. Douze points.
The rest of our party of six meanwhile arrived. We had patiently been waiting for the couple near the window—the couple who had long since finished their drinks and were just hitting on each other—to leave, so we could crowd our six people around a table for six, rather than a table for two. We asked Krista if she could help us out. “Of course. Would it be alright if we added another table here?” We quickly agreed, and I rose to go get the table. “No, no, we can do it,” she urged me to remain seated. She disappeared into the kitchen and immediately returned with another person, who had combined our tables in seconds. Douze points.
As we started browsing the menu, I asked my friend if this was the steak he’d recommended. “I can’t find it,” he replied in frustration. “I think I’m looking at the wine list.” He wasn’t, but the wine list wasn’t labeled, and the ink on the shiny paper was equally faded. The page for main courses on his menu was missing. Several of the menus were incomplete, in fact. I offered my copy and pointed out the smudge mark where the steak was listed. Squinting, he answered, “Yeah, that’s it.” Beef tenderloin with sweet potato gratin in port wine sauce. Four of us ordered this, all medium-rare. That means bloody in the middle.
We also ordered an appetizer of olives, very good. Not from a jar, but probably from the delicatessen of Kaubamaja’s Food World. A plate full of warm herbal buns was served within three minutes. Those quickly disappeared, and we were given more. Apparently for free. “Of course, I’ll put some more in the oven,” Krista replied when we ordered seconds. This occurrence is also medium-rare in Tartu. Douze points.
In just the blink of an œil, two of the steaks were served, as well as the pasta someone had ordered. My friend noticed that there was no way his steak was medium-rare. He cut it open, revealing a mildly pink center. Krista then served the appetizer two of our party had ordered. Beef carpaccio with Parmesan and arugula salad. Their appetizer was served after our main course, and we’d all ordered together. Un point.
Yet Krista did overhear my friend’s complaint about the steak, and promptly returned with a complimentary glass of red wine. I didn’t get one, however, because I had kept my mouth shut, even though my steak was well-done as well, not medium-rare. I sampled the carpaccio. A tad bland, not as tasty as I usually would prefer raw beef, but the presentation was excellent and ultimately our friends were satisfied. I ordered another beer. “I’m very sorry, we’re out of beer,” Krista informed me. I’d literally drunk a restaurant dry. With one beer. Our carpaccio friends had also wanted beer, so we each ordered shots of vodka to sip on. Served in seconds.
Beer and vodka in a vinothèque? Noir didn’t have any wines I prefer. Snob! But if I’m going to splurge and get a good wine, I’m not going to settle for less than a good Côtes du Rhône. I still have yet to see a Bouches du Rhône in Estonia. That’s my real preference.
Then the rest of the steaks arrived. Even more well-done than the first two. “Excuse me, this is not medium-rare,” they informed Krista. She apologized profusely, and for the chef as well, and gave them complimentary shots of vodka. Again, I didn’t get a free drink. I was tolerating the food. I shouldn’t do that.
So I know what you’re thinking. That is, if you’re not familiar with beef. The more it’s cooked, the stiffer it becomes. I don’t like to chew my steak for a minute per bite. The flavor is also stronger if it’s still got blood in it. But the sweet potato gratin, also served with arugula, and sauce were fantastic. We asked who the chef was, and it wasn’t the woman. I won’t say her name, but I will say she shares one of the fifteen most popular names for Estonian girls last year.
As for price, it's a little more than average in Tartu. Still, just over ten euros for a (still decent) steak is not too shabby.
The courtyard at Noir is beautiful. Not sterile at all, but tastefully cobblestoned, with a real live tree growing in the middle decorated with some sort of garden lamps. A few tables, about as many as inside, and on rainy days they bring out large umbrellas. At least they used to. They also offer fleece shawls if you get too cold sitting outside. On this particular evening, the staff set out a fire. This created an amazing atmosphere. We stood around it for a few minutes, warming up a bit. Douze points.
The dessert menu was very inviting indeed, offering crème brûlée, tiramisu and chocolate ice cream—traditional desserts, rather than the more typical over-the-top fancy but bizarre deep-fried ice cream balls served in spicy chili sauce. Yes, I’ve actually seen that one before. But we were all comfortably full, and so asked for the check. Krista had no problem whatsoever dividing our bill between the six of us. A lot of places just won’t do it, saying it’s not possible. Douze points.
Noir means black. And everything is black, except for the ceiling. Except for the ceiling in the jaan, which I visited on the way out. While the jaan itself is fairly clean and modern, I did happen to notice smoke stains in the corners of the ceiling. I hope it’s from candles, and not the air quality itself from the ventilation system.
In the future, I will certainly visit Noir again, and I will order the steak. I will, however, heed my friend’s advice and call ahead to ask who’s on kitchen duty. The cut of steak was good, no denying it. I’m pretty sure it was the Brazilian beef that is available wholesale from the meat importing business in Tallinn, known as Tallinna Külmhoone. But it would be a good idea for the chef to study up a bit on cooking steak. He’s perfectly capable, just a little too late in removing the steak from the heat.
The service, as I said, was top-notch. It doesn’t get any better, and what I especially liked about it was that it wasn’t the embarrassing kind of service, where the waiter stands over your shoulder, individually placing each fork, knife and glass, while the guests at the table experience an uncomfortable silence because the waiter seems more like a servant in a plantation than an equal in society, just doing his job and enjoying it. Noir’s on-line guestbook also attests to this evening’s courtesy not being a freak event.
We admired the murals as we moved through the passageway to the street, and said goodbye for the evening. I was meeting up with some other friends to watch the qualification round of Eurovision—that ultra-tacky, annual international song contest. I arrived just in time to see Estonia present its song, fairly good this year. But for some reason, it didn’t make it to the final round this weekend. Un point.