Every once in a while you walk into an experience so fantastic you just do not want to leave. This was the case on a recent Saturday for me at the Estonian House, as I followed an advertisement for a small Christmas Bazaar, using it as an excuse to get in the door. I had no idea what to expect, and half thought I would see some knick-knacks and cookies, smile at a few people as I felt out of place, then leave.
As it turns out, the bazaar was an afterthought and I did not even see it until after two hours or so inside the house, which is located on East 34th Street in Murray Hill, Manhattan. Me and a friend headed straight for the back of the ground floor, where most people seemed to be congregating and found the bar and restaurant area. People were getting orders from the kitchen and downing tables full of large bottles of Estonian beer. At a little after four in the afternoon, the tables were full of grandmas and grandpas in sweaters but as the night wore on, the crowd got decidedly younger. I enjoyed all the grandmas though, who were so warm and friendly, eager to explain anything we wanted to know about Estonia and the food we ordered.
Prices have risen a few dollars since this 2011 menu
The kitchen (KÖÖK!) had a small hand-written board with the selections available for the day, none of which I had the slightest idea what they were besides the borsh. We decided to point at some good-looking plates that other people were ordering, and ended up with a decent selection of items.
The kartulisalat ($7, below) is a mayonnaise-based potato salad with ham, peas, eggs and carrots. The mustard is mild but important, and the plate is nice, although maybe not worth $7 as it somewhat resembles the type you might find in a local grocer's refrigerator.
Our main plate was the sült kartuliga ($8, below). Sült is a jellied meat, and this was with shredded chicken, served with potatoes and a sweet sauerkraut. It is one of those things I can now cross off my list, as often times I am asked if I have eaten meats that are within a gelatin made of pig's foot. Aren't you? The dish isn't bad, and mixed with the potatoes and gravy is not much different than a Thanksgiving meal.
We also grabbed one of each of the meat and cabbage pies ($1.50 each, below). The cabbage was our favorite, a better combination with the chewy bread than the mystery meat that resembled tuna salad.
A more recently eaten bowl of seljanka supp ($7, recommended)
After stuffing ourselves with the foods, we continued to imbibe with 500ml bottles of Saku which run only $5. The most popular beer of Estonia is light, pretty weak, and nothing special, but surrounded by our new friends and "countrymen," they seemed like nectar from the gods. The bar is fully stocked, but most people seemed to be sticking to these, and we followed suit with only one diversion to try the other Estonian beer in stock, Viru.
[UPDATE: Estonian beer is no longer available as of winter 2016, sadly]
A friendly man named Mairo explained to us the inner-workings of the Estonian House, best times to come back, and even when the "hot chicks" should be around. After a little bit of time passed we grabbed a nice dessert of cookies and chocolate mousse, both of which were really good.
Christmas candies selection, heavy on the marzipan
The two clocks above the bar (One for New York, one for Estonia) must have turned five hours by the time we stumbled back into the real world, but not before the bartender rangled us in for a group hug prior to departing. The Estonian House is definitely a one of a kind place in New York, grab a dinner and drink there whenever you have the chance.
Open for dinner Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.