travel: cinnamon and midnight toasts… (helsinki)

Havis Amanda

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My first trip to Finland was in 2005, when I took an overnight cruise from Stockholm to the ancient capital of Turku on the country’s west coast.  That day-stop – which only gave me enough time to run through a museum (the copy of the haunting, self-portrait of Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck that I bought there still stares at me from across my study today) and a couple of churches before embarking for the trip back to Stockholm – was hardly an introduction to the country.

Sadly, my recent trip to the modern-day capital of Finland, could hardly count as more.

With barely 48 hours on the ground, I hit Helsinki running.

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Helsingin Tuomiokirkko

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I’m a firm believer that you get out of life what you put into it.  So, I’ll be the first to admit that it was most likely my own fault that I felt a little lost in Helsinki when I got there. I had done very little research about the city, its points of interest, restaurants, or layout before my trip there in early June of this year.

Actually, to be fair, I did do some poking around online, mostly for restaurants. And, from my limited search, the outlook was bleak.  There were a handful of one Michelin-starred restaurants, which, from a quick glance at their websites (the ones that were functional anyway), seemed to be minor variations of second-wave New Nordic cooking.  This, in itself, was not necessarily a bad thing. But it certainly wasn’t helpful in deciding which of them I should visit.  This was compounded by the fact that, upon casting a wider net to my friends, most of them received mixed reviews.

The rest of the field appeared just as unpromising. From a cursory glance, little else on Helsinki’s dining scene stood out.

The one restaurant that seemed to earn the most positive feedback – Sasu Laukkonen’s Chef & Sommelier – happened to be hosting a guest chef dinner with Daniel Berlin both of the nights I was in Helsinki (Berlin’s restaurant is Daniel Berlin Krog in Sweden, which was listed on my 2014 year-end bucket list).  But, as interesting as that seemed, I wasn’t traveling all the way to Helsinki to eat Daniel Berlin’s food at Chef & Sommelier.

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7th Course: Wild Violets

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But, the practical realities of being unprepared while on the road caught up with me.  I arrived in Helsinki (from a long weekend in Norway) with no dining reservations, and no game plan.  So, faced with a choice between exploring the unknown and relying on what little information I did have, I went with the latter.  I phoned Chef & Sommelier, and was lucky to find a last-minute seat on the second night of Berlin’s two-night guest appearance.

Despite my disappointment at missing out on a full Chef & Sommelier dining experience, the dinner turned out to be quite lovely (and at 80€ for 8 courses, quite a good deal too).  Laukkonen cooked about half of the courses, including a dish of tender, Finnish beef tartare with honey and parsnip, and another one featuring a generous portion of pike perch from local waters. When I asked him to clarify how pike perch, a freshwater fish, could come from the ocean (by local waters, he meant the Gulf of Finland, an arm of the Baltic Sea) Laukkonen explained that the sea water surrounding Helsinki was extremely low in salinity; as low as 0.3% near the surface, compared to the North Sea’s 3.5%, making it possible for some freshwater fish to thrive.

Berlin’s dishes were particularly polished.  He started the meal with a glittering dome of vendace roe rising above a moat of dill.  I particularly liked the crunchy bits of toasted grain he added to help offset the otherwise creamy and rich texture of the rest.  Towards the end of dinner, he presented a quenelle of violet sorbet dotted with the purple flowers.  It tasted as pretty as it looked.  Laukkonen hopped from table to table showing guests a photo of his daughter in a field of wild violets helping to collect the flowers for the dessert.  I thought it was an endearing end to the meal.

Chef & Sommelier is tiny.  The dining room is spartan, but cozy.  And the night I went, it was packed (it’s unclear to me whether they added tables and chairs to accommodate the extra demand for the Berlin dinner, or if this was the restaurant’s normal seating arrangement).  Particularly, I was impressed by the size of the kitchen – or rather, impressed by how much they could accomplish in such a small space.

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Olo

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Around the corner from my hotel, which, was situated near the city’s “Esplanadi” – a generous, parkway that runs through the posh, retail hub of Helsinki to the harbor – I stumbled upon Olo, one of the Michelin-starred restaurants I had glanced at online.  Since I had no plans for dinner that first night in Helsinki, I walked in and asked for a reservation.

I returned a few hours later to a packed restaurant of Finnish couples and English-speaking businessmen. Olo served a set menu of about a dozen courses (that’s including a cheese supplement).  At its best, the food was simple and delicious with a touch of local flavor – like lamb tartare with young spruce in a meaty bouillon that was sweet with onion and opalescent with spruce oil.  There was also a wonderfully cooked piece of Finnish beef with veal sweetbreads, carrots, and a schmaltzy chicken sauce.  And I especially loved a plate of Finnish cheeses, ranging from an oozing, bloomy rind to a creamy, veined blue.

But Olo’s weaknesses seemed symptomatic of second-wave movement cooking.  Some of the food focused more on form than function.  Take, for example, a beautiful strip of pickled herring, all dolled up with roe, sea beans, and squiggly chips made of malt.  It perched on a rock above a pool of olive oil.  As lovely as this diorama was, without utensils, the herring was far too large and far too soft to pick up and eat in one bite, especially if the toppings were to be kept intact.  This kind of thoughtlessness in restaurant presentations nowadays irritates me.  There was also an orb of yogurt and lingonberry that appeared like a speckled egg, nestled among some pebbles and pine cones (I wasn’t sure how they created the shell – perhaps the yogurt had been turned into a waxy substance that functioned as a shell, or something like cocoa butter was stiffened to create a shell). Setting aside the “novelty” of this mini foraging exercise for a moment, this ball of fruity yogurt was, by far, my least favorite part of dinner. The filling, which was tepid, was more gelatinous than creamy, and the flavor was far from the tangy tease intended for this opening volley.

Yet, as uneven as my meal at Olo was, I can’t help but recognize that, in a market as small and new as Helsinki’s – and especially, one where there doesn’t seem to be a strong dining culture – courage and effort count for a lot.  So I applaud Olo, and the small band of fine dining restaurants in Helsinki – like Chef & Sommelier – for spearheading the fine dining movement there.  Hopefully, in the years to come, they’ll focus more on quality, and start looking inward for a voice and perspective of their own, ones that makes Helsinki a unique and compelling destination for eating.

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3rd Course: Crispy Goma Chicken & Choy Sum

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I spent one morning walking around Helsinki’s “design district,” which seemed to be comprised mostly of hair salons and women’s boutiques.  Noticing a severe lack of men’s clothing, I asked, repeatedly, where all the men in Helsinki shop. The response was always the same: “online.”

I stopped in at Gaijin for lunch. It’s part of the BW Restaurant group, a collection of highly stylized concept restaurants offering a taste of foreign lands.  Whereas Farang focuses on Southeast Asian cuisine (there’s one in Helsinki and one in Stockholm), and Boulevard Social focuses on Mediterranean cooking, Gaijin’s menu is inspired by Northern Asia – China, Korea, and Japan.  I normally wouldn’t choose to eat in a “foreign concept restaurant.”  But, given that I had found few compelling alternatives, I thought I’d give it a try.

I happened to be seated next to a table of Chinese diplomats, who, aching for a taste of their own culture, had come to Gaijin out of curiosity.  They studied the menu quizzically, their thought process mirroring my own: first, identify the culture that each dish purports to represent, and then choose the ones that left the least room for “translation error.”

Perhaps we chose wisely.  Or, perhaps Gaijin did its homework well.  We were all pleasantly surprised by the food.  Despite the glossiness of the design, and the ridiculous names that they came up with for some of the menu items (“Red Dragon Sauce,” or a dessert called “Almond Geisha,” for example), the flavors were quite good.  And, most of what I had was cooked very well.  I ended up choosing the smaller of the two lunch tasting menus (which, at 37€ for four courses, was a steal, especially given how large the portions were).  The steamed buns – one with pork belly, the other with a crispy half of a softshell crab – were fluffy.  The “goma chicken” – fried chicken in a sesame broth with choy sum – was ultra crispy, and the broth was nice and clean.  And the ribs I ordered, as an extra plate, were sticky with a soy-mirin “caramel” glaze that was just the right balance between salty and sweet.  Only an overwrought plate of tuna “tataki” was disappointing in all the predictable ways.  The tuna was of middling quality, and dressed with way too many condiments.  The point of eating raw fish, in my opinion, is to taste the fish – its quality, its freshness, or, in some cases, the care someone took in aging it.  Here, I couldn’t help but think they were trying to obscure it.  Or, it’s possible, they simply didn’t understand it.

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Coffee and Cinnamon Roll

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Corey Lena Kingston and Samantha Viktoria Albert spent three months visiting coffee shops in five Nordic countries (Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark).  The culmination of their travels is the book TAKK: Explorations of Nordic Cafe Culture.  It’s quite a lovely collection of stories, faces, and places that offered them a taste of local coffee culture along their Scandinavian journey.  While many of the cafés they feature are third wave coffee shops that everyone talks about, and, as a result, many of which I’ve visited – Tim Wendelboe in Oslo, the Coffee Collective in Copenhagen, and Kaffemisjonen in Bergen, for example – what I love most about their book are the places they include that are unexpectedly “local,” like Café Regatta in Helsinki.

Never mind that I walked about four miles from lunch – stopping briefly to admire the copper coil dome of the Temppeliaukio Church along the way – to the seaside park where Café Regatta sits, nestled near a wharf, or the fact that I discovered upon arrival that it’s cash only (with not a Euro on me, I sent myself on a 4o minute detour in search of a cash machine).  And, I’ll disregard the fact that it was an exceedingly windy day, which made sitting on the café’s sprawling, dock-side patio, at times, a challenge. None of that makes me regret visiting this quirky red hut for its pre-brewed coffee (dispensed from large thermoses) and giant cinnamon rolls, for which it is probably better known.  I couldn’t decide if the cinnamon in Cafe Regatta’s rolls was particularly red-hot, or, if the cinnamon’s flavor was magnified by a heavy dose of cardamom and other spices (I sensed a touch of clove).  Either way, the spiciness of those golden buns, topped with pearl sugar and some almond slivers, was a perfect complement to the bitter coffee they serve there.

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Breakfast

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On the recommendation of TAKK, I also spent a morning on the sidewalk of Good Life Coffee enjoying a bowl of granola and luscious Turkish yogurt with a frothy cortado pulled from the café’s own roast.  I sat there alone, half-shielded by the eaves between brief episodes of light rain, taking in the brisk air and the quiet morning street scene.  I’m sure the people inside the coffee shop thought I was banana pancakes for taking my breakfast in the cold rain.  But I didn’t care.  I absolutely relished that morning of solitude and letting my thoughts take over that empty stretch of sidewalk.

That’s one thing I particularly loved about Helsinki – at times, I felt like I had the entire city to myself.  And, outside of the small, commercial hub of the city’s center, Helsinki seemed relatively untouched by foreigners (or, maybe, the wave of summer tourism hadn’t yet arrive), allowing me to feel very much a part of local life.  I especially loved walking around the city at night after dinner, when the streets emptied and everything went silent.

Around midnight on my last night in Helsinki, walking home from dinner, I happened upon a young Finnish couple toasting each other with Champagne and strawberries on a park bench in the Esplanadi.  It was strange, they admitted, to be out so late.  But, it was their last night on holiday, and they wanted to make it last as long as possible.  I took their picture, we exchanged emails, and I bid them goodnight.  It was a lovely way to end my time in Helsinki.

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Esplanadi

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Below is a list of the restaurants I visited on this trip to Helsinki.  Each one is hyperlinked to a set of photos from that meal.

Chef & Sommelier
Gaijin
Olo

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Photos: Havis Amanda, a fountain at the end of the Esplanadi in Helsinki; Helsinki cathedral lit up at night; Daniel Berlin’s violet sorbet at a guest dinner at Chef & Sommelier; Ravintola Olo lit up at night in Helsinki; the “goma chicken” at Gaijin in Helsinki; a cinnamon roll and coffee on the patio at Café Regatta in Helsinki; granola, yogurt, and a cortado at Good Life Coffee in Helsinki; and a young couple toast each other with Champagne and strawberries at midnight on a park bench in the Esplanadi in Helsinki.

~ by ulterior epicure on July 5, 2015.

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