Here’s how they tell the joke: Finns are a shy and unassuming people, so when a Finn talks to you, he look at his shoes. A Finnish extrovert? He looks at your shoes.
Yes, Finns treasure modesty. So, while—true to the creativity embedded in their DNA that spills forth in tabletop products like Merimekko fabrics, Iittala crystal, Arabia china—their restaurant kitchens lead the way in the hot-hot-hot New Nordic movement, yet they’re flying under the radar. Unlike—ahem—Copenhagen, they’re not after headlines nor gold medals. Although they’ve won world championships in events like wife-carrying and phone-throwing, they don’t brag. In the capitol, Helsinki, restaurants routinely turn out amazing, forward combos of what’s on the forest floor, the fields, the lakes and ocean without hoopla—and in inviting, anti-patrician settings, married with a price tag an avid foodie can afford.
Olo boasts one of several Michelin stars glinting across the culinary landscape. I’m lunching in its sleek, harbor-side location on its frequently-changing prix-fixe menu (four courses, plus amuse, intermezzo, etc., for a mere 42 euros) amid a classy crowd in jeans. First, an amuse of salt-crusted baked onion, then the official starter: organic carrot in several transformations, from liquid to the translucent, crunchy slices showered upon at tableside, under its crown of house-made feta and sparkle of sorrel granite.
Next, spring cabbage wrapping pork and barley-like grains, which merit a cascade of fennel-scented chicken broth. Then tender, pearly pike with cucumbers, spring potatoes, pea puree, and a stock of peas and morels. Finally, Apple Jack ice cream paired with tart-sweet gooseberry mousse and spruce shoots. Insert a cheese course, if you wish, starring three local varieties accented by rhubarb jam.
Spis, open three years and recently voted Restaurant of the Year, is just as informal and welcoming—tiny as a closet with an almost-unnoticed street presence. But fans find it and fill the nightly 8:30 seating for a parade of well-curated small plates, starting with a microscopic strand called “Finnish churros” to trail through a garlic and potato mayonnaise. A second pre-course highlights dice-sized cubes of turnip, malt and kohlrabi with thyme mayo. Then a third surprise: creamy potato soup floating a slice in the middle and rife with potato strings.
Then the official courses begin: cabbage, both as sauerkraut and as sweet-sour red with rich, buttery brioche, paired with an Alsatian Gewurtstraminer. Alsace, again—this time, a Gruner Veltlinger— is poured for the cucumbers and cuke foam glossing cottage cheese livened with garlic mustard sprouts. Next up, carrots: sous vide, fermented, and toasty, sweet-and-sour crumbs of roasted carrots paired with a sweet, light and fruity Viognier. Salmon arrives with a potato-herb puree, sided with salad of carrots and parsley root and another pesto-potato mélange. They’re well-served with Flora, a 2013 Riesling.
Then, after an intermezzo featuring a cooling sorbet of spruce tips and pollen, a warm course: chicken. Fingers of juicy breast meat alternate with a wheat-and-tarragon risotto jeweled with pickled hemp seeds, to which an Alsatian Pinot Noir does justice. A pre-dessert of roasted wheat in buttermilk foam precede—ta-da!—rhubarb, accented with goat cheese ice cream. A final sip of Italian muscatel and I’m ready for the hike to my equally style-forward hotel, the Scandic Paasi, where my room is embellished with a huge red-valentine pillow and a punching bag (just in case things don’t work out?).
Finnish Foods, Finnish Streets
Breakfast at Scandic Paasi, as everywhere in Finland, is a buffet of everything that’s ultra-Finnish: multitudes of herring, savory cheeses, pates and sausages, the breads they do so well, bountiful bowls of tomatoes and cucumbers, the usual cereal-eggs-sausage routine, plus a boat-shaped Karelian pastry whose dough holds a creamy rice filling. Take heed: It’s habit-forming.
Then cross the street to stroll amid the food vendors on the market square and on into the market hall itself, to scope out everything edible, and then some (I purchased chocolates in the shape of herring on rye-krisp for gifts). Upstairs, crafts and a Merrimekko shop.
The mothership Merrimekko anchors the two parallel boulevards called Esplanadi in the center of town, bisected by a grassy median-as-park, where all of Helsinki hangs out, pushing strollers, slurping ice cream, or simply preening in the midnight sun. Among the posh shops that line the avenue sits Strindberg, a classic pastry shop-cum-coffeehouse with primo people-watching, and further along, right next to the Tourist Information office, Café Jugend, a masterpiece of Jugenstil (aka Art Deco, or Romantic) architecture. Sip a coffee while you ogle, and you’ll be in good company. (Finns drink more coffee per capita than any people in the world, they say.) And just across the greensward, behind the bandstand where they’re singing “That’s Amore” in Finnish, stands Kappeli, a gilded, Golden Age restaurant featuring a menu honoring iconic composer and national hero Jean Sibelius on his 150th birthday anniversary. Bask in the uber-creaminess of his favorite salmon soup, bobbing with potatoes.
Then cross over to the luxe Hotel Kamp, where the composer hung out for weeks at a time (never mind the wife and kids at home), smoking his ever-present cigars and sipping schnapps. We sip a cocktail in his honor in the lounge where he habitually held court.
Heading for dinner that sunny night, I wandered along the lively harbor plied by ferry boats to a onetime warehouse that now houses Nokka, another New Nordic winner. Its current five-course prix-fixe menu (69 euros) leads off with a complimentary cup of cooling gazpacho, sided with house-made breads: a focaccia greened with nettles and a slice of dark, dense sea-salt-and-berries treasure. Checking out staff and guests alike garbed in T shirts, I settle into the first course of warm asparagus lined up with false morels and spruce sprouts.
Next, tissue-thin slices of air-dried Eastern Finn cattle come topped with goat cheese aside beet chunks and a black currant sauce, all garnished with sesame seeds and fronds of spruce. It’s followed by pan-fried wild fish (white and flaky) paired with nettles and smoked perch roe, with radish, carrot, pea and clover sidekicks. For a breather, time to cool off with a birch leaf sorbet paired with elderberry granite before an actual dessert of carrot parfait (rather gummy; not my favorite endeavor) with lemon verbena granite and white chocolate mousse. Instead of the featured (always foreign, natch) wines, I chose the local Urho beer.
Finnish Tapas: Sapas
Leave it to the clever Finns to borrow from Spanish tapas and come up with sapas—Finnish tapas—the focus of a sweet café called Juuri, fittingly located in the Design District of up-and-coming indie shops. Each sapa—a few bites—costs 5.2 euros, so orchestrate your own feast as appetite and pocketbook allow.
I started with a lovely asparagus “pudding” served in a Mason jar and topped with creamy whipped goat cheese as well as snippets of the green asparagus stalks. Next, a cabbage ball stuffed with barley, served with thyme sprigs and a smoked mustard sauce. Then goose two ways: a mousse of its rich, silky liver and a hearty sausage, well-served with a sauce of raspberry and sunflower seeds and bits of fried bread. Next time: the cold-smoked rainbow trout with roe and carrot; lamb tongue with broad beans; maybe the horse pastrami. And certainly the rhubarb with Finn cattle milk for dessert. Diners desiring bigger portions may choose from entrees like organic pork with false morels and black salsify or local perch with greens and fennel, as the sweet, motherly servers hover.
Of course, not all Helsinki kitchens have caught the New Nordic fever. To munch on classic granny fare, I marched to Cafe Ekberg, a pastry shop-cum-restaurant that hasn’t changed, I’ll bet, since the Twenties—same blue-haired patrons and blue-haired servers (generations younger, these, sporting half-shaved scalps), friendly as could be as they delivered my warm, open-faced sandwich of salmon topped with a fried egg, homemade tartar sauce and leaves of cool cucumber.
Or head to Muu Muu, awarded Best Helsinki Menu for its prix-fixe lunch specials, starring dishes such as a winning salmon soup, a plate of hearty Finnish meatballs paired with whipped potatoes and sweet-tart lingonberry sauce.
For a peek at other innovators, schedule your visit during Taste of Helsinki weekend in early June, when dozens of forward restaurants open tents in a clearing near the train station and offer highlights from their menus in tasting portions, such as lamb neck with lamb sausage and mustard polenta from Ragu, and Pastor’s tamarind-glazed veal cheeks with spiced quinoa salad, 6 euros each.
To plan your own feast, consult www.visitfinland.com, then pack your napkin. — by Carla Waldemar, RFT Contributor