A century from now, 2012 may turn out to be a landmark year for the capital city of Finland, Helsinki. Indeed, who knew that Helsinki is so stylish? Stylish to the level of three years ago being voted the World Design Capital for 2012. Who exactly votes on such a name is exactly as vague and contentious as how the food community vigorously debates the merits of Noma and El Bulli being crowned in the past few years as the world’s best restaurants. Stockholm has the sparkling architecture and beautiful blondes (and scenery). Copenhagen has its eccentricities, the Little Mermaid, and a continually evolving world class dining scene. Oslo is expensive. Helsinki? Well, Helsinki is très chic.
It’s hard to call Helsinki the forgotten one amongst Scandinavian cities because Finland isn’t even always considered part of Scandinavia. Prior to a few years ago, I mainly knew Finland because it is the home of hockey player Teemu Selanne. If “Teemu” is not the most fascinating name in the world, then please send another suggestion. And don’t even get me started on what a stunning word “restaurant” is in Finnish: ravintola.
Even the Finnish language is stylish, using far more double vowels, “v”‘s, and “j”‘s in peculiar places than you have ever seen. Finland gets mighty cold most of the year as you’d expect being so far to the north. In the summer, the sun may not ever set. Now it’s 2012 and the world’s design capital has done its part to celebrate under the bright lights and on the runway. Helsinki’s population is joining the excitement, volunteering at tourist booths to help clueless visitors such as yours truly, and dressing up each day with a subtle nudge towards what is in vogue, yet also comfortable for the few days of summer this part of the region enjoys. The design forte of Helsinki actually isn’t in the fashion sense. Yes, the Kluuvi shopping district between the train station and the Esplanade boasts window after window of designer clothing creations. The heart of the Design District lies in the quieter streets, such as Bulevardi and Fredrikinkatu, just west-southwest of the city center.
There, the design is for your home and your office. Furniture never looked so sharp. The concepts are less minimal than what you usually think of with Scandinavian designs. Like the city’s fashion sense, nothing is irrational. Yet there is a desire to lean towards creativity and flair, even eloquence at times.
Of course major design pieces also set Helsinki apart: Eliel Saarinen’s Central Station guarded by a pair of giants, outside and on the canvasses inside the Kiasma Modern Art Museum, the new Helsinki Music Center, and the still highly acclaimed for some reason beyond me, Alvar Aalto’s now dull appearing late 60’s design for Finlandia Hall. Many of these can be found on what I termed the Architecture walk, all in a row along the Töölö Bay Park (can I buy another ö please?). It’s also the Helsinki version of New York’s Central Park Reservoir for joggers of all shapes and sizes. At the opposite end of the park from the train section is the Olympic Stadium. Used for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1952 Summer Olympics, the stadium’s tower boasts a terrific panoramic view of the city. It provides you the opportunity to understand just how small Helsinki is, how few tall buildings there really are, and how much water surrounds you, with the vast Gulf of Finland beyond.
With this new found energy, some of the world’s most stylish people and boutiques, and being the capital of the country with the world’s highest rated public education system (more on that later), how does the dining scene of Helsinki match up?
There is no doubt that all of the world’s dining trends have made the trek to the shores of the Gulf of Finland. Helsinki is still absorbing the culinary movements, rather than starting its own new ones. It’s not yet Copenhagen, not really even Stockholm, but certainly ahead of Oslo in terms of the caliber of its dining. I was most excited about sampling Helsinki’s answers to the “New Nordic” movement sweeping across Scandinavia. The idea of course started in Copenhagen and is still best sampled there. Places I tried that were obviously attempting to follow Copenhagen’s lead in Bergen, Oslo, and Stockholm sometimes thrived, but too often fell into that middle ground for high wire acts where excellent ingredients get mismatched amidst technique malfunctions and combinations that don’t enhance one another.
Helsinki boasts a Michelin two star restaurant (and the 21st best in the world according to Restaurant Magazine‘s Top 100 Restaurants in the World) with Chez Dominique, the domain of Hans Välimäki , a super star chef and television personality in Finland. Four other restaurants in the city sport a star apiece. New Nordic cooking is on full display from these kitchens, though Chez Dominique’s menus veer much more towards France as one might surmise.
Many other food movements have arrived: craft cocktails, craft beers, organic everything, local everything, sustainable everything, do it yourself, micro coffee roasting, pop-up dining, fusion with restraint, even major food halls à la Eataly and Dean & Deluca. I didn’t see any food trucks luckily. Where would they park? Somehow Paris has food trucks…
Speaking of Paris, a city now in deep love with its baby gastro-bistros where highly trained chefs prepare high concept cuisine at bargain prices in bargain atmospheres, Helsinki is seeing an identical surge. The city’s most rewarding dining experiences can be found from the likes of Muru, Spis, and Juuri.
I wanted to see some of the old and some of the new in Helsinki. The service is painfully slow and the salade niçoise’s tuna painfully dry at the Market Square longtime power lunch and romantic dinner spot Salutorget. Luckily, the handsome, marble covered pillars lend a regal air to the atmosphere, and as is mandatory in this part of the world, the herring assortment is terrific. It’s hard to pick between the smoked perch and the herring marinated in a pile of dill mustard.
Kappeli is the classic Tavern in the Green– the celebratory, beautiful restaurant in the park with questionable food and service reputations. Nestled along the beautiful Esplanade where half of Helsinki frolics on the rare sunny day, go first for the atmosphere. Next, the terrific fish assortment ranging from smoked salmon mousse to a toast-less Skagen toast to herrings of course. Having sampled whale in Bergen, horse in Oslo, it was obligatory to go for the reindeer with carrots, onions, and boletus in a dark rowanberry sauce. Don’t ask me what those last two ingredients even are. The tender reindeer had the gaminess of elk, with a texture more of short rib meat than a steak filet. Not exactly a summer, but still a winner. Sorry Rudolph. Service is terrific too, that friendly style we rarely see in the U.S…the one telling us the dark beer would be heavy like a stout when it turned out to be a very light black lager.
Recently, a publication in Helsinki named the Fusion-Korean-New Nordic restaurant Farang as Finland’s best. It’s little sister Gaijin focuses on blending Chinese flavors with the ingredients and techniques of Scandinavia. On Sundays, the only night we could visit, Gaijin serves one single, family style menu. Somehow, in the sleek, crammed dining room, somebody needs to teach Gaijin how to run a tasting menu meal. With only six courses, three of the courses shouldn’t be served at rapid fire pace that makes half the meal over within twenty minutes.
Five of the six courses range from one bite to maybe three bites if you’re lucky. Half of the dishes come from the same sweet-soy flavor profile that works once in the excellent short ribs, but badly falters in the lone substantial dish of chicken with yellow beans. The broth and dry to slightly moist grilled chicken nuggets reminded me unfortunately of the days when you could dine in United’s Economy class. Tomi Björk and Matti Wiberg’s young restaurant shows more potential with a chocolate and avocado dessert, and delicately fried soft shell crab with a cooking daikon apple salad and yuzu-vanilla dressing.
There are plenty of flashes of promise at Gaijan. But do avoid a tasting menu unless you want a fast food paced meal. And hopefully more of the dishes can break out of the same sweet and sour flavor profile that works once, but needs not to be repeated.
Michelin starred Luomo shows flashes of promise as well, yet ultimately suffers from missing the key component that sends an interesting dish to the next level. Jouni Toivanen’s cooking no doubt is a display of sensational creativity. He also has fallen in love with all of the radical high end dining trends: vague menu names, dishes with more elements than you’ll ever remember, marrying famed dishes from exotic lands, and giving them a local voice. I loved the bulgur chickpea and Moroccan yogurt preparation for “lamb Marrakesh,” but the lamb itself was somewhat bland. As exciting a “xoco and blood” dessert sounds, no exciting news arrives from a chocolate and ox blood combination of somewhat dry chocolate cake infused with the oxblood topped with chocolate cream. The same goes for another dessert of strawberries and cream, where the two switch roles over the course of two small dishes. The only full knock out dish was Toivanen’s take on bouillabaisse.
But what’s really the problem here? Luomo sets you up for a night of dining at the pinnacle of the art. The meal starts with a whirlwind tour of the world in small amuse-bouches (best was “North America” where we present macaroni with cheddar cheese and ketchup…better than it sounds, while the better sounding ones were somewhat unexciting). Plenty of intermezzos follow, including macarons at the end, and one dish of nothing but vapor and forest aroma. Service ranges from friendly but stiff to downright stiff and awkward. The meal will easily last longer than an American football game. Diners choose a 3, 5, or 7 course menu…yet each increases by over 20 euros, and if you have two people at the table, you can sample the whole menu by sharing two three course menus. Yes, same amount of tastes, same amount of food, just at half the price. Luomo can be fantastic and I am very confident it will be. But like with Gaijin, changes can be made for the much better. Restaurants don’t have to be exciting. Restaurants have to please the palate and the experience. The excitement then follows.
Five Best Dishes of Helsinki
Gaijin: Baby Back Pork Ribs with Soy Mirin Caramel and Togarishi
Yes, completely falling off the bone. Yes, the first of too many sweet-sour sauced dishes. This is a dish that made us fall in love with fusion cuisine two decades ago. Not original, still not a problem.
Gaijin: Avocado & Xoco: Lime chocolate Ganache, Roasted White Chocolate, and Avocado Ice Cream
O.k, so this is original. And oh yes it works. The key is not the very refreshing ice cream. It’s the ganache, as rich as a Belgian truffle, with as much lime as a top tier margarita. Some crunch from the roasted white chocolate completes this dish that shows what Gaijin is striving to be and could be.
Kappeli: Fish Assortment
I’ll just list: smoked salmon mousse, cold smoked Baltic herring, skagen, smoked white bait, cold smoked salmon with scrambled eggs. Oh Scandinavia.
Luomo: Intermezzo of Yuzu Sorbet with Lotus Root and Miso Paste
A masterpiece of refreshing fruit, crunch, and spice. Forget about palate cleansing. This was the single greatest bite of food I sampled in Finland.
The Marseille-based fish stew gets a necessary revival at Luomo. Scallops are fried. Shrimps are marinated in tomato. Lots of lovely pike perch. Bread pudding cubes where there is no…bread. They’re made from the broth’s bouillon and saffron aioli called rouille that traditionally comes with bouillabaisse slathered on bread toasts. Finish with a bushel of fennel in the broth.
Concept of Helsinki: New Finnish
There is no doubt that the New Nordic cuisine is being interpreted boldly by many of the city’s young chefs. Results so far? Mixed.
Cocktail of Helsinki: Rhuba Martini, A 21
Someone, somewhere named A 21 the world’s best cocktail bar. It’s not even the best cocktail bar in Helsinki or 20th best probably in New York. The menu is the size of the bible, complete with colored pictures. Yes, seriously, colored pictures in a cocktail menu. And this is not T.G.I. Friday’s. Some of the drinks falter badly as if this were a Wichita, Kansas Hooter’s. The Rhuba Martini, with Grey Goose vodka, pounds of rhubarb, and the right amount of basil is a masterpiece luckily.
Liberty or Death is the hands down premier cocktail bar in the city, the mixologist bastion for Helsinki if you will. Start with Jim Rye whiskey, ginger syrup, lemon, and black tea in the nuanced “Akogare,” then go bold with the “Pueblo,” combining tequila with Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, agave, grapefruit, chocolate bitters, egg white, and a spritz of coffee. Got all that? Good, then avoid the puckerish “Victorian Martinez” where too much absinthe covers up Hendrick’s gin, Maraschino liqueur, and sweet vermouth.
I love the atmosphere of the Hotel Kamp and knowledge of the bartenders. The place makes you feel important in two seconds. None of the drinks I sampled were particularly of note– one with rye whiskey and the orange tasting “cloudberry”, another a mai-tai on par with Trader Vic’s (not a good thing).
Wine or Beer?
Hmm. Wine at the excellent wine bar Vin Vin to start. Really though, Helsinki is beer country. You want the Vakka Suomen Panimo Brewing’s Double IPA or the Suomenlinna Brewing Hoppe IPA from a tiny island in the port of Helsinki. Avoid any beer by Keisari Luomu, Budweiser Finland style. Villi Wäinö is an excellent, funky to get a good education on Finland microbrews with affable bartenders. Best of all, the place has a sauna upstairs. End of debate.
Shall We Grab a Coffee?
Absolutely, let’s go to Kaffa, the flagship coffee bar and roasting site for Robert Thoreson, a world champion barista. This is serious espresso territory and somehow, thanks to being sick during my Helsinki stay, I never made it to Kaffa’s actual cafe. I did sample Kaffa at Thoreson’s Oslo cafe Java and with a terrific espresso at the food shop in Kluuvi, Eat & Joy.
But if the espresso at the cafe La Torrefazione, roasted on site, is any indication, Helsinki knows coffee. That’s good because Finland drinks more of it per capita than any other country.
Restaurant Symbol of Helsinki: Eat & Joy Food Store
Here’s the curveball of the day. About 1/20 the size of a Whole Foods Market or Eataly, in the basement of a shopping center in the city’s shopping heart, Kluuvi, everything you need for a picnic or dinner is here. And it all comes from Finland. Or at least probably 95% of it. The cheeses looks spectacular. So does the meat and seafood section. I couldn’t resist an espresso– from Kaffa’s beans. Then that excellent ice cream? Dig in, especially the lingonberry flavor.
Eat & Joy is where we met a very kind young female Finn, working the register and ice cream scoops. We asked about the outstanding education system in Finland and why it’s the best in the world (since a member of the traveling party works on this subject in the U.S. for a very non Finnish school district). She was a prime example of the success. The Fins don’t pay at all for education, including university. They learn English essentially when they’re born. It shows. The country speaks English hands down better than any other I’ve been to. And it’s not about socialism, everybody being the same. It’s not about Ivy league competition. It’s about doing your best, so everybody else’s best follows. Finland isn’t a utopian education system. It’s the closest thing we’ve got.
Back to Eat & Joy, our helpful cashier gave me some candies to try. She knew I’d love the chocolate. She knew I’d despise the most powerful black licorice known to man. She was right both times.
Symbol of Helsinki: Helsinki’s towering cathedral. What a spectacular sight you can see for miles.
And a final note from Helsinki: