Flavours of Helsinki

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions
Helsinki cathedral

the cathedral in Helsinki

Nowadays everything Nordic, whether drama, design or food is bang on trend and we were feeling quite optimistic about the gastronomic potential of the Finnish capital in spite of the comment a journalist colleague made to us that she had enjoyed everything about Helsinki, except for the food.

Her visit though was quite a while ago and we can safely say that things have now changed. A huge effort is being made by chefs and restaurateurs to move Finland into the big league and a growing number of establishments are giving their Danish and Swedish neighbours quite a bit of competition.

Helsinki is an easy city to negotiate with many of the ‘must-see’ buildings centrally situated. We strolled down to Senate Square passing the landmark white-domed Cathedral before continuing to the quay-side Market Square. Not only was the weather kind to us but we were just in time for some of the best of the season’s produce.

We wandered amongst stalls laden with glorious pyramids of ripe cherries, heaps of fresh green peas – which people were buying to eat raw from the pod – plus blueberries, strawberries and every sort of herb and flower you could want. There was even a man selling potatoes from his boat, presumably having transported them by sea from a neighbouring harbour or island.

Not far away we were mystified by a large building which simply bore a sign saying ‘1888.’ People were going in and out and at first we thought it might be a metro station but on following them, we found ourselves in a veritable gastronomic paradise.

old Market Hall roduce for sale

the interior of the Old Market hall in Helsinki

We were lucky as this, the Old Market Hall (founded in 1888,) had apparently just re-opened after extensive restoration. We had seen seafood on sale in Market Square but here we found wondrous displays of fish including perch, herring and salmon prepared in various ways including the ever-popular gravalax. As well as quantities of caviar there were foods on offer which you wouldn’t find in many other delicatessens: reindeer meat of course, but also bear meat and strange specialities from Lapland. All this as well as colourful and tempting displays of shell fish, freshly baked bread, fruit, vegetables and souvenirs, all sold from elegant wooden booths, restored to the original nineteenth century design.  This struck us as an ideal place for shopping on cold days – of which there are many here in winter – and as a number of the stalls are in fact cafes it is a great place in Helsinki for a lunch or snack.

We however, had a lunch appointment at one of Helsinki’s most elegant restaurants, Ravintola Savoy, the classic ‘flagship of Finnish gastronomy’ established in 1937. A lift whisked us swiftly up to the roof- top restaurant which had been designed in minimalist style by Alvar Aalto. There we were at once enveloped in the calm ambience of impeccable service and white napery. This absolutely called for a glass of champagne which we sipped happily while looking down on the leafy Esplanadi below and deciding what to eat.

Dining at the Savoy - Lavaret with chanterelles and asparagus

Dining at the Savoy – Lavaret with chanterelles and asparagus

Fresh fish with green vegetables is a classic Finnish summer dish, the fish usually being pike perch. On offer at The Savoy on this day however, was pan-fried lavaret, a white, fresh-water fish with which we were not familiar but which, served with green asparagus and creamed chanterelles tasted delicious. We followed it with strawberries served with a delectable lemon verbena sorbet and declared the meal a perfect summer lunch.

The atmosphere at the Savoy may be old-style and the menu classic but in no way has the establishment rested on its laurels. The chef includes many innovative dishes and the produce used is of the very freshest. After lunch the helpful Maitre’d Stefan Sjöholm took us out to see the hotel’s rooftop garden where herbs and edible flowers are grown and the Savoy beehives are situated.

The lift down transported us back to reality and we wondered how the next restaurant on our agenda would measure up. We needn’t have worried because they were so different that comparison was impossible.

Spis is a small, 18-covers restaurant which is gaining a big reputation. Situated in a quiet district of cobbled streets and solid bourgeois buildings (Tove Jansson of The Moomins fame was born just around the corner) the décor is the trendy, slightly industrial style known as faux derelict but the furniture, cutlery and china are creations of top-end designers. Jani Kinanen, the founder/ manager took the time to explain the Spis concept to us.

at Spis. salty oeanuts and pickled cucumber

at Spis. salty oeanuts and pickled cucumber

One menu consisting of a dozen or so small dishes is on offer – although a six-course version is also available – and the focus is on vegetables although there is always one fish and one meat option. Each dish can be matched to a complementing wine of which there is a good range and these can even be order by the half-glass.

The written menu by no means does justice to what was placed before us because every little dish here had been well thought out and was presented with refinement.  Fist came several little amuse bouches including one of crispy deep-fried cabbage with mayo served on a little circular slate plate. We then embarked on the panoply of small dishes. To start a potato cake with asparagus, carrot and turnip decorated with parsley and served with a creamy green sauce; next a dish of basil yogurt with hemp seeds; then a very fresh salad of tomato lettuce and cucumber; next a surprisingly appetizing nettle soup with egg, sour milk cheese and nutmeg bread, very attractively decorated with flowers; then a palate- cleanser of birch sherbet – a sort of ice cream – with pollen; then came  a scallop with parsnip and lavender followed by the meat element,  pork belly and tenderloin with cabbage; then a yoghurt cake and honey meringue followed by  rhubarb and milk and lastly a little cubes of apple marmalade, liquorice and a malt brownie all served atop a big blue lego cube. It sounds a lot but we were not over-sated as each small dish was a mini work of art, beautifully cooked by Chef Perttu Jokinen and the combination of ingredients worked extremely well preserving the true taste of each constituent to provide a real taste of modern Finland.

the Old Market hall is not the only place to shop. Quayside sellers have many items such as this potato seller  at the quayside

the Old Market Hall is not the only place to shop. Quayside sellers have many items such as this potato seller at the quayside

Indeed it would seem that ‘small dishes’ has really become something of a trend in Helsinki. The man behind one of the only two Michelin star restaurants in Finland, Hans Välimäki, who’s Chez Dominique was famous for the 8 seats around a horseshoe table at which sumptuous meals were served, has recently re-openened this establishment in two different incarnations. Rickhards, which is a laid-back gastropub serving  burgers and simple food and Välimäki,  a top-end restaurant which serves just one menu consisting of,  “numerous small handcrafted dishes” using the best ingredients. Hans Välimäki, who takes inspiration from the taste of the ingredients, is quoted as saying that “The only limit will be our imagination.”  Sampling this pleasure is something for our next visit.

So in Helsinki you have a very wide spectrum when it comes to matters gastronomic and whether it is a traditional menu at an old established landmark restaurant or one of the newer places you need not be disappointed.

For more information about Helsinki, click here.

For more inforation about Finland, click here.

Images © Patricia and Dennis Cleveland-Peck




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