Playing word association with Helsinki throws up Vikings, modernist design, Nokia, bizarre Eurovision winners Lordi and, um, now I’m struggling.
Food, to be blunt, isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. But to overlook the city’s intriguing culinary offerings would mean missing out on a bit of a thrill.
it’s hard immediately to get the real flavour of a place, especially if
you like things haute. Chez Dominique (chezdominique.fi) – two Michelin
stars and acknowledged as the best in Finland – has all the hallmarks
of the heavy hitter. We could be anywhere: it’s a style I’d call
International Posh Bland.
food is a different matter. Formerly, chef Hans Välimäki’s menu
bristled with Jabugo ham and spherified mozzarella. But now it’s all
about terroir, with dishes like fennel and dry caramel (Välimäki is fond
of his dehydrator), reindeer tartar with oyster, and the Noma-esque
‘smoke, marrow and soil’. It’s a crafty, clever tightrope walk between
ethereal and earthy.
new chum, Tomi Laurila – who runs foodie safari company Eatbest
(eatbest.fi) – takes us on a market crawl. The old market hall Wanha
Kauppahalli (wanhakauppahalli.com) is lovely, with its carved wood and
atmospheric walkways. Who knew there were so many different kinds of
smoked fish? Not to mention vats of rainbow-hued fish roe, dense black
loaves stuffed with shoals of tiny fish, and the famous Finnish apple
pie. But flocks of tourists mean macarons and kebabs, too. I much prefer
Hakaniemi market in the grittier Kallio, which seems altogether more
real, rammed with locals piling dazzling organic produce into baskets
and wheelie bags.
by this, we’re determined to get further under the skin of this
engagingly melancholy, friendly, and slightly bonkers city. There’s
atmospheric Seahorse (seahorse.fi), rammed with original art and vast
portions of home-style Finnish cuisine: shrimp casserole, stuffed
cabbage rolls. And funky, off-piste little Kuurna (kuurna.fi) near the
docks – so insouciant it says only ‘Ravintola’ (restaurant) outside.
Here, cool young things eat from a brief, weekly-changing menu (vividly
green foraged herb soup, almond cake with spruce ice cream) under a
vaulted, peeling ceiling.
hotel, Klaus K (klauskhotel.com), is modern and chic, peppered with
intriguing art and full of people who look like famous architects. This
may be forward-looking Helsinki, but within staggering distance are two
atmospheric blasts from the past. Café Ekberg (cafeekberg.fi) has an air
of faded gentility, but there’s nothing retiring about the customers or
banks of blowsy, indulgent specialties – sticky sponge champagne corks,
millefeuilles, apple meringues. Kosmos (ravintolakosmos.fi), pleasingly
gloomy with its wood panelling and grandma’s boudoir lighting, has
suitably unreconstructed food: cured reindeer with cloudberries,
sweetbread sausage. Flavours are almost Russian: smetana, borscht, clear
perch soup. And I could eat the sweet Finnish crayfish until I’m
an undistinguished parade of shop lies Savoy (royalravintolat.com/
savoy). Through what looks like an office block entrance, a lift whisks
us up to the top and… wowsers: this is a design spod’s erotic dream,
like walking into history. Created by Helsinki’s famous Alvar Aalto in
1937, everything remains intact, from the terrace overlooking Helsinki’s
rooftops to the immaculately preserved fittings. I lust after
everything: wood panelling, light fittings, furniture, iconic Aalto wave
vases. If I sound carried away, it’s because I am.
food? It’s upmarket, expensive, Franglais with Nordic accents – think
roast duck with black salsify and barley with lingonberries, and Savoy’s
famous vorschmack, a wildly savoury dish of minced beef and lamb laced
with herring (much nicer than it sounds). But, quite frankly, they could
feed me KFC in here and I’d be happy as a clam.
might be labouring under the impression that Helsinki’s all about
retro, but a visit to A21 (A21.fi) puts paid to that misconception. This
former sex shop is so utterly cool that, once through its understated
doors, I feel about as happening as Ann Widdecombe. Thank goodness for
velvet rope leniency. Suomi (Finnish) cocktails feature intriguing
flavourings: cloudberries, maybe, or rhubarb. They’re vast, delicious
and lethal, and I still have the bruised coccyx to this day (don’t ask).
last destination is properly fairytale: one of the tiny islands – most
of them are only big enough for one building, often a restaurant – in
the Helsinki archipelago. Saaristo (asrestaurants.com) on weeny Klippan
(sounds like we’re lost in Ikea) is an intricate wooden fantasy: beams
shaped like dragons, vast bay windows looking over the silvery sea,
onion-shaped cupolas, like the setting for an Elvish wedding. Whimsical?
Maybe. But you should see the place.
food is buffet style: cured salmon, laveret (whitefish) roe, roasted
pike perch on potatoes, beetroot pickle. It may not be the most
sophisticated food we’ve eaten, but as a farewell to the city I can’t
imagine anything more magical.
The article 'Postcard from Helsinki' was published in partnership with BBC Olive magazine.