The Finnish capital’s culinary scene is full of traditional ingredients and cool retro designs.

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.

Sometimes, 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.

The 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.

A 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.

Buoyed 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.

Our 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 properly ill.

Above 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.

The 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.

We 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).

Our 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.

The 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.