Sunday, 25 August 2013

A Taste Of Helsinki

English: Aerial view of Suomenlinna, Helsinki,...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We've taken to going to Northern Europe for a quick break every summer and so decided to follow our trips to Tallinn and Stockholm with a jaunt to Helsinki this year. I'd recommend the city heartily; there's planty to do and see there, from the insanely useless fortification of Suomenlinna (second only in historical uselessness to the Maginot Line) to the many museums and art galleries - it's a delightful place to spend a few days exploring. The hooch, incidentally, isn't as expensive as everyone insists - particularly if you're used to Dubai prices! The Finns' relationship with alcohol is similar to that of the Swedes and for this reason, Helsinki serves the world's smallest Martinis (by law they can only serve up to 4cl of hard booze at a time) - and you can only buy the good stuff from official booze shops, which is a little like finding yourself in a Baltic Ajman, if you know what I mean.

Everything else apart, we ate like kings. The food in Helsinki was glorious - the first surprise being the 'street food' in the central market, where flaxen haired girls handed out food cooked on massive griddles - the rickety plastic-sheeted tables under the orange awnings of their stalls packed with eager eaters. Each stall has a single dining-table sized griddle, split up into various foods, from sides of salmon and piles of whitebait to mixed vegetables and potatoes sauteed with smoked sausage and patties of minced reindeer. The piping hot food is piled into a cardboard bowl and slathered in garlic sauce and eaten with a plastic fork and a bottle of cold near-beer (those alcohol rules again).

At the other end, there are serious restaurants. One such is all-organic micro-restaurant 'Ask'. It had to be done, really. Ask is only about a year old, so it's not featured in the Rough Guide or other tourist maps and things you're given as you wander around Helsinki. The restaurant seems almost to encourage that understated status - you'd really want to know where it is because there's no signage on the exterior of No. 8 Vironkatu (a turn left off Mariankatu, which you'll pick up just past the Presidential Palace at the end of the market square). 

First things first - eating at Ask is a funfair ride, so you have to give yourself up to the experience. You get a four or eight course tasting menu for your 55 or 85 Euro respectively. Asking what was on the menu when I called, I was told 'We don't know - chef's still down at the market'. If you think that response is a good thing, you'll love Ask.

For another 50 (or 80) Euro, you can buy into the wine selection to accompany the menu. That's pricey, even by Finnish standards, but having gone through the wines I'd say it was reasonable value for money. One of our table of two doesn't do fish or game I explained when I booked. No problem, they told us and we chatted about what she does like. We pitched and were sat at a table for two at the back (great - the other one was near the door, which was open to a chilly, rainy August evening) in the almost starkly minimalist restaurant - tiny, with a total of 26 covers.

Drinks? A Vodka Martini ordered, only to find that we were in the grip of the Organic Police. No inorganic Martini although we could have an organic vodka and some wholesome fruit juices. Right, then - we'll take the organic champagne from Vertus instead, which was lovely. The four course menu, which most around us took that night, was brought out by the chef owner himself, with the efficient service from the waitress limited to explaining (at some length) and pouring the wine, clearing plates and offering bread. Each course was introduced, again at length. This is all part of the performance and the best thing to do is sit back and enjoy it.

You order your main and they do the rest. If you're frustrated by the limitation, don't play - you'll just end up angry and muttering. If you're willing to give it all up and go along with the game, fling yourself in with a whoop. An amuse bouche, a vegetable stock foam with herbs. Delicate, surprising and fun but served with clunky wooden spoons that somehow didn't suit the precision of the dish. And now we have a green salad, little leaves and flowers sprinkled on a cut glass dish with little dabs of a rich, creamy dressing and a spray of elderflower dressing pumped by chef as he chatted then sprayed over the collection. Our first wine, German and surprisingly dry for all that. The combination was sensational. One flower was a little camphorous, something medicinal in there, a hint of coal tar. What was it? Yarrow. Of course. Yarrow. Silly me.

The second course, a Riesling (if memory serves) - again, complex and drier than expected - accompanying, was 'egg, roots and buckwheat'. We're playing, of course, it's altogether more complex. A moment of fear from Sarah the fussy eater opposite as an egg yolk is spied sitting on top of the rich and meaty-tasting (but no meat involved) buckwheat porridge. She don't like runny eggs. But no, the sunset-orange yolk was cooked to perfection, just firm and yet tender and yielding. The roots, painfully young (it was a guilty vegetarian pleasure, a little like eating veggie veal. We were giggling about the idea that hard-core vegetarians would be demoing outside this place within the year about cruelty to young beets), were tender and their little sprigs crisp and salty - a parsnip and carrot (both the size of a delicate lady's little finger) along with a tiny beet and some crispy wisps of green and a drizzle of oil finished off the tiny dish. It was grin-inducing perfection, a variety of flavours and textures that absorbed and entertained. You'd almost ask for the Curly-Wurly at this point. A pause, some conversation. The rain started to come down hard and, finally, the front door was closed against the chill.

The main - chicken (rooster, in fact) was served across from me as a result of our chat on the phone. I had the wild duck. It was so wild I got a nice crunch of lead shot as proof. Introduced as wild duck, chanterelle and kale, the dish was a set of pink slices of rich duck breast cooked on the bone and served off, laid on a mild mustardy bed with fried kale and dabs of wild buckthorn. The plate could have been warmer, tell the truth. The rooster was perfection, served to the same accompaniments which didn't quite serve the lighter meat as well. However, a burned butter was poured over the chicken rather than the red jus with the duck and both were glorious. A Puligny Montrachet (organic, natch) with the chicken and a chilled French red - a Beaujolais as I remember, it was all becoming a bit of a procession of things by this point and I'm not quite pretentious enough to spoil a meal by taking notes - were both a welcome change from the German stuff and both were complex, fine wines that sat perfectly with the food.

We're happy and thoroughly relaxed by now, sitting back and chatting about the food. Because yes, it is all about the food. A wee dish of beetroot snow and red berries appears before little tulips of dessert wine appear followed by a dish of warm, crispy waffles surrounded by bilberries and sorrel leaves and topped with a scoop (chef allows himself a flourish by now as he serves it) of burned butter ice cream. Smashing - absolutely smashing.

Coffee (the filter system is introduced, the one time in a night of long introductions when I wanted to switch the patter off), Panamanian and organic of course. The cups are 1950s vintage Arabia porcelain (Arabia is Helsinki's premier porcelain factory and something of a national monument. And no, it's got nothing to do with Arabia Felix). Fine, but don't feel you have to tell us that, dear. By now the intros are wearing thin. The receipt for your bill tonight is printed on handmade organic paper using squid ink from outer Carpathia. Sorry, wandered into over-introduction reverie there.

Petits fours - a meringue, a little cream with a berry (a rare misstep, the cream was floury) and a tiny warm chocolate liquorice cake, the size of a thumbnail and reminiscent for some reason of one of Pierre Gagnaire's crazy little ginger biscuit with salt topping moments. A Finnish apple brandy for me and the evening rounded off by a walk home through the drizzle. I went to the toilet and came back to the brandy, thankfully missing its introduction.

So, in short, if you're going to Helsinki, book this restaurant. Pay the price. Go with the flow, sit back and enjoy the theatre. It's worth every penny and every second. They could pare back the introductions a tad, perhaps. But that's just cavilling - we had no complaints at all really. An altogether remarkable meal.

And if you're thinking about spending a week somewhere interesting next summer, give Helsinki a shot. You could do a lot worse, believe me.
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1 comment:

Grumpy Goat said...

Did you try the "meat pie"? I did, and it turned out to be a huge doughnut filled with minced beef and rice instead of jam.

I don't need another one.

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