Ask a discerning Finn why the world isn’t racing to Helsinki to eat, as it has to Copenhagen and Stockholm, and his gut reaction is to blame himself.
“We’re incredibly modest,” says Sasu Laukkonen, the chef behind the four-year-old Chef & Sommelier, a showcase of modern Finnish cooking. He might not share the good news, so I will: His 25-seat restaurant received a star from Michelin this March.
“We’ve been humble about what we have here,” seconds chef Sami Tallberg, author of the popular “Wild Herb Cookbook,” a veritable field trip exploring 70 or so reasons to shop outdoors in Finland.
Kenneth Nars, one of the country’s best-known food scribes, tells a joke about his countrymen to underscore why the Helsinki dining scene hasn’t received more TLC: “Put a Dane, a Swede and a Finn around a table and set out a cake. The Dane will grab a big piece, the Swede will follow, and the Finn will be left with the crumbs.”
Nars, who wrote his master’s thesis on Helsinki’s restaurant culture between 1880 and 1920, says that history hasn’t helped the dining cause in Finland “We’ve had hard times,” including multiple wars, food rationing and a 13-year-long prohibition beginning in 1919, he says. “That’s not an excuse” for a modest food scene, “ just reality.”
In recent years, Finland has been catching up to its Nordic neighbors. Sure, you can find salted reindeer on the “Finnish antipasto” served at the tradition-bound Kosmos in Helsinki. But as I discovered on a five-day trip to the city this spring, food trucks and Yelp reviews now spice up the scene, too.
Leading the charge: A new generation of chefs, a renewed appreciation for local ingredients and youthful tastemakers, including Ville Relander, hired three years ago by the city to promote its food culture, and Kirsti Tuominen.
Relander has whipped up enthusiasm among locals with his street food festivals and his push to modernize aging food halls, foremost the Old Market Hall, a former slaughterhouse that now hosts a cooking school, an ice cream factory, even a barbecue restaurant.
A former Nokia employee, Tuominen is one of the founders of Restaurant Day, a chance for nonprofessionals to play chef for a day. Four times a year, anyone with a specialty can serve it to the public without fear of bureaucratic intervention. May 17 saw amateur cooks auctioning sushi from their homes, biology students serving recipes featuring insects, and still other participants serving dishes based on wartime cookbooks. Nars, an author of five cookbooks, ran out of the pulled pork he peddled in a local park.
Compared with other Nordic capitals, “Helsinki used to be isolated — boring, to be honest,” says Tuominen, whose idea for citizen restaurant pop-ups has expanded since 2011 to 60 countries. With a new mentality, she says, “we can’t wait to show the world what we have.”
Or, as Laukkonen sums it up, his Finnish brethren are “starting to get a backbone.”
I knew I’d fall for Chef & Sommelier even before I stepped inside, and not just because it was my first taste of Helsinki after a day of travel. My affection ignited on the sidewalk, where I caught sight of Sasu Laukkonen, 39, fussing over his plates through a big open kitchen window. Friends and I were early for our reservation, and with no room to spare in the studio-size dining room, Johan Borgar, the boyish sommelier of the restaurant’s name, stepped outside to welcome us with a glass of wine — but not before we strolled down to the Baltic for a look at the water and the lush Tähtitorninvuori Park.
The first nibble out of the kitchen, pickled salsify rolled in crushed pumpkin seeds, comes on a white plate with jagged edges. A flaw? No, just a chef who doesn’t believe in wasting anything and thinks that broken china makes a fine canvas for his snacks.
“I try to find a use for everything,” says Laukkonen. A lesser chef might toss parsnip leaves; he turns them into an ice cream to which the leaves impart a coconut flavor.
The menu at Chef & Somelier is a model of restraint, every dish detailed in three words or less. “Pike and dill” translates into winey, pan-fried fish sharpened with horseradish and rich with stripes of pike mousseline, roe-bejeweled sour cream and a shimmering sauce of dill and lovage. “Wild rice” brings a soothing porridge of three kinds of ground rice topped with a loose bouquet of nearly a dozen herbs: “All the unwanted plants in the forest,” jokes the chef of his twist on risotto.
Pheasant, brought in earlier by a hunter-friend of the chef’s (he also keeps a full-time farmer on his payroll), has been caramelized in brown butter and garnished with shoots of Scotch pine, moistened with thyme oil. Alongside is a cracker made from leek ash. A friend takes a bite of the velvety fowl with the verdant shoot and reads my mind when he gushes, “This is like running in the forest with your mouth open!”
Although his food is some of the most fascinating in Helsinki, Laukkonen shies away from calling it fine dining. “Finessed dining” is his preferred term, and it applies to every detail in the restaurant. With dinner comes excellent rye bread, laced with rosemary and baked in house, and butter, churned fresh each day and sprinkled with dried wood sorrel.
Like most of the chef’s handiwork, dessert — a sort of ice cream teased from bitter almonds and water and dressed up with praline and whipped cream — reveres nature. Reinforcing the sweet’s bitter almond note are some of the flavors of Finland, including meadowsweet, an aromatic flower, and rowan berry.
Near the end of the feast, Laukkonen comes to the table and announces, “This is how Helsinki tastes now.” Chef & Sommelier set a high bar for the rest of the trip, which its peers nearly matched.
Huvilakatu 28; 011-358-400-959440; chefetsommelier.fi. Dinner menus from $59 for three courses to $100 for nine courses.
Spring in Helsinki unleashes a forest of false morels, named for the mushrooms they resemble but poisonous if eaten raw. To eat false morels, “you have to boil and rinse them three times,” says Filip Langhoff, 34. He’s the chef of two-year-old Restaurant Ask, near the Helsinki Cathedral, which is where I find the defanged fungus in a loose and creamy risotto dotted with lemon compote. Tiny green hops and their purple flowers interrupt the beige surface of the bowl, whose rim is dusted with golden chanterelle powder.
Close your eyes, and you could be eating somewhere modish in Italy. Open them, and you’re back in Finland, where the sleek wooden box on the table holds jagged malt crackers and curly white rice crackers, and the next course celebrates another local treasure: fresh pikeperch. The fish is served as an ivory dagger alongside the green known as white mustard and a delicate, two-toned mustard sauce that repeats the colors of the entree.
It’s the best freshwater catch of my life.
Trained in Finland, Langhoff has cooked at the celebrated Feinschmecker in Oslo and the late Chez Dominique in Helsinki, as well as in Barcelona and Stockholm. For all the work travel, the chef’s food, sourced in part from 20 organic or biodynamic farms, remains grounded. Langhoff thinks that diners should be able to recognize the ingredients he puts before them. “If I’m serving a carrot,” he says, “it has to look like a carrot, not a jelly or a foam.”
The egg in my first course is definitely an egg, with one of the sunniest yolks I’ve ever seen. The chef credits the chicken’s natural diet for the dark orange hue. Cooked in chicken fat, the egg is the centerpiece of a starter wreathed in mustard greens and ignited with pickled mustard seeds. There’s no mistaking the dessert, either, for anything other than what it is: cranberry sorbet, made with pickled cranberries from last fall’s crop, and a small stack of tender pancakes layered with caramelized chocolate creme. Divine.
With typical Finnish modesty, Langhoff says, “I take the product and I deliver it to guests. I’m just a messenger.”
An arched wooden ceiling and black-and-white sketches of nature make up the nonedible design at Ask, which Langhoff owns with his wife and sommelier, Linda Stenman-Langhoff, who likes to sit beside diners to discuss wine choices. The next service trend in fine restaurants, perhaps? “If guests feel like they’re in our living room,” explains her husband, “we’ve succeeded.”
A mere 26 seats, the dining room is a study in economy. Black wooden coat hangers arranged on a lichen-green wall appear to be a bit of whimsy. As the weather turns cold, Langhoff says, the hangers serve as the coat closet. I am therefore not surprised when the man behind my meal translates “Ask.”
The dining cocoon takes its name from Norse mythology, he says, but also from the Swedish word for “box.”
Vironkatu 8; 011-358-40-581-8100; restaurantask.com. Four-course lunch $60, four-course dinner $80.
When I asked food maven Kenneth Nars where I had to eat before I left Helsinki, he sent me skyward, to an office building crowned on the eighth floor by Savoy.
Designed by the esteemed Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, the restaurant, opened in 1937, is a timeless beauty. Guests sink into sleek club chairs produced by the master craftsman’s equally talented wife, Aino, around tables set with wavy glass vases that don’t need flowers to make a fashion statement. As ever, Savoy’s original birch walls and ceiling burnish the scene. (Only the music feels dated: Abba singing “The Winner Takes It All” drags me back to the 1980s, if only for a single course.) Tables on the terrace overlook the lush Esplanade Gardens.
The food, from Executive Chef Kari Aihinen, 42, mirrors the design’s understated elegance. His welcome might star a perfect bite of smoked herring and new potato, presented on a slab of slate, followed by a handsome wooden bowl filled with marvelous breads, among them spelt rolls and rye crisps. Braised pig cheeks are arranged with delicate rhubarb and spring greens into a garland on the plate. Sweet, coral-colored lobster, asparagus and mangold (chard) — every bite honest and perfect — follow.
Orange sorbet capped with lemon foam, served in a frosted glass, signals dessert on the horizon. A lovely baba, or yeast cake, arrives with a scoop of supernal ice cream that, like the honey beer that flavors the cake, gets its sweetness from a beehive on the Savoy’s rooftop garden, where 50 plants make for a lofty pantry.
Born on the west coast of Finland, Aihinen once dreamed of playing professional hockey. This diner is grateful that he skated away from the idea.
Savoy is a rare treat: a room with a view, with food that soars.
Etelaesplanadi 14; 011-358-9-6128-5300; ravintolasavoy.fi/en. Four-course dinner about $130.
Apart from a sauna, the most rejuvenating hour of my stay found me partaking of another Finnish passion — foraging — with the country’s top scout, Sami Tallberg, 37. His interest in wild plants can be traced back a decade, to when he was cooking at the Rivington Grill in London. There, he met British author Miles Irving, a supplier to some of the city’s top restaurants. Irving pulled some of his wares from the streets of London.
Like any wise guide, Tallberg — who returned to Finland six years ago and helped launch a locavore movement with his wild herb cookbook, now in its sixth printing — asked me to keep our precise movements and destinations secret. Though Finns have the right to pick more or less freely from the land’s bounty, the chef sees no reason to share his secret gardens with the masses. Suffice it to say, my escorted tour of a few of the many islands around Helsinki felt like a master class in hunting and gathering.
Every few yards, Tallberg introduced me to a find. I learned that the roots of the polypody do a great impression of licorice, and that Scotch pine is also called “Finnish rosemary.” Wild violets, the chef coached, can be used wherever vanilla or almond flavorings are asked for, while the unopened buds of dandelions are best pickled and eaten like capers. Fondling some sheep’s sorrel, Tallberg asked himself, “Why does this go to the sheep?”
The fairy tale scenery — singing birds, pristine air, cool moss clinging to the rocks — called to every sense. Crushing some juniper between my fingers, I got a sudden thirst for a gin and tonic.
May through July is the best time to find herbs and roots, Tallberg says, while late summer and autumn uncover more berries and mushrooms.
On our stroll, Tallberg collected 10 or so herbs, which he put to delicious use back at his apartment on the border of the city’s Design District. There, he whipped up the omelet of my dreams, puffy and rich, and served it with his just-plucked harvest, including acidic wood sorrel, spruce shoots and juicy, fleshy-leafed orpine. The fluffy salad, dewy with a vinaigrette fueled with garlic and mustard, was washed back with a chilled restorative made from chaga mushrooms.
Devouring the truly fresh food, I recalled the simple sermon my host had uttered a short time earlier, in the woods: “Plants make you feel good.” His cooking converted this believer anew.
Personalized foraging tours for two to 20 people can be arranged by contacting the chef at samitallberg.com or 011-358-40-158-0734. The daily rate is 1,000 euros, about $1,300.