When a friend asks for recommendations on a trip they have planned, the natural thing is to search back to those feelings & sensations of the time that you visited that same place. In reliving the best parts of a holiday or journey, we find the things that made it special and we start to travel again by memory. Just that has happened a week ago, as a treasured travelling friend is planning a visit to Helsinki and asked my advice. Spurred on by the excitement I felt in recommending this glorious city, I decided to add to my musings on what makes it so very special.
Already I have talked of the architectural beauty of this peninsula city with its districts filled with stunning buildings. In fact I hardly scratched the surface of the sights to be relished there! But there was another element of my jaunt to Finland.
As a foodie with a lifetime career rooted in the catering world, it is rare for me not to put a good deal of emphasis on eating when I travel.
Helsinki seemed to boast its fair share of great eateries. My other passion, having launched my working life in Australian cafe culture, is good coffee. Imagine my glee when I discovered in pre-trip research that Finland boasts the world’s highest per capita rate of coffee consumption – a staggering 12 kgs per annum!! This would bode well for my daily cup quality.
Given that I was in self-catering digs, and thus capable of saving a few pennies on food, part of my visit to elegant Helsinki was a pledge to dine out a little. I was not disappointed. Staying in the hipster district of Kallio, about 20 mins walk north of the main city centre, put me squarely in the middle of streets filled with great ‘cafetorias’ and smaller restaurants. One of the true advantages of renting an Airbnb is the added opportunity to meet the locals and get their advice on the place where they live – a benefit that has given me some fab food discoveries in the places I have visited thus far like this. My host, Risto, quickly registered my enthusiasm for ‘local’ and gave me 3 recommendations to start me off. A fab new bistro, just 1 block away , along with a hip coffee roastery/cafe in a walkable, close suburb and another funky little resto in the city near the harbour. I was set!
I had been told, by a once-Helsinki-resident customer of mine, that Cafe Engel on the senate square facing the cathedral was a more ‘classic’ Helsinki spot for a coffee or a light meal. It seemed the perfect place to start. Cafe Engel bustles with an older, cultured Helsinki set. I visited twice during my stay and it was busy both times. Closely set tables & bistro chairs on wooden floors create a warm atmosphere with large curtain-framed picture windows looking out across the tramlines to the square and the majesty of the cathedral glowing in sunshine against chilly early-spring blue skies. On both occasions I decided to indulge in the local delicacy – Lohikeitto – a simple soup of poached salmon & new potatoes floating gracefully in a creamy broth with fresh dill. This is the perfect treat after a brisk walk in the frosty air. Whilst I didn’t indulge, the breakfast options at Cafe Engel look fabulous. One for the ‘return visit list’!
I lashed out and went for 3 special evening meals during my stay in Helsinki. The first was at a relatively new operation only a block away from my funky studio pad. According to my host, it was a spin-off from one of the posher city restaurants, a spot for them to try things in a more informal atmosphere. Kolmon3n is located on Kolmas linja in Kallio… ‘Third street”, hence the clever play in the name. It is a tiny space seating only 30 guests and with a petite kitchen at the rear. Here I was first introduced to the classy trend for waitstaff to wear black gloves for service rather than using cumbersome waiters cloths – Love it! Everything about this city oozes simple modern design, even this. Due to the limited space, Kolmon3n chooses to offer a small, ever changing menu. Allowing a smaller choice but more variety across time; I am sure that local fans love the constant evolution. On my evening, I had the option to take the daily set menu with either 3,4 or 5 courses. Staff were happy to advise on ideal wines by the glass to accompany the food. Naturally I went for 5 courses. A beautiful meal ensued, lightly balanced plates of seasonal, local ingredients simply and elegantly presented. Dishes such as a Morel & Asparagus veloute with chive oil, Salt-cured beef, thyme & tarragon with a lovage mayo & fresh grissini, a pudding of Caramel icecream, blueberries & meringue (their take on an Eton mess). It was glorious, lovingly served by involved staff.
I also set out to find Kuurna, tucked inconspicuously in the streets just off the harbour in Meritullinkatu. Here I had a similarly uncomplicated choice of a set-menu meal, eaten in a tiny warm space with walls lit by dancing candles against vaulted brick ceilings and painted in fashionably peeling, deep tones. Beautiful baskets of house-baked breads greeted me and I once more was treated to a nourishing selection of dishes that championed local produce.
In my daily wanderings, hitting the glistening, cobbled streets of this glorious city, I also encountered some wonderful spots; too many to list. I had incredible, fresh-baked cinnamon & licorice buns in the Market building on the harbour front, filled with delis and food merchants. I strolled the foreshores amongst budding birches whilst I battled the biggest ever cone of Salted licorice icecream (a local delicacy recommended by another travelling chum). One day I dined at Cella, a bar/restaurant with more of a pub atmosphere, that has been going since the 60’s. Here I once more enjoyed a Lohikeitto, followed by hearty Lammasmureke (lamb meatballs) and washed down with a generous glass of local Stallhagen ale.
But I did make the pilgrimage out to the district called Teurastamo where Risto had recommended Helsingin Kahvipaahtimo. Here, not far from a factory now converted to become Helsinki Gin distillery and surrounded by food producers, I found an old 50’s-style renovated garage. Here 2 young hipster souls have set up a coffee roastery & tiny cafe. The simplest of spaces, like student digs, they have decorated with vintage shop signs and art, it was a great place to pause for a freshly made sandwich and a couple of cups of their two daily roasts to compare. An endless trail of keen coffee drinkers came and went, despite its seemingly remote location, testament to their passion and the quality of the coffee.
So, why not finish off a magical week in a stunning city with a truly memorable meal?
On my final night, now totally at home with the tram system and finding my way about town, I ventured out for a special meal at Ravintola Nokka.. regarded by some as one of Helsinki’s prime spots to dine. The setting for this restaurant is pretty wonderful. It sits below the Uspenski cathedral on the waterfront of Katajanokka, housed in glorious redbrick restored warehouses. Inside, a wonderful space beautifully exploits the rusticity of the building whilst introducing modern slick as well. From where I sat under heavy beams flanked by high ceilings, the bustling yet immaculate kitchen was in full view – divided from the guests by a plate glass wall and automatic sliding door. After dinner, I was treated to a tour of the premises by the restaurant manager to see their state of the art cellar and adjacent cooking school space. In the main bar/lounge area they sell locally sourced produce and champion the commitment to knowing the providence of their ingredients.
I indulged in the tasting menu for the evening, an outstanding 6-course adventure in sensory heaven. The only thing that didn’t really click for me was the dessert option and I was happily obliged with an alternative option that appealed from the main menu . Wine by the glass was recommended by the attentive, charming staff and I was set. An evening of truly exquisite food ensued. Stunning presentation which did not take away from the flavours on the plate by over-fussiness. But the standout dish was that dessert that I had begged for at the start! One that will live with me for many years as a culinary triumph: Licorice pannacotta, fennel granita, shaved fresh fennel, dill sorbet on a crispy rye crumb. As a lover of all things ‘anise’ this combination fairly danced on my palette. Light, exciting, fresh & textured, it made my heart sing. As I uttered the words to the waitress:
“If I die now, I will be happy!”
…I realised that the sentiment might not best translate. But I was in raptures; a perfect end to an astonishingly good evening of gourmet delights. As I strolled dreamily out the door close to midnight, the full moon and the city lights made the sense of wonder even greater and I strolled home on glistening, peaceful cobbled streets across a city that felt safe and homely already.
The Helsinki tourist board would do well to engage me! 2 years later on I am still ebullient with praise for this beautiful city. I agree with their slogan for tourism – “Hel Yeah!” and I cannot urge folk enough who have similar taste in life and culture to go and dive in. Oh….and the food still nurtures my memory to this day.
Treat yourself, if you dare.
I’ll be there in spirit.