I recently returned from Helsinki where I was one of 43 travel bloggers invited to take part in the Nordic Bloggers Experience and the Matka Travel Fair. As part of our programme we were able to choose a themed tour around the city and as you may have guessed I chose the food one. No surprise there, but what surprised me was the sheer range and quality of restaurants, bars, food halls, markets and speciality shops in a city of just 600,000 inhabitants.
Even though I had caught a glimpse of this side of Helsinki during a short visit last summer I soon discovered that the passion for food shared by members of this new movement was like an iceberg out there in the icy Gulf of Finland – it goes way deeper than it would first appear. What I like about the food scene in Helsinki is the idea of letting the ingredients do the talking – rather than zapping them into something vastly different using liquid nitrogen or altering their molecular structure.
This article includes both the places we visited on the food tour and a bunch I uncovered myself. Here, then, are 10 excuses to make your next city break one to remember on so many levels; let the others do Paris, Rome and Berlin while you stray from the herd and enjoy gourmet Helsinki – in classic Grown-up Travel style…
Reasons Helsinki deserves to be the king of the Scandinavian food scene
They thought up Restaurant Day
Let me start by explaining how Helsinki’s relatively new passion for food can be traced back to quite possibly the greatest food-related idea of the last few years. I know I’m both generalising and over-simplifying things here but stay with me – in May 2011 Finland gave birth to ‘Restaurant Day’ and the rest of the world has been catching up ever since. Basically anyone can set up a restaurant, café or a bar for a day.
You can flog focaccia from your front room, offer oysters at the office or sell salmon sarnies on the seashore. I’ll stop with the alliteration now. The idea was to get people to try something new and it worked a treat – Helsinki went nuts about food. From humble but still impressive beginnings – 40 pop-up establishments appeared at the first event – Restaurant Day has grown at a huge pace and gone global. It is now the world’s biggest food festival and takes place four times a year. 190 cities in 31 countries participated in the most recent celebration of food and drink in November 2013.
One of the impulses behind Restaurant Day was frustration at the regulations preventing the street food enjoyed in other countries and the hope that for just one day the red tape could be removed. The authorities agreed and all restaurateurs are responsible for running their places while a volunteer group takes care of much of the organization needed behind the scenes including the excellent website. In 2014 Restaurant Day will take place on Sunday 16 February, Saturday 17 May, Sunday 17 August and Saturday 15 November so add those dates to your diary and try to time your visit to so you can enjoy the fun.
You can buy your ingredients at one of several indoor markets – and eat there too
Top quality ingredients are the building blocks of a great meal, and the Finnish capital has you covered. One of the reasons Helsinki has refused to cave in to the big supermarket chains so common in other cities could well be the existence of food halls such as the one we visited – Hietalahti.
Home to vendors previously located in the Old Market Hall while the latter is being renovated, Hietalahti is itself over 100 years old and the tradition of buying produce at such places endures. One of the stallholders told us that even during the economic downturn the locals continued to buy the freshest fish and meat, albeit in smaller quantities. The Finns clearly share the same fundamental belief as I do – that life is too short to waste on bad food.
Many of the stalls at “Hietsu” hall remain family businesses and the people working here are not just concerned about making a sale – they want you to enjoy what you buy and can tell you how best to prepare your meal. It doesn’t stop there either – with cafes and restaurants on both levels you can have lunch or dinner while enjoying the old-fashioned atmosphere. We sampled several tasty specialities from the Marja Nätti Fish Shop at their Merta restaurant where you can also have a coffee and a pastry while you watch the chef hard at work. Merta is licensed too, which is a bonus.
During the summer you can sit outside on the terrace before browsing the extremely popular flea market that sets up in the square in front of the building. Visit the Hietalahti Market Hall website for full details.
You can find even more ‘real food’ at Anton & Anton
A newer addition to the Helsinki grocery store scene, Anton & Anton sells “real food to real people who care about the quality and origin of what they eat.” That should be everyone, really – but it’s just so much easier to focus on cheap food from the hypermarket, right? We would all quickly see the error of our ways if we had a shop like this nearby.
It can often feel a little overwhelming to consider reinventing the way we look at, buy and prepare food – which is why a fundamental part of the Anton & Anton philosophy is to employ staff with a passion for helping customers. This extends beyond recommending which produce to buy to include providing information about where it comes from and how best to use it. It’s the way grocery shopping used to be and is supposed to be; an experience for the senses and a satisfying part of modern life rather than a chore to be completed as quickly as possible.
We visited the Kruunuhaka branch and found that this bold vision had been successfully implemented. With fresh meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, cheeses and bread as well as a carefully selected range of often exotic artisanal products (think Chaga coffee, craft beer etc.) it’s a world away from the bland out-of-town supermarket. With a second neighbourhood store in Töölö and a third planned for 2014, Anton & Anton has become an established part of the Helsinki food scene and is forging a path that an increasing number of locals are keen to follow.
You can enjoy coffee and chocolates watching cakes being made at Karl Fazer Café
If asked to name one thing the Finnish lead the world in, you might think ‘education’ or ‘making apps featuring birds catapulted through the air’. But while these are both valid responses I was actually thinking of coffee consumption. Weighing in with the slightly worrying statistic of over 10 kg coffee consumed per person per year, the Finns certainly like the brown bean. The fact that the majority drink regular filter coffee and plenty of it (around 5 cups a day is common) rather than espresso-based drinks in which smaller volumes are used probably has something to do with it. In any case there are few things more Finnish than going for a coffee and arguably no venue more tempting than the Karl Fazer Café.
Housed in the same premises as when it first opened in 1891, the building may have changed in all that time but the focus on confectionery and coffee remain the same. The company’s story is an interesting one of Karl Fazer’s love for chocolate and flair for marketing and today the company is one of Finland’s best-loved brands and its chocolates in particular a source of national pride. In much the same way that many British expats crave Marmite, Finns abroad hope that visitors from home won’t forget to bring a bar of Fazer blue.
The café is justifiably popular and if you are lucky enough to snag a table near the work area you can watch the confectioners producing a range of goodies to order behind the glass. Strangely the café website is only in Finnish and Swedish at present but Google Translate can help.
You can almost taste the history at Restaurant Lasipalatsi
When I was biking through the city last summer I stopped outside Lasipalatsi (the Glass Palace) as I was mesmerized by its old-time charm. I’m a sucker for old neon signs and functionalism so this place demanded an extra stop. But this time I got to go inside and realise what I missed in July. Completed in 1936, Lasipalatsi was a showpiece of its time and was fully renovated between 1996 and 1998 and contains one of Helsinki’s first large-scale restaurants as well as a cinema, cafe and office space.
The architects responsible for the refurbishment carefully followed original style and the building now enjoys protected status – even changing the curtains in the restaurant requires an official application procedure.
The new version of Restaurant Lasipalatsi opened its doors to guests in the autumn of 1998 and serves high quality, traditional Finnish cuisine in a wonderful old-fashioned atmosphere. The old photographs above the bar are a nice touch, too. The menu follows the seasons by including ‘theme weeks’ as well as its regular a la carte range. We were lucky enough to visit during ‘Blini’ week and sampled these heart-blockingly good buckwheat pancakes, a Finnish twist on a Russian speciality.
As you can see these blinis are huge and full of butter; perfect for a winter’s day with a range of tasty toppings but you won’t need many. Having said that if you really are hungry and are up for a challenge you can go for the ‘eat as much as you can’ option, ask the staff what the house record is and try to beat it. Just don’t tell anyone we told you to…
Restaurant Lasipalatsi is also well-known using the best raw materials from local producers and is very popular in the evenings so booking is advisable. Check the website for the latest information.
You can enjoy the ‘farm to table’ experience at Ask
Next stop on the list is the small but perfectly-formed Restaurant Ask. There’s no doubt in my mind that this 26-seat establishment in Kruunuhaka will be getting Michelin recognition in the very near future* for its beautifully-presented and divine tasting food.
With its own designated farmers supplying the best raw materials possible, the team at Ask put together lunch and dinner menus using seasonal produce and you don’t know what you’re getting until it appears on the table. But believe me, you can feel safe in their hands. We made our way through the 4 course lunch menu (which at EUR 45 was an absolute bargain for such a culinary experience) and this was definitely one of the best meals I’ve had anywhere.
Don’t miss out on coffee – this was the first time I’d ever seen a ‘Chemex’ coffeemaker and was sceptical to our waiter’s insistence on not adding milk before we’d tried it. He was right – the coffee was so smooth that it was unnecessary and would actually have spoiled it – like I said, these guys know their stuff.
You can take your taste buds on a journey at A21 Dining
Having done their part in convincing locals to enjoy sophisticated drinking with their acclaimed A21 cocktail bar, the folks behind this place just up the road are encouraging food as a multi-sensory journey. The somewhat unimaginatively named A21 Dining offers what it calls ‘mind food’ – designed to make dinner more of an experience than just filling your stomach. I didn’t take pictures while we were there but have included some examples of what to expect at A21 Dining here.
On our visit the theme was ‘Above the Arctic Circle’; the menu contained an illustrative photo for each course and we started in the autumn with the glowing colours of the fall (pork and pumpkin) and moved through the depths of winter (cod and pimento pepper hollandaise) to end with the warmth of the spring sun (cloudberry and licorice). The tasting menus include cocktails for each course specially created to fit with the particular culinary journey on which you travel.
I admit it sounds gimmicky but it is great fun and both the food and drink make A21 Dining another serious candidate for Michelin status. But who cares about affirmation – go there for the atmosphere, the passion of its staff and the excellent service. It’s a really different way to eat out and in New Nordic tradition the ingredients are the stars of each dish rather than some scientific process. While not cheap – the full 7 course menu is EUR 79 and the accompanying cocktails will add another EUR 63 to your bill – it still offers real value for money and I’d have no hesitation in ponying up for a fine dining experience like no other.
Take a look at the A21 Dining website for the current menu and more information
You can – and should – try reindeer tongue at Manala
I was taken to Manala by a Finnish friend who managed to talk his way into getting us a table on a Saturday night. Located a short distance from the centre of town across the road from the National Museum, Manala serves traditional Finnish cuisine in a stylish setting with some interesting paintings decorating its walls. There are several establishments in the same building including a very popular bar and live music venue. It’s a more sedate place now since being renovated a year or so ago but still attracts a lively bunch late at night – indeed it’s one of the few places in Helsinki with a full kitchen open until the wee hours.
We ordered a bunch of starters including dill pickles with sour cream and honey which was a minor revelation – who’d have thought that combination would be so delicious? For the main course I went for sauteed reindeer with reindeer tongue. I know, it’s easy to feel sorry for Rudolph but when you try this all such thoughts disappear. Very, very tasty. The one strange thing about Manala is their insistence on charging EUR 2.70 to take your coat.
Sipping the signature cocktail in the legendary Hotel Kämp bar is worth the trip alone
All big cities have their landmark hotels and Helsinki is no exception. Often referred to as the only truly 5-star place in Finland the Hotel Kamp certainly has pedigree – and it also has a wonderful enclosed terrace and an old-school library bar. I was given a tip to try their signature Tellervo cocktail (vodka, spiced cranberry agave, lingonberry preserve, orange bitters and absinthe) and am passing this on here – I can’t attest to the hallucinatory qualities of the last ingredient but can tell you it’s strong stuff; a good tonic for a cold day. You might want to stop at one though. Or perhaps switch to a Hemingway daiquiri to sip at while jotting down notes for that novel of yours?
The main entrance is right opposite Karl Fazer Cafe on Kluuvikatu but ignore this new section of the grand old hotel and use the old entrance one round the corner. Opening the huge door you’ll be met by the sight of the splendid staircase, Greek columns and chandeliers. Turn left for the bar as so many famous Finns have done before you, including composer Jean Sibelius. These days it’s just as popular with non-residents as it is with hotel guests.
The hotel opened in 1887 and over the years became a favourite with Helsinki’s political and cultural elite. It fell into disrepair and disuse in the mid 1960s but after massive renovation work reclaimed its place on the Helsinki scene in 1999 as the hotel of choice for visiting dignitaries and celebs.