As I planned a recent trip to Finland, I didn't necessarily think that the cuisine was a big draw. I'm happy to report that I was absolutely wrong. Finnish chefs are creating exciting food, riffing on traditional cuisine by combining classic ingredients with a contemporary twist. Mind you, I didn't read that anywhere, those are just my findings after about a week of "research."
My first night in Helsinki, I ate at my hotel restaurant because I was too tired and it was too late to find anywhere else. I ordered the potato pancakes with smoked salmon, creme fraiche (I think), and dill. The waitress brought out three tiny, beautiful pancakes. The salmon tasted like no other smoked salmon I've ever had: rather than the velvety texture I've come to expect, this salmon was tender with--I don't know how else to describe it--a little bit of crunch on the edges. I think this must have been lightly smoked and the result was divine. The delicate fronds of dill on top each pancake gave each a slightly herbal taste--and a beautiful appearance. I was wowed.
The next night, I met my friend Kris for dinner at the Elite, a restaurant she recommended. We were both delighted by a starter that we chose almost as an afterthought which combined reindeer sausage with some kind of creamy topping. Kris thought the sauce had chunks of apples in it. I have no idea what else it contained, but it provided such a nice contrast to the smokiness of the meat. This restaurant was the most traditional of the places I ate, and I enjoyed the meatballs I ordered as my main course.
While in Finland, I also traveled to Turku. I did do some reading about the restaurants there, but I also had great luck just choosing where to eat randomly. My first night there, I had a surprising salad that combined lettuce, 4 olives, slow roasted tomatoes, and pomegranate seeds with a light lemon vinaigrette. This was so refreshing.
The next evening, I tried Blanko, just a few steps away from Tinta, the restaurant I'd eaten at the night before. More lightly smoked salmon with a salsa verde, a Spanish tortilla, and a good salad. If I had to be hyper-critical, I'd say this meal seemed more mass produced and less nuanced than the other food I ate in Finland. Still, I enjoyed it a great deal.
These first two restaurants in Turku were ones that were recommended. The next night, I happened to choose to eat in a restaurant that, I found out afterwards, was associated with another highly respected restaurant. I ate at E. Ekblom (all three of these restaurants are on the river Aura on a lovely tree-lined street). At this last of my experiences eating in Turku, I again loved the food. I ordered hummus, which had a fresh taste and was topped with sliced pea pods and radishes. I'm pretty sure that it wasn't made with tahini, or at least not much of it. It was light and simple and so satisfying. I also had a fantastic leek quiche that was served with a fennel salad. I enjoyed the salad, although I have to admit that the tamari soaked fennel didn't quite go with the rest of the meal. Still, the food was so good here!
My last night in Helsinki, I arrived at Juuri, another place highly recommended by Kris, just after they opened, hoping they could squeeze me in (as Kris told me that one usually has to have a reservation). I was lucky enough to get in, and this was my best meal in Finland--best even though I was crazy about everything else I'd eaten on the trip. Juuri serves what they call, sapas, a Finnish version of tapas. They divide them up into fish, meat, and vegetable, and the restaurant staff recommended I order 5-6. I decided to order 4, but I actually wish now that I had ordered more. Each one was tiny, but perfectly constructed, a tribute to commonly used Finnish ingredients or traditional dishes. My sausage with vodka-infused mustard was divine. The pike cake with horseradish cream was clever and layered. The potato pancake with garlic butter and lovage was yummy and the fried willow herb was out of this world. In appearance, willow herb looks like tiny fronds of broccoli that have been oven-roasted. But the taste was much more delicate than broccoli.
At some point, I'll return to this post to edit, post links, and give the addresses of restaurants. But for now, I wanted to describe these culinary adventures while the memory is fresh. I am very impressed with contemporary Finnish cuisine and hope to learn more about its history and recent development.