Sharpen your knives, cross your swords – make way for Kungfu Kitchen

Let’s leave the generic sweet and sour tastes behind and move onto the umamis – Kungfu Kitchen fuses the best of Finnish ingredients with a strong slash of Asia thrown in.

Miro Kurvinen – Finnish Master Chef and innovator

The octopus is slightly charred but picked up with the sweetness of the mango, imported sadly and not as sweet as I, as a South African, am used to it. But the octopus ink mayo sheds a whole new shadow on this dish complementing the smoke of the main ingredient. Salmon is so soft it can be severed with a chopstick and sweet with a nutty dash of sesame oil. I love tartar, any form of it and this one is made with Finnish beef and Kimchi mayo that looks like two perfectly formed egg yolks on the side. It makes your mouth tingle especially with the Brandt Riesling from Pfalz, Germany that teases out the flavour of the parsley garnish for some strange reason. It’s a delightful combo.

Charred octopus with a bite of chili on top

Can’t say much for the shiitake mushroom dumplings or the hoisin duck banh bao, those fluffy buns from Vietnam, since both lack punch. More acidity perhaps? The Frank Massard Mas Amor Rosé tends to dominate the delicate flavours. I look forward to the marbled beef Yakiniku and especially the Nebbiolo d’Alba and there it is, a simple, no-nonsense dish with a lighter style of this typically big wine, filling in the edges to complete the main course.

Sweet, soft salmon
Tartar with Kimchee mayo

The concept of this restaurant is tight, the wine list is well chosen and ambience can be found around every nook and cranny with new details to be discovered in the upholstery, lighting and seating. Oh, and don’t forget to see the Zen-type garden in the courtyard. It too, oozes elegance.

Marbled beef Yakiniku

Link:

Kungfu Kitchen

Hieta Restaurant – history in the making

If you want to follow a hard act, leave it in the hands of the pros. Royal Restaurants have taken over this historic spot overlooking the old shipyard and handed over the reins to Jani Hiltunen, manager, and Ali Toppinen, head chef, to reconstruct an age-old tradition.

Jani Hiltiunen and Ali Toppinen, Ravintola Hieta, avajaiset. Photo: ATTE KAJOVA

Dating back to 1897 when stevedores and workers called the then-named Salve their ‘local’, these walls have seen it all including billows of cigarette smoke, countless millions of litres of beer and Finnish hooch called Koskenkorva being consumed. Today we walk in there and the gasps of airy delight spring from the daylight shining in on the white walls. I ask whether there were always floor-to-ceiling windows and the answer is ‘yes, but they were half covered in stickers and huge ventilation boxes’.

Fried Baltic herring and craft beer

Jani and Ali are on the same page – they really don’t want to destroy that trademark history of good, homemade large portions of food at reasonable prices but they also realise that we’re living in a different age and that a modern twist is vital. Hence, smoked Baltic Herring still comes crispy but the salty cucumber is a crunchy mix of pickles with good acidity to cut the grease. Wiener Schnitzel is a slab that fills the plate with a dollop of parsley butter and not enough lemon to give you that hit of freshness. But you can ask for more and the super amazing staff are only ready to lay it on. Pancakes are the Finns’ favourite dessert and crispier I have yet to come across.

‘HIETA’ had to fit the boots of its predecessor ‘Salve’ in size and historic importance.

Enough of the food, let’s get down to the drink and then you know these guys have got it sussed. Their own blend of Stuvari ale comes from Donut Island craft brewery just down the road and is a refreshing balance of malt and hops with a twist of citrus to make it your favourite drink of choice this summer. But if brews are not your best, top quality Jacquart Brut Mosaïque champagne is available for an affordable €10,80/glass. All of this, with a view of the water and musings of times gone by, from the terrace of Hieta which will be opening as soon as the restaurant does, on Wednesday 26 April 2017.

Watch this space for links…

Sandro Restaurants – Helsinki

Sandro Kallio – no nonsense dining

THE PLACE 8/10: Neighbourhood restaurants in three spots in Helsinki, these joints concentrate on Moroccan/Lebanese cuisine in healthy portions. Marrakesh Madness brunch is served on Sundays while vegans and vegetarians and the rest of us can eat their hearts out on Saturdays.

THE FOOD 7/10: Lots of exotic flavours, spices, freshness and contrasts of textures are present in every dish but if spice is not your thing, there’s a huge selection for every age and finnicky eater.

THE DRINKS 7/10: Some pretty good appetite awakeners come as alcoholic and non-alcoholic and the wine menu is neatly curated to suit every pocket.

THE SERVICE (7/10): Usually good and always friendly since the staff is mostly from abroad bringing their own brand of personality to the table.

THE AMBIENCE (8/10): Can get dreadfully noisy since the acoustics ring out loud and clear especially when the ladies at the next table screech out their pure pleasure at each others’ jokes.

THE PRICE (7/10): Looks a bit pricey since everything’s around €25 but there are no starters and those come on the main course plate which is huge and includes the whole shebang.

OVERALL RATING (7/10): Easy dining for both families and couples and a fun way of spending some hours together.

Pulled duck burger with crispy sweet potato fries

Links:

Sandro Restaurants

Farang Restaurant, Helsinki

Amuse bouche of green shell mussel in turmeric curry

THE PLACE 8/10: Just under street level in a beautiful pink period building which also houses an art museum, this restaurant is understated in its elegance luring you to focus on the beautifully presented food.

THE FOOD 8/10: South-East Asia is their thing with lots of nuts (be careful if you’re allergic), creamy coconut and curry spices. It’s a fantasy ride of chillies, never too much, umami, smoke and musk. Crunch contrasts with cream and soft bites of succulent pork and lamb.

Succulent pork ribs with plenty of coconut and coriander

THE DRINKS 6/10: The Hügel Sylvaner from Wittmann Winery works well with its blend of melon and pears but the red from Spain just doesn’t. However, the dessert wine is superbly light, a bit like brandy, and matches the Mekong River dessert exceptionally well.

Light dessert wine of Muscadelle, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon

THE SERVICE (7/10): Very good with the timing of dishes arriving in paced succession. Some of the waiting staff are a little inexperienced and just parrot what you can already read on the menu but it’s not a big deal. They’re all friendly.

THE AMBIENCE (7/10): Even though it’s minimalistic, it does have a feel of relaxation. The thin ‘curtains’ that divide the large area, blow softly in the breeze of the aircon, a cool feeling with all that spice.

THE PRICE (7/10): Around €100/head including the wine recommendations.

OVERALL RATING (8/10): Fantastic flavours to transport you to the East served with charm and delicacy.

Links:

Farang Restaurant

Panorama Restaurant – Hotel Sky Ounasvaara, Rovaniemi, Lapland

I realise this is not exactly a Helsinki Restaurant but you can easily fit it in in a limited space of time if you take an overnight train on Friday, spend a day visiting Santa Claus, go for dinner and take a night train back (see below for a booking link). Worth every euro.

Reindeer tartare served on a wooden slab

THE PLACE 8/10: In a hotel that’s in need of a face lift, Panorama Restaurant is simple but elegant and has floor-to-ceiling windows on three out of four sides with spectacular views over the forest inviting nature in.

THE FOOD 9/10: Local, local, local are the innovative ingredients including spruce, reindeer and forest mushrooms. Dishes are works of art arranged on bespoke crockery designed by Anu Pentik while flavours and textures are rich in contrast. Every mouthful is a taste sensation.

THE DRINKS 8/10: Well-curated including subterranean Lappish water (no bottles used to protect the environment). Wines are perfectly paired with dishes albeit that many of them are also at Alko, a slight minus in my book. Non-alcoholic drinks are of high quality.

THE SERVICE (10/10): Waiting staff read you like a book. They tell stories about wines and ingredients when they see you’re interested, and if you’re not, a description of the food suffices. They check every glass, serve you with black gloves and bring each course at a leisurely pace, just enough time to digest the previous one.

THE AMBIENCE (8/10): Children are welcome and there’s a special menu for them. While the interior is plain, the focus is on the magnificent food set before you.

THE PRICE (8/10): 5-course tasting menu €59, wine pairing €44. Best value for money in Finland for fine dining at its best.

OVERALL RATING (9/10): No aurora borealis in the night sky (boo hoo). The rest is pure magic.

Arctic Char with leak cooked in three different ways

Links: Sky Hotel Ounasvaara Panorama Restaurant Closed from 9 April – 1 June 2017.

Santa Claus Village, Rovaniemi, Lapland

VR – trains from Helsinki to Rovaniemi

Kosmos Restaurant

THE PLACE 8/10: A grande old dame in the centre of Helsinki, this place has seen many a politician, artist and journalist. The Art Deco interior has embossed wooden booths and chandeliers.

THE FOOD 7/10: Traditional Finnish/Russian. If you’re into offal, the sweetbreads are crispy and juicy and lamb kidneys are a favourite too. The usual fried Baltic herrings and Wiener Schnitzel also make their appearrance.

THE DRINKS 6/10: Dull wine menu, nothing really special. They promote the Finnish producer in France Chateau Carsin which is ok but lacking in imagination.

THE SERVICE (7/10): The serving staff have had years of experience and it shows. Could be more personalised but that would be so un-Finnish.

THE AMBIENCE (8/10): Even though it’s had several face-lifts, it still retains its former elegance and atmosphere.

THE PRICE (7/10): Above €50/head – expect no less than €60 for 2 courses and a couple of glasses of wine.

OVERALL RATING (7/10): A must for tourists.

Veal and sweetbreads at Kosmos

Link: Kosmos Restaurant, Kalevankatu 3, 00100 Helsinki

Sea Horse Restaurant, Helsinki

‘Riimihärkä’ – Finland’s version of Beef Carpaccio

THE PLACE 8/10: Dating back to the 1930’s, the walls have seen it all from sailors to musicians to artists and drunks. It’s cleaned up its act and nowadays it still has some interesting clientele, but there are no more cigarette stains on the tablecloths.

THE FOOD 7/10: Traditional Finnish. Famous for friend Baltic herring, meatballs and vorshmack. The standard is ok but the menu tends to get a bit boring after too many visits.

THE DRINKS 6/10: Dull wine menu, the usual beer and some cocktails prepared with Finnish gin Napue (about the only exciting drink).

THE SERVICE (6/10): Not very personalised and I even heard the waitress shout across the room at some guests who didn’t know they had to wait to be seated.

THE AMBIENCE (8/10): It still has that old world charm about it, especially in the tiny bathrooms with brown tiles. The people make the place.

THE PRICE (7/10): Prices have been steadily rising but you can still get a large plate of fried Baltic herrings for under €20.

OVERALL RATING (7/10): It’s fun, once a year.

The painting of a sea horse has been there forever.

Link: Sea Horse Restaurant, Kapteeninkatu 11, 00140 Helsinki

Class with a touch of casual – Emo Restaurant, Helsinki, Finland

Wooden tables, serviettes like dishcloths hanging on the side, cutlery in a wooden box all add to the informal atmosphere. But don’t be fooled. This joint might not strike you as ‘fine dining’ but dining fine you will, believe me!

Tomato soup with truffle foam

With a choice of non-alcoholic beverages like fresh apple juice or spicy tomato to get those salivary glands going is just the ticket for lunchtime. The tomato soup starter brims with richness and elegance is thrown in with the truffle foam on the side while crunch is provided by the croutons. Every mouthful is a treat and if the croutons aren’t enough, there’s plenty of home made bread with butter on the side. Haddock is my choice of the 3 main courses only because it brings back memories of breakfast in South Africa when I was child and when it was always smoked. This one comes with potato mousse, a poached egg and lots of capers to give it a good kick of acidity. It’s all so soft and creamy but get your teeth into the crispy onion and the salsify slices on top and you know the chef, Ilkka Lääveri knows what he’s doing. Combine this relatively light lunch with a cold, crisp Brut Nature cava by Castell del Remei and you wish you could linger longer. My dining partner chooses the pork with gem lettuce and a heap of caramelized-to-a-crisp onions to make for a slightly heavier meal. There’s also a vegetarian option. Of course the menu changes and whatever’s fresh, seasonal and local when possible, is served up every week.

Creamy haddock and almond potato mousse

Lunch for 2 courses sets you back €25, 3 courses €29 and 4 at €34. Dinner comes in set meals or as à la carte and is a little more expensive as is the practice in Finland. That laid-back mood is just a ruse, there’s serious food and wine coming your way at Emo.

Links:

Emo Restaurant

Line Up at The Roster – a modern eatery run by a hip crowd

With a view of some of Helsinki’s stunning period architecture, The Roster stands out as a trendy place to have your lunch, drink a cocktail or indulge in their version of a Sunday roast. Brainchild of Kari Aihinen, executive chef of the exclusive Savoy Restaurant, this one’s not a ‘baby Savoy’. His love of ice hockey speaks for itself in the name and he runs this kitchen as well as the more upmarket one, like he would a hockey team. The right hand knows what the left is doing and the result is a winner.

Trout, spinach purée and lobster sauce

My trout on a spinach purée with lobster sauce melts in the mouth with umami, freshness and creaminess all intermingled. The salad that comes as a side looks dull since it’s just a bunch of leaves but my oh my, that truffle dressing is enough to stop you in your tracks. I feel like a red wine with all of this and the recommendation of a Pinot Meunier from the house of Friedrich Becker from the Pfalz region in Germany, is earthy, with hints of truffle and terroir that just brings this whole meal together.

All of this doesn’t come cheap but you wouldn’t expect it to. You get the feeling that every ingredient is hand-picked and that the food is prepared with the utmost care. Service is friendly, funny and full of personality. I think they like working here and if they don’t, they’re damn good actors. Go for the slapshot, fork out €40 and knock yourself out with a great plate of nosh.

Links:

The Roster Helsinki