A week in Finland early in the new year has confirmed what we encountered last year: an increasing buzz around food and restaurants, and this time we became even more aware of it in Helsinki. It’s part of the Nordic trend – traditional ingredients presented in a very contemporary style – but in a distinctly Finnish way.
Perhaps we were just looking harder this time, but food seemed to have a higher profile as we mooched around Helsinki. We came across more independent coffee shops even than just nine months ago, more menus caught our eye as we walked by, and the chain eateries felt less evident.
Maybe we shouldn’t be heading back to Juuri on every visit to Helsinki now that there are good alternatives. But we feel a compulsion to see what’s new, and in any case we rarely visit at the same time of year.
We had just one small plate each as a starter, and then a main course – a little more conventional than the usual Juuri experience. Rabbit and pear was a good way to start. The portion was generous for a small plate: a disc and a cube of rabbit terrine. There was some confit pear and several blobs – some were pear puree and others a gel of rabbit stock. Terrine with fruit is an obvious combination, but the intensely savoury, umami-like gel added a dimension. Juuri at its best.
Venison was an unusual main course – it’s more common to see reindeer or moose on Finnish menus. A piece of roast haunch looked to be overwhelmed by the vegetables but that was a trick: alongside some potato puree, what looked like more potato turned out to be a dumpling filled with venison mince. The haunch was cooked perfectly pink and contrasted with the slower-cooked mince inside the dumpling. It was a deeply satisfying dish.
The stand-out dessert was a combination of orange, butternut squash and orange. I am not a fan of squash as a sweet dish – pumpkin pie doesn’t do it for me. But these cubes of squash avoided the confected sweetness and grainy texture that usually puts me off. They had a toothsome quality and were excellent alongside a chocolate-orange ice cream that conjured up thoughts of Christmases full of Terry’s chocolate oranges.
Venerable feels like the best word for Lasipalatsi, in what is apparently one of Europe’s foremost functionalist buildings. That doesn’t necessarily make it pretty outside, but the big dining room has warmth and personality. There has been a restaurant here since the 1930s and we were pretty sure it does now what it has been doing for decades. We sat in a window (Lasipalatsi means glass palace) overlooking a busy Helsinki street, with MPs and journalists from the nearby parliament building dotted around other tables. There was an air of business being done over lunch, even on this sparsely-populated Monday lunchtime. Lasipalatsi does what it does well and is sticking to it.
Borscht was thick with grated beetroot and had the right balance of sweet and sour. It was good for a winter’s day and we even avoided the sort of minor spillages that stay with you for the rest of the day and beyond. To follow, two rectangles of beef brisket sat on spears of roast parsnip and carrot and Skåne potatoes. The creaminess of the potato salad mingled pleasantly with the meat’s juices. The only nod to a more contemporary approach was our assumption that the brisket had been cooked sous-vidé to achieve such perfect rectangles. Otherwise, this was the stuff of tradition.
Dessert was rum baba. Of course it was. It came looking like a great cep, but was as light as a feather (the only light thing about the meal), the rum flavours potent and fragrant but not overpowering. This will never be my favourite dessert, but you wouldn’t have known from the way I polished it off.
Tradition can too easily be a byword for dubious quality and a lack of precision and imagination. That’s not so at Lasipalatsi, which holds its own against the new kids on the block. There’s something gratifying about the experience. The downside is that it was one of the heaviest lunches we have had in a long time – I wonder how much gets done in parliament of an afternoon. Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten all the potatoes and the root veg, but it seemed churlish not to. Venerable Lasipalatsi is worth a visit.
Hieta may well be the first restaurant we have visited solely because of social media. After my last blog about Finland, Hieta started following me on Instagram and we liked what we saw. We could only fit in a light-ish lunch because we were eating with friends in the evening, but it lived up to our expectations.
The restaurant’s simple room manages to be simultaneously contemporary and traditional. It’s an old fisherman’s bar, and we sensed that. The wood on a couple of uncovered tables put us in mind of ship’s timbers. The easy style was helped by it being a lovely winter’s day, a low Helsinki sun streaming through the big windows, bouncing off whitewashed walls and casting long shadows – not what we expected in January – but I like to think it would be as pleasant whatever the weather.
We had excellent bread everywhere in Helsinki – usually including some home-made rye, in varying shades of brown. Hieta was no exception. But what intrigued us was the sweet, sharp and sticky orange flecks on the butter. It turned out to be grated sea buckthorn. It’s that thing again: local ingredients coming to you in interesting and unexpected ways.
There are very good value lunch options, including a dish-of-the-day for €12 (a remarkable price for Helsinki) and, somewhat incongruously, jacket potatoes – although the one we saw did not look like your average spud on a plate. We both opted for the catch-of-the-day: a decent-sized fillet of white sea fish, its skin grilled to absolute crispiness and the flesh firm and flaky. It came in a crayfish bisque with a vaguely Asian-influenced wrap of translucent cucumber enclosing some pickled vegetables. This was brilliant, contrasting in texture and acidity with the fish and its rich sauce. A further side of baked small potatoes with peas, spring onions and snow-like grated horseradish may have seemed unnecessary, but it was a nice addition.
We shared a crème brulée with cloudberries. Despite the inevitable consequence of cloudberries – picking the seeds out of our teeth for the rest of the afternoon – it was just right: a little sweet note to finish and light enough not to spoil our appetites for the evening.
Another big plus at Hieta, and appropriate given its origins, were small brewery beers on tap. I had one of the nicest Finnish ales I have tasted.
Two paradoxical but not mutually exclusive conclusions from our first visit to Hieta: we should do lunches like this more often, and next time, we must go for an evening when we can really explore the menu…
All this gave us further proof that Helsinki (like Turku, to the west) is starting to hold its own as a culinary destination as well as a beautiful capital city. Visit soon.