Helsinki: A City of Foodies (12/07)

 From the Daily Telegraph, ca. December 2007

There has been a sea change in Finnish culture over the past decade, as what used to be a private, introspective, essentially conservative country locked in its own dimension somewhere between East and West, has morphed into a far more cosmopolitan, European place where people are not averse to splashing out, including on food. Especially on food.

Put another way, the Finns have become foodies. Witness the exploding Helsinki restaurant scene. In fact, it’s hard to think of another European capital city—with the possible exception of once gustatorily-challenged, Wimpy’s-mad London—where the culinary culture has changed so quickly, and in so many ways, as Helsinki. Time was when one could count the number of eateries in the Finnish capital where one could have a decent meal on one hand. Or less.

Now, well, one could spend several weeks lunching and dining out at the veritable smorgasbord of fine restaurants which have sprung up along the cobblestone streets of the White City of the North over the past decade as a slew of native chefs have brought the intrinsic Finnish flair for design to the country’s once monochromatic cuisine.

Witness Helsinki’s newest culinary citadel, and the country’s only two Michelin star restaurant, Chez Dominique. Founded in 1998, just as Helsinki was beginning to “go European,” this posh, 56 seat restaurant on Richardinkatu, in the heart of town is the showcase of Hans Valimaki, now one of the Nordic region’s most renowned chefs. The creative appetizers here include a terrine of foie gras with a duck comfit and a side of shallot ice cream. The no less inspired main courses include roasted turbot with garlic sauce and a potato risotto and medallions of lamb with sautéed chanterelles.

An even newer restaurant that is giving Chez Dominique a run for its money as the most cutting-edge eatery in town is Demo, on happening Uudenmankatu, which just won its first Michelin star. Start with tomatofoam, goat’s cheese mousse and pan-seared scampitail or prawn bisque flavored with fennel, apple and crab salad with ailoli before moving on to open artichoke ravioli, fresh salad puree and vermouth sauce or roasted breast of goose, goose gizzards and kumquat sauce, before sauntering on to the house postprandial specialty, white chocolate mousse flavoured with lemongrass and citruscarpaccio.

In more of a nostalgic mode? Kosmos, the great, art-adorned culinary institution, on Kalevankatu, just off Mannerheimintie, was founded in 1924 and is still run by the same family.