As I wait for my meatballs to arrive, I stare out of the huge glass window in front of me and watch Finnish families filing past to carousels and dodgems, water slides and pirate ships. A large group of teenage girls whizz past the top of the window before the roller-coaster they’re in is flipped upside down and left to hang in the air for a few seconds. The girls shriek with delight. Long blonde hair dangles down from the carriage like a golden curtain.
I’m sitting in meatball bar Kuula, one of the six restaurants that comprise the Kattila complex at Helsinki’s Linnanmäki amusement park. To my left is a US-style diner, and beyond that a sushi counter, an Italian bistro and an elegant space specialising in authentic Finnish cuisine. Although the decor is impeccably stylish – Helsinki is, after all, the current World Design Capital – this is a low-cost concept; a place to which budget-conscious parents can bring overexcited children in between high octane rides. So far, so much like other theme parks around the world.
But the difference is that the food here is phenomenal. The six restaurants are overseen by some of the best chefs in Helsinki’s increasingly respected dining scene, and their owners share a total of four Michelin stars between them. No wonder the meatballs, when they arrive, zing with uplifting herb flavours, and combine comfort and intrigue with casual confidence.
In Scandinavian shorthand, it’s Copenhagen that’s the place to go for food; Helsinki is where visitors head for saunas and Moomins. But Finland’s capital has started to rival its Danish counterpart in the dining stakes. It may not have produced its own version of René Redzepi’s much-fêted restaurant Noma, but a new generation of Finnish chefs is distilling the country’s forest and seashore flavours into increasingly inventive “New Nordic” cuisine, marrying the earthy tastes of mushrooms, roots and berries to fresh Baltic fish, outdoor-reared meat, and even game such as reindeer and bear. And in true Finnish fashion, it’s as stylishly presented as any Artek or Marimekko collection.
This emphasis on design surrounds you on every stroll into the city. Helsinki is one of Europe’s architectural hotspots, combining fin de siècle elegance with Nordic functionalism; I don’t see a poorly dressed window in any of the fashion and homeware boutiques I pass while exploring its grid-like street pattern. The city’s hotels, too, are temples to style. Klaus K – with its all-white bar and glass droplet-hung restaurant ceiling – may be the coolest hotel in town, but the design-savvy visitor has plenty of other options. GLO and Haven both combine cutting-edge décor with a laid-back vibe, while Katajanokka is perhaps the most interesting spot to rest your head – set in a former jail out in the harbour, it’s a clever reinterpretation of prison austerity. Penal chic, I guess you’d call it. With this emphasis on aesthetics running through all aspects of life in Helsinki, it’s easy to see why it has been translated to the plate.
Artistry, however, counts for nothing if the taste isn’t good. At Chez Dominique, where chef Hans Välimäki (the man behind the burger bar at Linnanmäki) has earned two Michelin stars for his French-influenced cooking, beauty and taste are executed with equal aplomb. The style may be Gallic, but the ingredients and flavours are as Finnish as the midnight sun. Everything I eat here – from delicately minced king crab complemented by seashore asparagus, to moist flakes of pike-perch served with early summer vegetables – is a sensory reminder of forests and lakes, pine-shrouded pastures and Baltic-lapped shores. Most impressive of all is a palate cleanser of Nordic summer flavours, incorporating the heady tastes of pine tar and silver birch foam.
But choosing your dinner destination on criteria set down by the Michelin Guide means turning your back on more informal but no less wonderful restaurants, and, in Helsinki, these are often where the most interesting creations are to be found.
At Juuri, for example, chefs have reinvented traditional Finnish cuisine in tapas form, presenting the hearty, rural dishes they grew up with in a succession of elegant miniature tasters. Seated at a small wooden table, adorned with lollipop-coloured Marimekko glassware, I order smoked herring with red onion, thin slices of smoked reindeer tongue, home-made lamb sausage with vodka mustard, and a wonderfully geometric potato pancake into which seeps a thick and creamy garlic and lovage butter. It’s interesting, witty and absolutely delicious. And, served by friendly and informal staff in understated, low-lit surroundings, it comes across as refreshingly unpretentious.
You couldn’t say the same of A21 Dining, a short walk away on Kalevankatu. Operated by the hipsters at A21, the Helsinki cocktail lounge that regularly features in “the world’s best bar” lists, this glamorous restaurant wears its ostentation on its Gucci-clad sleeve. Each dish on its New Nordic tasting menu is teamed with a miniature cocktail that mirrors the flavours on the plate. My entrecôte of peppered beef, for example, is complemented by a sweet pepper and spice concoction in a shot glass. And though I spend much of the meal wondering just how scathing my school friends back in Sheffield would be if they could see me here, quaffing midget measures from a doll-sized champagne glass, I have to admit it works. The food and cocktails are superb, and the concept is original and riotous good fun.
The weekend I spend in Helsinki is characterised by culinary playfulness. My expectations are constantly confounded; by a liquorice crème brûlée at Ateljé Finne, a deceptively light reindeer stew at Senaatin Hiili, and a dessert of rock-like sea buckthorn clumps that melt, marshmallow-like, in the mouth at Olo. Yet it’s out on the streets that the real fun is to be found. Helsinki’s Restaurant Day, which takes place in the city about every three months, allows anyone to set up shop as a restaurateur. And as soon as I step off the bus from the airport, I find myself walking past stalls and pop-up restaurants hawking everything from salmon-filled blinis to bowls of fried herrings and thick vegetable curries. There is an air of celebration in the city centre – helped by the thousands of fans in town for the World Ice Hockey Championships – as I pick my way through crowds to the quieter streets behind the Esplanadi for a meal in the third-floor home of a Helsinki couple, who have thrown their flat open to diners. The food may lack the gloss of professional cooking, but sitting down to eat in a stunning Art Deco living room, with a piano to one side of me and family photos on top of the TV to the other, is as unexpected a delight as any stylistic reinvention of the fish course.
Though you can buy pretty much anything in the marketplace that lies between the glassy waters of the Baltic and the Russian-era neoclassical splendour of Uspenski Cathedral, it’s the food stalls at the harbour that draw me in each time I visit the city. Serving up cheap platefuls of fish to Finns in need of a quick snack, they occupy a similar place in the country’s culinary hierarchy as hot dog stands do in the UK. I’m sure that, for any Finn with aspirations of refinement, they’re something of an anathema, but I love them: the bowls of fish soup, plates of fried herring and squid, and chunks of grilled salmon they dish up to be enjoyed at ramshackle communal tables beneath striped awnings are just as evocative of Scandinavia as any Tove Jansson novel or Carl Larsson painting.
As I spoon my first herrings on to rye bread and squeeze lemon on to the seared, pink-black flesh of the Arctic salmon in front of me, I realise it’s not too far removed from the dishes served in all those stylish restaurants just a few blocks away. New Nordic cuisine, for all its focus on presentation, is comfort food. It re-engages a nation raised on the flavours of Baltic living with the taste of their childhoods, and as such it is every bit as wistful and nostalgic as it is bold and forward-looking. In a country where the sauna and the summer cottage are every bit as ingrained in the national psyche as cutting-edge fashion and design, what could be more apt?
The next Helsinki Restaurant Day (www.restaurantday.org) is on August 19.
A21 Dining, www.a21.fi
Ateljé Finne, www.ateljefinne.fi
Chez Dominique, www.chezdominique.fi
Senaatin Hiili Bar & Bistro, www.senaatinhiili.fi