BLINIt, Helsinki 01-2013

BLINIt is a small cafe specialising in Russian blinis. They are large buckwheat pancakes cooked fresh on a hot plate, topped with a variety of ingredients before being folded and served as a parcel.

Mine was topped with pork mince, lettuce, tomato and a savoury mayonnaise. It was served with piping hot pancake and meat and contrasted by the cold rich mayonnaise. A delicious snack indeed.

Being extremely cold and in a Russian cafe, I also had their borcht, which was rich red riddled with beetroot slivers, minced beef and hearty meat-based stock.

The prices are cheap, the servings are large and the food is certainly winter satisfying.

Rullo, Helsinki 01-2013

For an unknown reason, someone decided it would be a good idea to put a rice paper roll stand inside an eco-friendly design store in the middle of Helsinki. It certainly wasn't a bad idea and seems to reinforce a small trend of Asian-concepts/Finnish-versions of food.

The place is popular with elderly ladies gossiping over rolls and coffee, families out shopping with their children, and the occasional trendy young females eating healthy. Their is a variety of rolls to pick from, the focal ingredient being beef, pork, prawn, tofu etc. You can order the rolls on their own or as a lunch set with a salad.

On my day, I selected 3 rolls - prawn & mango, raw salmon & beetroot, rare beef. Each was filled with vermicelli, lettuce and a sliver of herbs. A nice thin nuoc mam dipping sauce was provided for authenticity. I partnered it with a salad of sweet potato, greens & walnuts and some warm green tea for my chilled blood.

It served a nice healthy breakfast in a relaxing mini-cafe setting. The rolls are tasty without being superb but certainly provide a nice change from the food of mainland Europe.

Restaurant Nili, Rovaniemi 01-2013

It takes a pretty special restaurant to have me (or anyone for that matter) trudge through -6C cold and snow for 20mins just for dinner. Luckily for Nili they had the credentials to lure me and even force myself to make a reservation a month in advance during the cold January quiet season.

Other than the Tripadvisor #1 spot, reputation for serving Lappish cuisine, winning the award for 2012 Rovaniemi Menu and simply there didn't seem to be any other places in Rovaniemi that appealed to me. It also helped that the menu had less common items such as arctic fish, reindeer, snowgrouse and bear.

The Rovaniemi Menu is comprised of local seasonal ingredients agreed upon by the chefs of Rovaniemi and each restaurant creates their own menu with those core items. I couldn't decide between the restaurant's classic dishes (cep soup and reindeer cooked two ways) or the seasonal menu. The waitress opted for the seasonal on my behalf:

- complimentary rye bread and potato bread with homemade butter - continued the trend of dry friable bread in Finland, nothing but a filler;
- starter of salmon mousse on a cracker
- Powers of Bear (shot of bear consomme) - deliciously mild-game, slightly sweet meaty soup served with a slice of tasteless cheese;
- Autumn's Harvest (Holopainen´s creamy porcini mushroom soup and rosemary foam) - beautiful creamy mushroom blend with a hint of rosemary mixed in;
- complimentary crowberry sorbet - similar to a blueberry/cranberry cross, more sweet than tart;
- Forest Delicacies (tenderloin of elk á la Chef Kyllönen, strong game sauce, Rovaniemi cranberry jelly, potatoes fried with churned butter) - luscious tender medium-rare elk with a texture of quality beef eye fillet with a taste that reminded me most of a mild game kangaroo, meaty sauce and nice combination of roast potato, carrot and swedes;
- Glimmer of Sun (pannacotta á la Nili with cloudberries from Inari and buckthorn from Mieslahti) - very thick pannacotta filled with vanilla seeds, a layer of sweet cloudberry film and fresh buckthorn berries adding a very strong tartness.

Next time I would order the Rovaniemi menu again for a first timer - the ingredients, flavours and combinations were fantastic. For a second visit I'd be more curious to know what the other signature dishes are like, such as reindeer, snowgrouse and particularly bear steak.

Juuri, Helsinki 01-2013

Most of the Finnish restaurants in Helsinki (apparently there aren't that many to find) tend to be Michelin-star or at least equally expensive. Juuri seemed a change from the pack in that it specialises in a previously unheard of phenomenon called Sapas - defined on their website as an "authentically Finnish hors d’oeuvre, handmade according to Finnish culinary traditions." In summary it is the Finnish equivalent of a Spanish tapas. It seemed reason enough to try it above another more standard fine dining place (of which I would have chosen Olo).

I'm quite unfamiliar with Finnish food traditions but after what I've had in the previous two days it seems to be fresh fish, game meats and lots of local berries. The waiter suggested 4-7 sapas dishes for a meal without a main course. It is one of the reasons I like tapas or small-dish menus when eating alone so I can try several things without stuffing myself.

- start of smoked perch mousse - heavily smoked fish cream;
- Beetroot Salad Juuri-style - very unusual take on salad with a square of boiled beetroot, pickled carrot and served with dehydrated slices of pickle;
- Baked Oregano Cottage Cheese (with gooseberry and green pepper jam) - Finnish cheese always seems mild and this was no exception without much discernible cheese taste;
- Smoked Bream & Potato Mousse (with fried rye dough) - a regretted recommendation as it was a milder form of the starter and the fried rye dough was a poor uncrispy form of bread;
- Seared Fillet of Horse (with horseradish & marinated red cabbage) - beautifully rare meat like a quality beef tataki but with a much milder game flavour compared with my previous horse meals. Couldn't taste any horseradish, but the red cabbage and onion added balance;
- Black Pudding with Lingonberry - bed of lingonberry sauce which uses tartness to neutralise the salty crisp black pudding;
- Red Currant Pie with Butter Milk (red currant sorbet, red currant curd) - refreshing and sweet sorbet and a nice red currant layer, but an odd thick heavy base and extremely sweet meringue.

Next time I would order the Fillet of Horse and Black Pudding. I think it would be best complimented by a formal main course (like Slow Cooked Neck of Wild Boar) for two reasons - 1) none of the sapas (I tried at least) are that remarkable; 2) very few are served hot (black pudding was warm, all others were room temperature). It makes you wonder if you should end up at that Michelin-star restaurant after all...

Gaijin, Helsinki 01-2013

After eating at A21 the night before, the owner told me that very few decent restaurants are open in Helsinki. The only good one he suggested was Gaijin.

Doing a bit of reading, the head chef at Gaijin is famous in Finland for being a (great chef and also) judge on Finland Masterchef. His first restaurant named Farang (which is funny if you know what Farang in Thai and Gaijin in Japanese means) is modern South-East Asian themed whilst Gaijin is modern Japanese (with hints of Korean).

I read through the menu at both and thought Farang sounded better especially as it had one dish "Crispy fried pork with palm sugar caramel" which gave me sad smiles thinking about my much missed crispy fried pork hock at Longrain. A little more research and I discovered Tomi Bjorck actually worked at Longrain Sydney for 2 years! No wonder his menu appealed to me. Sadly Farang is closed on Sundays and so off I went to Gaijin.

Walking into Gaijin reminded me a lot of Longrain. The bar (although smaller) dishing out cocktails, the mood lighting, communal tables with backless chairs, private dining areas for small groups, a mixture of music for a faded but atmospheric background. It felt nice.

Sunday only allows a specific tasting menu. I was lucky that they allowed me to try a pork bun on top of this. The food was washed down with a warm Sakura cocktail (sake, cherry, cranberry, cassia) which was an alcoholic hot cherry drink with a hint of cassia. Excellent for a cold night.

- Green-Shell Mussel (with lemon-vanilla dressing, gari-ginger) - steamed mussel served cold surprisingly with an unusual citrus vanilla dressing;
- Pork Bun (pork belly, kimchi mayonnaise, pickled cucumber) - very thin pork slice with Japanese flavours making it unique and very delicious;
- Salmon Sashimi (with wakame salad, wasabi-yuzu dressing) - a dearth of beautiful quality Norwegian salmon, served with yuzu wakame but couldn't taste wasabi;
- Baby Back Pork Ribs (with soy-mirin caramel, togarashi) - finger-licking good tender pork ribs served on a soy-mirin-based liquid and a palm sugar caramel to spoon over;
- Salt & Pepper Crispy Butterfish (with wok-fried bok choy, radish, dashi) - the butterfish was a bit too oily in being fried and would be better served tempura-style. The dashi stock was a phenomenonal umami with bonito shavings that soaked into the spiced rice;
- Pork Ramen (with pork shin, pork belly, mushrooms, kimchi, soft boiled egg) - very simple stock (and disappointingly small amount of it) with decent meat, a cold egg and strangely out of place kimchi. Mixing the kimchi into the broth made it more interesting but still nothing that I'm used to;
- Sesam Geisha (chocolate cream, sesame-seasalt caramel, sesame ice-cream) - first taste of lovely sesame (not black sesame) ice-cream with a large selection of sweet, salty, crunchy, creamy and powder of variable quality.

Next time I would order the tasting menu for a first visit as the variety is great, and price:quality ratio is excellent especially for Scandinavia. The a la carte seems comparitively expensive if not shared between 3-4, but has good choices such as softshell crab, foie & unagi, miso salmon and miso eggplant. Alternatively eat at Farang.

A21 Dining, Helsinki 01-2013

A21 Cocktail was awarded the World's Best Bar 2009 and continues to maintain itself at the top of the game. In 2010 they expanded into a restaurant called A21 Dining that based a menu upon the seasons and their cocktails, which was a first in the world of dining.

Winter brings around the journey up north to the Lappish region and so similarly food and drink on the set menu are designed with this in mind.

I had the pleasure of meeting and being served and educated by one the owners Nikos. He spent diligent time with me explaining the history behind A21, the concept, the menu, and each individual dish and cocktail as he brought them out. It was refreshing to see a manager interacting with the customers.

A21 Dining also has a spectacular lounge area which was recently adorned with a continuous "fireplace" on the tables themselves (which I discovered later is a machine with steam, a computer-programmed LED light show and plastic "wood") which I want to mimic for my living room or outdoor setting back home.

The menu allows you to choose between 3, 5 and 7 courses with or without matching cocktails or wines. I chose the full 7-course with cocktail experience.

- starter of marinated herring, thick blob of squid ink and a shot of warm onion broth;
- Ruska (beauty of the fall) - creamy pumpkin soup, roast pumpkin, pumpkin puree, walnuts (for texture), cep mushrooms, pickled vegetables, medium-strength Finnish blue cheese, bland pumpkin bread. Served with a bitter cocktail of carrot, orange, cinnamon. Definitely a standout dish with divine soup and presentation;
- Tunturipuro (pure mountain stream) - lighltly roasted white fish, apple & fennel ice, mustard seeds, white fish caviar, bread crumble, seaweed caviar, snow crab. Served with potent clear spirit (?vodka) apple, fennel, coriander cocktail;
- Lumi (snowland) - slices of snow glazed grouse, heavy-flavoured mushroom porridge, oatmeal cracker, cauliflower 4 ways (raw, boiled, dehydrated, foam). Served with a blackcurrant & rosemary cocktail - odd but nice;
 - Loimu (a moment in the Kota) - delicate Norwegian wood-smoked salmon, herb crackers, horseradish veloute and cream, salmon cream, radish & salmon roe. Served with a coffee bean, cocoa bean & crowberry cocktail in a kuksa - like a sweet berry coffee with alcohol. Salmon was a second standout - this was not smoked salmon, this was salmon wood-smoked as a whole piece and lusciously light and delicate;
- Revontulu (dance of the northern lights) - elk glazed in its own juice, beetroot 'risotto', beetroot puree, liquorice sauce, liquorice crumble, olive crumble, honey and homemade rosemary focaccia. Served with an intensely alcoholic lingonberry & liquorice cocktail. Spectral presentation, tender elk with a slight game flavour and nice beetroot;
- Kevataurinko (spring sun) - sea-buckthron tart, berry sorbet & sauce, white chocolate muesli, salted peanuts, meringue, berry candy. Served with an exotic spring sun cocktail of orange, passionfruit with vanilla foam;
- Jaakarpalo (jewel of the snow) - cranberry slush/sorbet/parfait/jelly/jam, caramel crisp, pistacchio & peanut earth. Served with a maple leaf, cranberry & vanilla cocktail;
- petit four - orange passionfruit marmalade, homemade chocolate truffle.

All-in-all a great experience partially due to the host, the venue, the food and the journey.

Next time I would order all the courses in the Scenery Path given the time. If you want to stick to something shorter, the Arctic Path covers the best 3 dishes. The essential dishes are Ruska and Loimu. Revontulu and to a lesser degree Lumi were also good. They apparently have the option of smaller tasting portions of the cocktails, which I would recommend unless you like to drink a solid amount of alcohol.