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Heaven in Helsinki

Some 80 journalists from 17 countries visited the Finnish capital in order to experience the best food, design, fashion and nightlife Helsinki has to offer. We dined like kings in two-Michelin-star restaurants, sang our hearts out in rowdy karaoke bars, basted in smoke saunas, danced the night away in clubs and visited islands in the Helsinki archipelago where we could pick wild berries and mushrooms.

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In short, we enjoyed a wonderful week, and part of the credit goes to gaffe-prone Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Thanks, Silvio!
About half a year earlier, Berlusconi had boasted that Parma, Italy was selected as host of the EU’s new food authority, rather than arch-rival Helsinki, because of the superior quality of Italian food. The Italian leader complained that in order to win support from other European countries, he had to first “endure” Finnish food. French President Jacques Chirac, presumably incited by the wit of his Italian counterpart, added fuel to the fire a few weeks later by suggesting that the only food worse than British is Finnish.
These undeserved insults directed against Finnish cuisine by two major European leaders did not go unnoticed in Helsinki. Planning had already been under way for over a year for a major campaign to promote Finnish food. The stinging comments from both Berlusconi and Chirac gave the Finnish government added incentive to generously support the Finnish food promotion project called “Eat and Joy,” which took place Sept 22-26, and was organized by Viisi Tähteä, a trade magazine for the restaurant industry. This correspondent was one of the lucky beneficiaries.
Of course Finnish culinary traditions are young, compared to the age-old cuisine of France and Italy. But youth has its advantages.
The trendy but laid-back 40-seat Demo, established by two young chefs Tesmu Aura and Tommi Tuominen in January 2003, for example, presented an original and tasty selection of what they call “Scandinavian freestyle cuisine.” Three to five new gourmet dishes are served every day at Demo, and there is no written menu! The chef duo is currently engaged in starting a new Scandinavian restaurant in Hong Kong, called F.I.N.D.S. (an acronym for Finland, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden).
At the Demo, we sampled roasted goose breast over sautéed forest mushrooms with a quince puree and a dark fig sauce. I especially enjoyed the desert which featured sea buckthorn sorbet swimming in a tangy sauce of rare buckthorn berries; these are bright orange berries similar in taste to cloudberries, but even more pungent.
“Very sophisticated,” was the comment of my tablemate, a correspondent of French daily Le Figaro.
Sophisticated is also a good description of Chez Dominique, located in the heart of downtown Helsinki and the proud owner of two Michelin stars. The creative head of this exclusive eatery—considered by many to be one of the best restaurants in Scandinavia—is Hans Välimäki, who this year opened a freshly designed new nightspot and restaurant called Mecca, which boldly fuses Japanese and American influences with Scandinavian tastes.
Another restaurant appreciated by fussy connoisseurs is the the Savoy, which has a mainly French cuisine and a functionalistic interior originally decorated in the 1930s by then-young Artek designers Aino and Alvar Aalto. The terrace, by the way, boasts a spectacular view of the city. The special menu for journalists prepared by chef Kaj Kallio included scallops steamed in vanilla butter, wild duck a la Savoy, Finnish farm cheese and blueberry jelly, warm arctic cloudberry soup and cardamom ice cream. Not bad for a country whose food was summarily dismissed last year by not one but two world leaders.
Helsinki’s location on the northern shore of the Gulf of Finland, with more than 300 islands in the archipelago, means it isn’t too hard to find an interesting and even exotic fish restaurants. The starters at Restaurant Lasiplatsi, which is colored by the Lappish roots of chef Marko Gehör, include grilled lampreys, smoked vendace from Lake Päijuänne, or fried perch with white fish roe.
Right next to the sea, in a maritime setting of boats and ships bound for faraway destinations and next door to the fish stalls of the marketplace, one finds the seafood restaurant Fishmarket. Newly opened Havis is another interesting alternative, which has operated for over a year in a house built in the early 1900s by a prosperous sea captain and merchant. A third option for fish lovers is the recently opened summer restaurant BoatHouse, located is an idyllic archipelago setting close to downtown Helsinki. Yanks will appreciate the cheery New England décor of the circular Boathouse with its panorama windows, as well as the menu which combines Mediterranean and American East Coast cuisine.
If one wants a more traditional Finnish menu, one can sample mashed potatoes, pickled beets and crispy fired Baltic herrings, stacked in four-tiers, at the Sea Horse. One can also pitch into hearty fare like Finnish meatballs or fillet of reindeer, which is served with cranberry wine sauce and onion-potato mash. The homey décor at this joint, which opened its doors in1934, has a genuine pre-war feeling, and the local patrons are old-world friendly, too. I easily fell into a lively discussion about the Graham Greene comic spy-thriller “Our Man in Havana” with two elderly patrons having lunch and a beer in a booth at the Sea Horse.
If one is fond of espionage folklore and history, by the way, the centrally located Torni Hotel is a must-see. When World War II broke out, foreign reporters and diplomats used to hang out at the Torni, making the hotel’s bars a marketplace for espionage and information. After the war, the notorious Russian control commissioner Andrey Zhdanov and his delegation stayed at the Torni until the fall 1947, making the hotel a widely hated symbol of foreign domination. Yet another curious spy-footnote: suspected Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald stayed at the Torni on his trips to the Soviet Union.
We stopped in the afternoon at the 13th floor Atelje Bar at the Torni to get our hard-working fashion model Nina Lallukka (a student of political science at the University of Helsinki), a well-deserved cocktail, which turned out to be decorated with a strawberry. What is this drink’s name? I asked the bartender. “We call it, strawberry cocktail,” the bartender replied with a wry smile. No pretensions here, thank you very much.

That is part of the special charm of Helsinki and the Finns: the locals are generally friendly, interested in foreign visitors and refreshingly unpretentious. A snobby attitude is rare, even in artistic and literary circles. Rosa Liksom, one of Finland’s most popular and prolific writers and artists, for example, came pedaling on a bicycle to meet us directly from an indoor bandy match (a sort of indoor ice-hockey, but without ice and with light plastic clubs). The daughter of reindeer breeders from northernmost Finland, Rosa has not only written widely translated novels, short stories, children’s and comic books but is also an accomplished artist and ceramicist.
I’m not sure about Ms. Liksom’s skills with a bandy club, but we enjoyed an art gallery exhibit of plates and cups she recently created, many of which featured motifs from Lappland.
Similarly, artist Jani Leinonen designed a very clever pop-art lamp, shaped and decorated like a box of breakfast cereal, especially for the Eat & Joy celebration week.
A very interesting place to visit which has a modernistic and urban atmosphere is the Korjaamo culture factory. Artists and culture-vultures of various stripes feel at home in this place. The center of Korjaamo, which is also home to a lifestyle magazine publishing group, seems to be the downstairs wine bar. But there is also a small art gallery, and a chilled-out lounge room with lots of oversize pillows, a thick red shag rug, and candles.

If one has a hankering to hang out in a refined setting in the presence of literary lions and design divas, one can instead cool one’s heels in Kosmos, a legendary restaurant in downtown Helsinki with an elegant jugend-style interior. There are extravagant glass chandeliers, wood carved scenes from Roman mythology on the ends of the booths and blue-white linen tablecloths on the tables, which are separated by potted small palms: a perfect setting for die-hard Bohemians and businessmen who want to tackle the big issues of the day over a glass of brandy and a cigar.
The organizers of the Eat & Joy extravaganza made sure we sampled all sorts of culture, including several karaoke bars. It is perhaps best to say as little as possible about my enthusiastic rendition in one karaoke bar of “Twisted Love” by Marilyn Manson. But a late night in one of Helsinki’s myriad karaoke bars—where the bartender sometimes has to forcibly stop guests from dancing on the tables-- is definitely an experience one won’t soon forget….although one might wish to do so.
If you want to disco on a floor instead of a table, there is no shortage of venues in Helsinki, even on weekdays. Together with a trio of party-hungry Spanish lifestyle journalists, I tried out my John Travolta moves one evening at a jam-packed Helsinki Club. Surprisingly, I also got a chance to play ping-pong to speedy techno at a music club called Rose Garden—black light turns your white shirt blue, and the orange ping-pong ball becomes fluorescent. How cool is that!
If one is in the mood for conversation instead of techno-table-tennis, one place to visit is a cute little bar called Åbo. In a previous incarnation this was a Russian restaurant, a legacy confirmed by the heavy crimson curtains and ornate lamps. But one wall at Åbo features a gigantic photo mural of a modern downhill skier, providing a fun Finnish twist to the otherwise muted décor.
No visit to Finland is complete without a sojourn to a sauna. There are saunas by the sea, in practically every hotel and swimming hall, and in most private homes, workplaces or summer cottages. One can also sample a traditional neighborhood sauna, as our fashion photo crew did while making the rounds of Helsinki hot spots. At a typical local sauna in the former blue-collar district of Kallio, the wooden lockers festooned with artificial flowers had been constructed in 1928, and not refurbished since that date from the look of them.
That is part of the charm of Helsinki for the adventurous tourist or occasional visitor. One frequently feels connected to the past, and one can with little trouble discover an endless variety of different restaurants, cafes, saunas and boulevards, all with an interesting history and special character. There are culinary treats for gourmets or connoisseurs, of course, as one might expect in a city with more than 800 restaurants. But even more important in my book, one can have a small adventure or surprising encounter in heavenly Helsinki which will result in a smile when you remember it back at home.
As for the opinionated Mr. Berlusconi, he can keep his beloved Parma ham. I for my part will be delighted to return to dine or dance in heavenly Helsinki whenever the opportunity arises.

Text: David Bartal
Photography: Nina Merikallio - www.ninamerikallio.com
Styling/Local organization: Pirjo Suhonen – www.ivanahelsinki.com
Make up by Lumene; Hair by Wella/Timo Karvinen
Model: Nina Lallukka - www.paparazzi.com

Links to people & places mentioned:
Eat & Joy event: www.eatandjoy.com
Demo: www.restaurantdemo.fi
Chez Dominique: www.chezdominique.fi
Mecca: www.mecca.fi
Savoy: Eteläesplanadi 14
Artek: www.artek.fi
Lasipalatsi: www.ravintola.lasipalatsi.fi
Fishmarket: www.palace.fi
Havis: www.royalravintolat.com
BoatHouse: Tel. +358-9-62270070
Sea Horse: www.seahorse.fi
Rosa Liksom: www.rosaliksom.com
Jani Leinonen: www.janileinonen.fi
Korjaamo culture factory: www.korjaamo.fi
Kosmos: www.ravintolakosmos.fi
Helsinki Club: www.helsinkiclub.com
Torni: www.sokoshotels.fi
Bar Åbo: Tel. 358 9 6121012
Rose Garden: www.clubrosegarden.com
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