Nokka, Helsinki

I’ve just spent a few days in Helsinki, where the chill and dark at this time of year is easily remedied by a stiff glass of hot grog, a spell in the sauna and a few handsome servings of fish roe. Romantic lunches in the half-light at Kappeli, the cast iron and glass confection on Esplanadi; strolling through the covered market with a smoked lamprey in one hand (many thanks to the friendly Finn who suggested I look out for some; it’s the end of the lamprey season); watching the herring gulls pick fish from the harbour and sneaking them bits of disappointing cake (also from the market). The sun does make an appearance at the end of November, but it’s not a sun you’ll recognise, staying low and watery in the sky. The light does funny things to your body clock – suddenly I understand why the Finns traditionally eat supper so early, especially in the winter.

So we booked a nice early table at Nokka (Kanavaranta 7, 00160 Helsinki), a restaurant that came heavily recommended by a friend. Behind the Russian Orthodox cathedral (and very close to Bellevue, which I visited last year), the restaurant is housed in an old warehouse looking out onto the sea, all orchids, vaulted red brick and giant wooden beams. The ten freezing minutes of huddling under umbrellas that we spent getting there were erased by a punchbowl full of wintertime grog and a great view into the open kitchen, where casually blond chefs swished around efficiently. More blondes, speaking perfect English, Finnish, Swedish, German and plenty of other languages besides, provide some of the best-trained service I’ve come across in this country. This room is slick, it’s stylish, and the food matches up to it.

Nokka’s menu is built around impeccable local sourcing. There’s a page at the front of the menu about the various fishermen, farms, herb-growers, mushroom foragers and so forth that they use; the lamb, apparently, is from somewhere called Snappertuna, which has to be one of the best place names ever. We ordered the four-course Helsinki menu at €59 – a six-course version is available for €69 for the very hungry. Everything on the plate is seasonal – a real challenge in a Baltic November, but extremely well-conceived, with root vegetables and squashes where you might look for greener things in summer.

We opened with a little cup of wild mushroom soup as an amuse. Mushrooms and other foragables like berries have a very special place in Finnish food culture, and really do pop up all over the place; I found a clump of chanterelles growing on the pathway up to the Orthodox cathedral. As is traditional in Finnish soups, our little cups were heavily dosed with cream – on the edge of being rich, but very well-judged in a portion this size, where you’re only eating a mouthful but want it to be a memorable one.

Fish, especially herring, is what Helsinki’s all about. This little fillet (picture at the top of the page) had been marinaded in a tart preserving mixture, then gently grilled to lift its flavour even more. The process had given it a wonderful texture – soft and a little crisp around the edges. Tiny dollops of pureed potatoes (the Finns are justly proud of their potatoes, which have exceptional flavour thanks to those long summer days of sunshine) were topped with a little fish roe – a surprisingly good combination, rich and gorgeously balanced between the nutty, salty roe and smooth, creamy purée, which I’m going to try to do something with myself when the Jersey Royals come in next year. Add a little fresh beet salad, some sweet, gently pickled slices of raw carrot and red onion and a handful of dill and chervil, and you’ve got one of the best starters I’ve eaten all year. It’s refreshing to find a plate full of garnish where the garnish is actually meaningful – nothing on this plate would have been as good on its own as the glorious whole was.

Alhopakka duck breast next, with a cardamom sauce and straw-smoked, puréed parsnips. The duck’s leg, confited and shredded, was pressed into the timbale you can see at the side of the plate. Again, everything on the plate was part of a well-conceived whole – the smoked parsnip purée marrying so well with the cardamom, which paired so well with the fatty duck, which worked so well with the turtle beans and apricots tucked beneath it. And this was a big portion – as the meal progressed, we noticed that some who had ordered the six-course menu at other tables were struggling to finish everything.

Cheeses arrived, just a brie and a comte, served with no bread, but with some toasted nuts and seeds and fruit jellies. (No picture. I was getting funny looks from an adjacent table.) Not as exciting or unusual as the evening’s other dishes, but a nice opportunity to get our ducks in a row, as it were, before attacking dessert.

So many places do a warm chocolate cake with a melty middle that it’s become a bit of a cliche. A very jolly one, though, which is made considerably more interesting by the addition of pumpkin (more puree!), some chocolate rubble and a handsome dollop of very dark, malt ice cream. It’s been a few days and I still can’t work out whether or not I actually liked that pumpkin, a little bland in texture against the richness of all the other ingredients, but it certainly worked to tamp down the sweetness of the dish.

I’ve one issue with our meal, and it’s not really Nokka’s fault. Duty on alcohol is so high in Finland that ordering a bottle of wine with dinner is a considerable expense, and you’re not going to find anything you’ll enjoy drinking for under €60 a bottle – more than we paid for all four courses. This also has a lot to do with the current exchange rate, of course, which is particularly horrible if you’re travelling from the UK or US. (The pound and the euro are nearly equivalent at the moment, which in a city which starts out as pricey as Helsinki means you are basically precluded from doing any shopping at all.) So I drank a single glass of cava with this meal, where it really deserved a nice fat bottle of Burgundy.

Try Helsinki in November. It’s quiet, the room rates are fantastic (I finally scored a room at the Kamp, the city’s only five-star hotel, which came in at about €150 less per night than I was quoted back in April), and there’s a strangely intense romance to the dying light. And lord, the food’s fun.

Helsinki cafés

Your daily eating schedule in Helsinki is going to be a bit different from what you’re used to. Here, it’s the norm to eat a simply gargantuan breakfast, then to skip lunch altogether or eat something very, very light in one of the city’s cafés.

Most hotels offer a large buffet breakfast. Whenever I’ve been in Helsinki I’ve ended up at one of the Radissons in town. This visit found us at the Radisson SAS Seaside, about ten minutes’ walk from the very centre of town. The hotel is also right next to a tram stop – €2 will buy you an hour’s use of the city’s tram/bus network, and a ticket can be purchased from the driver.

This hotel is less seaside than harbourside, but has extremely comfortable memory foam beds, clean laminate flooring in the rooms (marvellous for allergy sufferers) and great black-out curtains. This being Finland, there are also saunas, including two complimentary ones and one on the roof which can be rented by the hour for parties. Radissons always seem to offer great spreads for their buffet breakfasts, and we conscientiously filled up each morning on little sausages with sweet Finnish mustard, bacon, eggs, organic porridge (cloudberry, raspberry and strawberry jams and maple syrup were on hand), smoked salmon, several different crispbreads and rye breads, soused herring, cucumber both fresh and pickled, salads, continental meats, cheeses, yoghurt, muesli, smoothies, juices and vat upon vat of fresh coffee.

Coffee is good in this city – there seems to be a degree of national pride in serving a really good cup. The best I found (unfortunately, it’s priced accordingly) was at Fazer, a café and bakers dating from the 1890s on Kluuvikatu. Fazer is great for the kind of light lunch that is typical here – get food from the counter and pay for it, then sit by the window to watch the crowds go by. We found open sandwiches (be aware that when you order a sandwich in Helsinki, it will be an open one) made from the bakery’s own rye bread topped with concoctions like rare roast beef and tzatziki, or smoked salmon, capers and cream cheese. Pastries here are also a winner – I liked the Bebe, a tiny pink-iced oval of hollow pastry piped full of pureed fresh strawberries and whipped cream. When you’ve finished your meal, head over to the other side of the large room to pick up some chocolates, sweets and baked goods to take home with you.

Near Fazer you’ll find Kämp Café at the Kamp Hotel (this is where I’d be staying if I was feeling a bit richer – there’s a library, a glorious sweeping staircase leading up from the lobby and a palpable sense of history). You can sit outside on the Esplanadi in spring and summer – this is one of the nicest spots in the city for people-watching. There’s a thoughtful wine list and excellent raw seafood. We really enjoyed the lime-spiked beef carpaccio, the wild mushroom risotto, a sweetly fresh king prawn and lemon open sandwich and an extraordinarily good club sandwich. Kämp Café is also open in the evenings for supper.

Kappeli, at the harbour end of Esplanadi, is worth a visit just for the building. It’s a belle époque glass conservatory, overlooking the sea and Esplanadi’s lovely avenue of trees. Again, the café is self-service. Try the smoked reindeer open sandwich and the excellent coffee. Desserts here are also good.

We also ate at Café Ekberg on Bulevardi. Ekberg has been serving pastries, salads and sandwiches since the 1850s – but although there is table service here, we found the service slow and rather rude (astonishing for Finland, where everyone is usually as nice as pie), the food…OK…and the prices rather high for what we were given. We went with friends, and my egg and anchovy open sandwich on rye bread was probably the best of the four lunches ordered (a chicken sandwich was, peculiarly, a sea of superheated Coronation Chicken on a slice of white bread). If you’re an anchovy sort of person, anchovies are usually a good bet in Finland and elsewhere in Scandinavia. They’re unlike the ones you can get in the UK and US. Scandinavian anchovies are sweet and delicately spiced, and match wonderfully with hard boiled eggs and rye bread. Ekberg still wins points with me for the profusion of nice old ladies in hats who shared the dining room with us.

I’ll wrap this up now. I am suffering a dreadful craving for coffee.

Saaga, Helsinki

I’m afraid that this is the second review in less than a month that compels me to start with a wide-eyed appreciation of the toilets. The men’s toilets, in this case – one of our friends came down the stairs of this Lappish restaurant, eyes full of bloodlust, and told me I absolutely had to go and have a look at the corridor of death outside the loo.

It’s an Arctic taxidermist’s heaven. A not very aerodynamic-looking snow grouse dangles from the ceiling, stubby wings at full stretch. A small stoat in its winter coat clings rigidly to a bough. A wolf stuck in mid-howl gazes glassily into the distance, and an elk’s head (if it were mine there would be coats and hats hanging off the antlers) stares past a sad and very dead reindeer. Stiff ptarmigans point the way to the lavatory. A fox’s tail, nailed to the wall sans fox, yearns for a Davy Crockett to take it on adventures; and it took us a while, but we finally identified the spotty carpet-thing with holes where there might be legs as the peelings of a seal. In the restaurant proper, a brown bearskin looks insulted as flambéed bear meatballs are delivered to diners, and a little shelf by our table was heaped with detached antlers.

The Lapps like their meat wild, big and preferably with a great big arrow sticking out of it. It’s hard to object to animals as interior design when you’re also eating them.

Saaga (Bulevardi 34 B, 00120 Helsinki) is that rarest of things, a rather touristy restaurant serving really great food. As usual in Helsinki, the menu is available in a number of languages, and the English version was charmingly poetic – where else will you find dishes called things like ‘Fish of the Four Winds, Served on an Arctic Slate’, or ‘Hungry Like a Wolf’?

Your coat is taken by a gentleman in full Lappish costume (other examples of traditional dress are on display at the National Museum, but here they’re actually wearing them), and you’re invited to settle in with a drink. I asked for a Lappish Glimmer, one of those deadly concoctions that’s mostly pure alcohol (in this case brandy and a cloudberry liqueur with a couple of cloudberries bobbing in among the ice cubes) but tastes completely innocuous. The Finns are good at booze. For starters, I went for fried vendace (my new favourite fish) with Granny’s Pickled Cumbers. Granny’s cucumbers are a dead ringer for the cucumber salad I blogged here last year, and arrived in a wooden bowl with some baby vendace, flour-dusted and deep-fried, and a sour cream dip. Whitefish a la Lake Nakkälänjäarvi (try saying that after a Lappish Glimmer) was a slice of moussey terrine with a dollop of vendace roe on top, everything garnished with plenty of dill.

Dr W and I ordered Hungry Like a Wolf as a main course – a slab of honed wood tiled with meat. Smoked reindeer shank, elk fillet and a juicy reindeer fillet were bathed in a slightly gamey reindeer sauce, with turnip rösti and roast red onion prepared with birch tar on the side. Other main courses were just as spectacularly presented, with one of our friends being presented with a hunk of lamb (the wimp) on a wood and metal mesh box, a little flame burning away inside. Someone ordered the inevitable flambéed bear meatballs, and I begged a mouthful. I’m still feeling slightly guilty every time I catch the eye of my teddy bear, but these were great – bear is a marbled, slightly sweet meat with loads of flavour, and is only available in a limited number of restaurants in the city. A friend who moved out to Helsinki from England a few years ago tells me that there only a certain number of bears can be hunted for food every year, and that restaurants serving the meat require a special licence. If you can get past childhood memories of Pooh, Yogi and Balloo, it’s well worth trying, and the cepes, mashed potato and game sauce this came with were fabulous.

More of the baked cheese with cinnamon cream and cloudberries we tried at Salve was on offer. This time I tried pancakes (more blini than crepe) with more cloudberries and a gorgeously smooth and creamy spruce shoot ice cream. Tart cranberries are also on offer here in hot caramel sauce, served in a bowl made of ice. I can’t get beyond the mouth-pucker you get with raw cranberries, and nor could anyone at our table.

We’d been drinking Lappin Kulta beer throughout the meal (I am assured this has nothing to do with rabbit-worship), and had become fairly cheerful. Things descended into a boozy mist when I ordered a coffee with brandy in a Lappish kuksa, a birch cup honed completely smooth. A kuksa is velvet-smooth to the touch, and a wonderfully comforting fit in the hand. This was really a mug full of brandy with the barest splash of coffee, and the woody cup gave up a particular and delicious flavour to the drink. I recall starting the drink with relish. I don’t remember finishing it, and the headache the next morning was only alleviated by twenty minutes in the sauna and a lot of cold water.

Bellevue, Helsinki

The Katajanokka area of Helsinki – this translates as Juniper Point in English, which I think is rather splendidly romantic – is where you’ll find the Russian Orthodox cathedral, some gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings, and the city’s oldest Russian restaurant. Bellevue (Rahapajankatu 3, 00160 Helsinki) opened in 1917, a year which found a lot of Russians looking for an out-of-town venue for lugubrious vodka and bear-stew parties, and has been serving traditional dishes ever since. The menu says that this place would never have survived so long without a thorough understanding of the ‘joys and melancholies of the Russian soul’. I can see what they mean. The food was so tasty that it made me want to weep uncontrollably.

Oddly, you’re greeted at the door by a signed photograph of Barbara Bush (melancholy). Inside is a cosy clutch of dining rooms, decorated in sombre colours with paintings of troikas on the walls, the sound of Russian bass voices (more melancholy) hanging woefully in the air as you drink your grain alcohol (joy). The menu – there is an English-language one for those, like me, whose Russian is even worse than their Finnish – is packed with old Russian favourites like a borscht thick with grated beetroot, wild boar tartar and potroast bear.

I’ve been wanting to try vendace roe since we’ve been in Helsinki. The northern European vendace is not the same as the fish of the same name you find in parts of England; it’s a whitefish which was called the ‘favourite fish of the Tsars’, and its roe is particularly prized. My serving of apricot-coloured roe turned up in a little lacquered wooden bowl painted with rowan berries, alongside bowls of smetana (a fermented cream a bit like rich soured cream) and sweet red onion. The blini that arrived to go with the roe was a monster – about five inches across and half an inch deep, made from a floatingly light buckwheat batter and sizzling in literally heart-stopping amounts of aromatic butter. Joyful tastebuds, melancholy arteries. Vendace roe has a delicate flavour, less salty than most other fish roes you’ll find on tables Russian and otherwise, and was richly gorgeous glopped all over the blini with generous amounts of smetana and onion.

You’ll find a recipe for Chicken Kiev on this site, and it’s interesting to compare it with Bellevue’s more authentically Russian (and rather more attractive) version – they provide the recipe here. This Kiev is plump and juicy. The waiter stabs it with a knife at the table for you, and a simply amazing amount of lemony butter leaks out into the mildly curried rice on the plate. A peach chutney marries up very nicely with the rich, butter-swimming chicken breast. I wasn’t able to finish mine; especially after all the butter in the blini, I found I was in danger of keeling over (melancholy) from the sheer richness of it all. Fortunately, Dr W is like a Jacob’s Cream Cracker in his ability to soak up vast amounts of butter (joy, I suppose), and happily ate anything I’d left.

All this left me unable to face anything very challenging for dessert, so I asked for the Russian tea tray. A glass of pale, black tea in a silver holder arrived, alongside some strawberries and biscuits, and a silver pot of raspberry jam. ‘Put it in your tea’, said the lady serving me. I assumed this was another Russian melancholy joy, and did what she said.

Tea with jam is, it turns out, a bloody marvellous idea, and I have no idea why it’s not precipitated further west. (See? Joy at the discovery that there’s something you can do to make tea even nicer, and melancholy when you realise that there’s no way anybody back home is going to believe you when you tell them how good it is.) Raspberry jam is really, really good in tea, being rather tart as well as sweet, and it turned the little glass of steaming tea into something like distilled joy when compared with those melancholy dried fruit teas you can buy at vast expense in branches of Whittards back home.

Filled with joy and melancholy, we walked back to our hotel alongside the waterfront, torn between kicking our heels and throwing ourselves into the Baltic.

Salve, Helsinki

So here I am in Helsinki, enjoying fantastic Scandinavian breakfasts and icy-clear sunshine. It’s about eight years since I was last here, and I don’t know why I left it so long; I love this city, with its mixture of deco and modernist architecture, its lovely tree-lined boulevards, the curiously Baltic quality of light and wonderful, wonderful food.

Salve (Hietalahdenranta 11, 00180 Helsinki) is a quiet-looking little joint, opposite one of Helsinki’s harbours. Walking past on the way to the adjacent flea market, you’d never guess that this is, in fact, one of the city’s oldest restaurants. Salve is a traditional sailors’ pub, which has been serving its speciality, fried herrings and mashed potato, for more than a century.

We visited early on a Sunday evening, expecting a relatively quiet restaurant. It was, in fact, packed, and we were lucky to find a table at the back, next to the bar. There’s maritime memorabilia all over the place; huge, waxed ropes dangling here and there, a Captain Haddock-type effigy by the door, and little wooden model boats in full sail hanging from the ceiling. The menu is in six languages. This is a boon for those of you who, like me, struggle with Finnish. I can reliably pronounce only a handful of words in Finnish, including hei (hello), kiitos (thank you), kippis (cheers), olut (beer) and sauna (sauna, unsurprisingly). You’ll find that this very small vocabulary will serve you very well over here, where beer, saunas and extreme friendliness are the order of the day.

There are only a few starters on the menu – the main event is the herring, which heads up a list of mostly fishy main courses. The herring is delivered to the restaurant fresh from the boats you can see bobbing about across the road. It’s cleaned and prepared in the restaurant’s kitchens, then dredged in a savoury flour mixture, fried and piled on top of a heap of mashed potato. Although Helsinki has its months of darkness in the winter, its springs herald very long, startlingly bright days of sunshine, and the flavour of the potatoes is all the more rich and concentrated for this, especially at this time of year.

These are enormous portions, and even with the ravening hunger that results from a recent bout of flu and mild jetlag, I couldn’t finish mine.

Desserts are along traditional lines, with an emphasis on dairy and berries. There’s a free-for-all in this country on berries; you can pick what you want unless you’re in certain parts of Lapland, where the cloudberries are particularly prized and are rationed. Cloudberries, a yellow fruit a bit like a raspberry on steroids, are particularly delicious, and I ordered a dish of sweet baked cheese in a cinnamon cream with cloudberry jam. This is a traditional dish that you’ll find in most restaurants serving Finnish cuisine. The cheese resembles halloumi in texture, but is only very barely salted, and it takes on a toothsome sweetness when prepared with cream and a dusting of cinnamon. Dr W went for a glass of frozen cranberries in butterscotch syrup – another very typical dessert. I’m one of those people who find cranberries extremely bitter, especially when raw, but if you’re someone who likes cranberry juice, you’ll probably enjoy this dish; and you’re likely to find it in most restaurants serving Finnish cuisine.

Salve is a traditional and inexpensive restaurant brimming with style and local custom. Use an acidic cup of the excellent coffee to settle your stomach before you waddle back to your hotel, and congratulate yourself on having eaten a piece of real Finnish history.