President Jacques Chirac of France spoke the mind of many when, at a diplomatic meeting in Russia in July 2005, he commented about the British to Vladimir Putin and Gerhard Schröder. "You can’t trust people whose cuisine is that bad," he said. "After Finland, it’s the country with the worst food."
The lighthearted barb was widely reported in Finland and the United Kingdom, prompting self-examination in both nations. It was clear that Chirac’s view of the Brits was outdated—London, after all, has for some time been full of top restaurants and English-inspired gastropubs are popping up around the globe—but was the French leader right about Finland?
Helsinki is in the throes of a proud resurgence of its native food and one of the early pioneers of this Finnish fine-dining revival is Nokka, a converted waterside warehouse that opened in 2002. Local ingredients like arctic char, lamb, cheeses, and snails are served with wines from a list that highlights the new wave of Finnish berry wines, crafted from black currant, cloudberry, and sea buckthorn. On one visit the special was snow poro, a wafer-thin cut of brined wild reindeer; not as gamy as you might expect, it was tender and delicately flavored.
Nokka has spawned other spots that show how Finnish food is about more than just fried herring and meatballs. Perhaps the best of them is Ilmatar, inside the Klaus K Hotel. The owners cannily recruited Markus Maulavirta, Nokka’s former head chef and a national TV celebrity. Though known for his passion for traditional foods (he even owns a reindeer herd and his own cloudberry bog), Maulavirta creates dishes that are thoroughly modern— for example, fried lemon-butter goose liver and crayfish soup with salmon. Because he places such an emphasis on the quality of ingredients, it’s the simplest plates that are truly revelatory. If you go for breakfast, order the traditional canoe-shaped Karelian pastries, made from rye flour with various toppings: caviar, sour cream, wild forest mushrooms, and poached organic eggs. They are perfection.
But this new wave-meets-old school cuisine is only part of the city’s gastronomic renaissance. Like London before it, Helsinki has become home to a slew of world-class international restaurants, drawing even those whose palettes are not piqued by crayfish and lingonberries. The talk of the town is Postres, a Continental eatery that’s been heralded as one of the city’s finest since opening last spring. Dinner is exemplary—a cheek of veal pot-au-feu had intense, meaty flavors, while a crab ravioli was encased in delicate pasta and garnished with a lemon purée. But as the Spanish name suggests, desserts are the stars here. Meanwhile, the Catalonian and Basque tasting menu at the überchic La Cocina as well as the gloriously plump shellfish at FishMarket are packing in hordes of foodies from around the corner—and the world.
Helsinki food writer Kenneth Nars has a theory on why his countrymen have become so invested in haute cuisine. "This new pride in Finnish produce and cooking has been, in part, a reaction to Chirac’s much-publicized remarks," he says. "It was the best thing that could have happened to us." Chirac may soon have to eat his words.
La Cocina Dinner, $95. 4 Kluuvikatu; 358-9/1345-6749; palaceravintolat.com
Fishmarket Dinner, $100. 17 Pohjoisesplanadi; 358-9/1345-6220; palacekamp.fi
Ilmatar Breakfast, $30. Klaus K Hotel, 2-4 Bulevardi; 358-20/770-4714
Kolme Kruunua This historic spot is the place to try traditional dishes such as fried herring. Dinner, $45. 5 Liisankatu; 358-9/135-4172; kolmekruunua.fi.
Mecca The elegant cocktail bar here is a perfect meeting spot. Dinner, $160. 34 Korkeavuorenkatu; 358-9/1345-6200; mecca.fi.
Nokka Dinner, $150. 7 Kanavaranta; 358-9/687-7330; royalravintolat.com
Olo A chic contemporary Nordic eatery and wine bar. Dinner, $100. 44 Kasarmikatu; 358-9/665-565; olo-ravintola.fi.
Postres Dinner, $130. 8 Eteläesplanadi; 358-9/ 663-300; postres.fi