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Helsinki Where East Meets West


Helsinki is a fascinating meeting point between East and West. It is a beautiful city surrounded by the sea on three sides and the city’s shoreline is adorned by over 300 islands. The Finnish capital has a lot of culture to offer; theatres, museums, arts, music and fascinating architecture with the contrasts of Nordic minimalism and Russian golden cupolas. Grand, historic sights, myths and traditions are integrated with shopping, high-technology and hip design in this city that was proud to be appointed World Design Capital 2012. And furthermore, Helsinki offers a food and restaurant scene that is varied, dynamic and constantly evolving. Come here to enjoy the simplicity, purity and freshness of the New Nordic Cuisine, the traditional, basic and ‘no fuss’ local Finnish cooking, the taste of Russian specialties and the exotic flavours of Asia. And plenty of rye bread and great coffee. A City Guide by Sofia Selberg.

The Finns drink more coffee than any other nation in the world. They consume a staggering 12 kilos of coffee each, per year. Walking around in Helsinki – which is an easy way to explore this compact size city – there is a good chance that you will stop for a coffee in one of the city’s 22 Robert’s Coffee units. The chain, part of the Finnish family company Paulig, is the biggest coffee shop system in Finland. There are almost 40 outlets in the country and more units in Sweden, Estonia, Turkey and Singapore. www.robertscoffee.com

True coffee lovers may prefer to enjoy specialty coffee in Kaffa Roastery, a combined coffee roastery and coffee bar located in connection to an interior design shop on Pursimiehenkatu. There is also a shop section displaying packaged Kaffa Roastery coffee for home consumption, coffee machines and filter-brew equipment. Founder Svante Hampf and his team are truly passionate about high quality coffee beans, which they import from over 10 countries, and careful blending and roasting in order to achieve the perfect coffee experience. Freshness is a key word. Kaffa Roastery has achieved awards such as Barista of the Year and won first place in Brewers Cup, Finland’s first competition in filter coffee brewing by hand. www.kaffaroastery.fi

Jens Hampf (yes, he is the brother of Svante Hampf), is the man behind two downtown Italian-style coffee shops, La Torrefazione and Fratello Torrefazione. The very popular La Torrefazione was established in 2009 in a small 2nd floor space overlooking Aleksanterinkatu. They serve espresso coffee, brewed filter coffee, French press coffee, sandwiches, lunches, pastries, wine and beer. The second unit, Fratello Torrefazione, was opened in 2011 in the Kluuvi shopping centre. They have a similar concept but are especially known for brewing coffee in their Japanese style siphon bar. www.latorre.fi, www.fratello.fi

Finland was ruled by its Eastern neighbour, Russia, from 1809 to 1917. This tsarist era has left influences on architecture, cultural events and food. Two well-known Russian restaurants in Helsinki are Saslik and Bellevue, the latter dating back as far as to 1917. They serve specialties of the Russian cuisine, such as Borscht soup, Caviar, Blinis, Pickled Russian cucumber, Pelmeni and various bear dishes, in a typical Russian interior and atmosphere. www.saslik.fi, www.restaurantbellevue.com

With the exception of the Russian restaurants, authentic ethnic cuisines have not been the signature of the Helsinki restaurant scene. But during the last few years, there has been a very positive change. BW Restaurants is a restaurant group founded by the two chefs, entrepreneurs and friends, Tomi Björck and Matti Wikberg. They run two high-class, modern Asian restaurants in Helsinki; Farang and Gaijin. Farang was their first restaurant, opened in 2009. The Farang menu offers authentic flavours from Southeast Asia, for example Thai, Vietnamese and Indonesian. All dishes are designed for sharing and aim to serve balance and harmony between flavours of hot, sour, salty and sweet. Tasting menus range from ?59 to 64. During lunchtime, guests can enjoy two courses at ?22 or three courses at ?28. Farang has a total of 160 seats in a main dining hall, a smaller dining area, a lounge and a private function room. The restaurant is located within the premises of Taidehalli, the Art Exhibition Hall in Helsinki. In 2011, professionals from the Finnish restaurant business voted Farang as the number one restaurant in Finland. Another Farang restaurant will open in Stockholm, Sweden, in February 2013. www.farang.fi

The sister restaurant Gaijin, located on the corner of Bulevardi and Yrjönkatu, was Tomi Björck and Matti Wikberg’s second restaurant. Gaijin offers small dishes combining flavours from Japan, Korea and North China, in a modern way. You can either try one of the two tasting menus, Menu Gaijin (?64) and Menu Nanami (?59), or choose from the à la carte with mains ranging from ?18 to 33. Examples of main courses are Char Siew Pork & Bok Choy, Drunken Chicken, Pork Belly Yakiniku and Miso Butterfish & Mushroom Dashi. This central corner location offers a dining room, a bar, a lounge area and an outside terrace. www.gaijin.fi

In 2012, BW Restaurants opened their third restaurant – Boulevard Social. Again, an ethnic restaurant aiming at offering authentic flavors, this time a combination of flavours from Greece, Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco and other Mediterranean countries. There are two set menus, Social Tasting Menu (?64) and Menu Boulevard (?59) each consisting of seven to eight dishes. Examples of small dishes are Prawn Cocktail Morocco, Mini Lamb Burger, Fried Squid with Lemon Aioli, Tanquer Style Salmon Cevice, Javiers Foie Paté and Pork Belly Golden Spices. Boulevard Social is renowned for serving good cocktails to be enjoyed in the bar or on the outside terrace. www.boulevardsocial.

One trend in Helsinki during the last few years is young entrepreneurial chefs, many of who are teaming up in twos and opening their own small and unique restaurants with a focus on the New Nordic Cuisine. They are dedicated to using local raw materials, preferably organic, and following the seasonal cycle of the Nordic nature. Examples are: Olo (one Michelin star) in Kasarmikatu (www.oloravintola.fi), Ask in Vironkatu (www.restaurantask.com), Chef & Sommelier in Huvilakatu (www.chefetsommelier.fi) and Spis in Kasarmikatu. Spis, a small restaurant with only 18 seats, is run by the two restaurateurs Jani Kinanen and Jaakko Kinnunen. They are devoted to Nordic flavours and ingredients. The Nordic theme is also seen in the interior design. The compact menu – two starters, three main courses, two desserts – showcases simple regional ingredients in complex dishes. To a large extent, the food is based on regionally grown vegetables. In the summer months, the vegetables are fresh and during the colder season they use more root vegetables and preserved vegetables. A three course meal ranges from ?41 to 50 per person, excluding beverages. Beverages include Nordic beers from micro-breweries and a selection of artisan wines. The menu is seasonal and changes 10 times a year and the same applies to the wine list. The presentation of the food in Spis is very important and great effort is made to match a new dish with the ideal plate, which often requires that a new plate is brought in. Sometimes the owners are involved in the actual design of the new plates and tableware. www.spis.fi

On the lookout for shopping for Finnish and Nordic grocery products the best place to go is Eat & Joy Maatilatori which is a market hall in the basement floor of the Kluuvi shopping mall. There is also a small Eat & Joy unit at Helsinki Airport and two shop-in-shop sections in Prisma hypermarkets. The markets are open 7 days a week and offer delicacies from more than 500 small producers across Finland: freshly baked Finnish rye bread, wild reindeer (poro), salmon, artisan cheeses, berry jams, fish roe, handcrafted beer and cider, mushrooms, smoked specialties, artisan chocolates and much more – all direct from the producers. Eatandjoy.fi
An interesting project is the development of The Abattoir (Teurastamo in Finnish) which may be described as the Meatpacking District of Helsinki. The redbrick buildings in this area date back to 1933 and originally served as an abattoir (slaughterhouse). The last slaughter took place in 1992 and since then the facilities have housed wholesale meat, bakery and other food and florist activities. Now this historical area is being transformed into a food and culture hub. Restaurants, shops and events are slowly taking over the area. The City of Helsinki Wholesale Market is responsible for leasing space at The Abattoir and developing the area. The vision is that The Abattoir will provide a place for small food related businesses open to the public and a wide range of happenings such as farmer’s markets, flea markets, open-air concerts, exhibitions, barbecues and more.

One of the first businesses to open in The Abattoir complex was Kellohalli, a restaurant and event venue operated by the restaurateur and food visionary Antto Melasniemi, known for bringing food, culture and design together. Antto also runs three other restaurants in Helsinki; Kuurna, Ateljé Finne and Putte’s Pizza. Kellohalli acted as the main stage for the culinary and design events of the World Design Capital Helsinki 2012. Kellohalli is also the physical premises for Open Kitchen – a 3 week programme for coaching groups of 12 participants on how to create and run their own restaurant concept. Antto Melasniemi is one of the front figures in this project. The first week of the Open Kitchen programme covers the topics; business basics, how to plan your finances and find the right partners, to meet the needs of your menu, how to navigate permitting, insurance and other legal issues, concept design, hospitality, and overall experience. The second week is for designing and building a prototype restaurant in Kellohalli. The third week is running the prototype restaurant live, with the help of the Kellohalli team. The first programme was held in December 2012.

It will take some time before The Abattoir complex reaches the vision but it will certainly be interesting to follow the opening of new businesses during 2013 and onwards. www.teurastamo.com, www.kellohalli.fi

Press the doorbell on Annankatu 21 to walk into the stylish A21 Cocktail Lounge, a living room style venue that specialises in modern cocktails and especially in the tastes of Finnish nature. Skilled bartenders mix cocktails from fresh fruits, herbs and quality alcohols. The lounge seats 50-60 people and there is a separate area to be used for private parties, workshops and events. A21 has been awarded one of the world’s best bars (www.worldsbestbars.com). One of the signature cocktails is Rhuba Martini: fresh basil in mix with rhubarb, honey and Grey Goose vodka. www.a21.fi

Just a short walk from A21 Cocktail Lounge is the sister restaurant A21 Dining. In an all-white dining room they offer a themed menu where each dish describes a scenery from the Nordic nature. Each dish is accompanied with a beverage especially designed to go with the dish. The current menu theme is Above the Arctic Circle and it contains seven courses. One of the dishes, Loimu slightly smoked salmon, horseradish velouté and roe, is described as follows: “A moment in the Laplander’s hut. A gathering by the fire is a moment for the magical stories of the North.” www.a21.fi/dining

Wine is gaining more popularity in Helsinki, even though beer is still the more common beverage. One of few pure wine bars is Vin-Vin, opened in April 2012. It is a cozy and casual venue, seating some 50 people in vintage couches and armchairs. Vin-Vin is co-established with the hair and beauty salon, Salon Noir, and sitting in the wine bar you can look into parts of the salon through a glass window. The wine menu offers a selection of wines from small producers, the majority from the old world. Many of the wines are organic. Wines are complemented by a selection of tapas and snacks. www.vin-vin.fi

A visit to Helsinki would surely include a stop at the Stockmann department store. It is the largest department store in Finland and even in the Nordic region. The store is known for carrying all the internationally recognised luxury brands and enjoys a reputation as the primary highend department store in Finland. The entire 8th floor is a 2,300 sq m food & beverage area named F8, operated by Fazer. Fazer is a Finnish company with almost 1,100 restaurants in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Fazer is also a giant player in the bakery and confectionary business in Finland. The F8 in Stockmann is divided into six F&B concepts; Thé (tea room), Tema (à la carte), Food (food court with salad bar, grill, Asian and home cooking offerings), Velvet (café), Sweet (champagne bar) and Café. F8 offers a wide variety of choices and is perfect for a lunch or a break from shopping. www.f8.fi, www.fazer.com

Bread is an important part of the daily food in Finland and rye bread is the most popular type of bread. A new premium bakery shop was opened in the end of 2012 in the residential area of Ullanlinna – Fazer Bageri – and more units will follow. The prototype of Fazer Bageri is Fazer’s successful Gateau bakery-shop chain in Sweden. The assortment includes bread, bakery and confectionery products, handmade chocolate and coffee. Products can be purchased to go or to be enjoyed on site in the small sit down section for six people.