Blanketed in taiga forest, speckled with a thousand lakes, ringed with rocky islands, Finland is a wilderness landscape rich in contrasts. Yet in the recent past, Finnish chefs looked outward instead of inward for culinary inspiration.
Now, young cooks and the wine-curious who worked in the restaurant industry abroad have returned home with new ideas and pride in their heritage. A prime feature of many contemporary Finnish menus is use of native ingredients like spruce tips, reindeer, sea buckthorn berries and pumpkin. And the insistence on seasonal fare forces new heights of creativity in pickling and preservation due to the long, cold winter months.
In tandem has been a growing appreciation for wine and its interplay with Finnish food. Native flavors are clean, earthy, tangy and often delicate. Thus, cool-climate whites and reds with firm acid backbones from Austria and Germany populate lists. With consideration for the environment a cornerstone of new Nordic ethos, natural, organic and biodynamic wines dominate many of the younger restaurants’ wine programs.
And if you’re still looking for reasons to book a flight, consider that restaurants are design-forward, reservations aren’t too hard to come by (the population is small), and tasting menus for world-class food are still cheaper than in Copenhagen. Is Finland the new Denmark? Get there soon to find out.
Founded in 1550 by Sweden’s King Gustavus Vasa, Finland’s capital has earned international credibility for its design industry. Now, it can add “robust dining scene” to the resume. Despite a population of around 630,000, Helsinki boast five restaurants with one Michelin star: Grön, Demo, Olo, Ask and Ora. Off the overnight flight, I went straight to lunch.
My first repast in Finland: Chapter, for three courses with wine for about $30. The space, eminently Nordic in its clean minimalist, was empty. Maybe I’d missed the lunch crowd? The server brought out a plate of bread stained pink: sourdough with fermented beetroot folded inside. This loaf, outrageously delicious with a slick of salted house-made butter, set the benchmark by which all other bread would be judged. The rest of the food wowed, too. Like a main of sliced pork, luscious with fat and melted herb compound butter; an accompaniment of local spelt spun into porridge slick with green pumpkin oil; and dishes beautifully plated on hand-thrown-ceramics. Since opening in 2017, Chapter has won numerous accolades, including being named Helsinki’s best new restaurant. The young chef, Juho Ekegren, employed local Finnish and seasonal products, a trend I’d trace through Finnish fine dining through the week.
That trend of pride in seasonal Finnish ingredients is perhaps best embodied at Ora. Owner/chef Sasu Laukkonen, a gregarious two-legged encyclopedia of the country’s edible history, cooks and chats with guests throughout the evening. This personal touch, in an intimate space of only two dozen seats, helps connect diners to Laukkonen’s complex techniques. Spare décor further focuses attention on each plate and wine pairing. The degustation menu changes with Earth’s orbit, though spelt, reindeer and nettles make frequent appearances. During my visit in September, I marveled at an end-of-season carrot. A simple root turned into an exquisite bite through a multi-step process involving caramelization of syrups, browning of butters, and spiking of vinegars with marigolds. Laukkonen excels at food that’s creative and pretty but satisfying. Don’t miss his wine pairings, as eclectic and inventive as his food. He matched a fragrant, smoky Listán Negro from the Canary Islands with the carrot to sublime result. He’s earned one Michelin star for his efforts.
Further testament to Finland’s new food culture as defined by the recapturing and modernizing of heritage foods is Juuri. Chef Jukka Nykänen declared one of the great challenges of today to be “preserving local food traditions in a world that is under the yoke of globalization and change.” In response, Nykänen and team bill themselves as “culinary archaeologists.” Indeed, lunch at their restaurant, where the Finnish version of tapas called “sapas” was first coined, is a journey through flavors of the hinterland. I leapt from a traditional porridge of buckwheat topped with savory chanterelles, sour cream and egg yolk to lamb sausage with marinated cucumbers, followed by lake perch in hollandaise flavored deeply with fish bones. Juuri has its own line of beer and a wine list encapsulating the chef’s interest in the intersection of tradition and innovation. Take a side-by-side pairing of chardonnays, the first a classic expression from Jura, the second a skin-contact version from Croatia, rich from five years on the lees.
In the Punavuori district, Inari departs from Finland for Korea. Kim Mikkola and Evelyn Kim are co-owners and experienced chefs, with time at both Copenhagen’s Noma and Helsinki’s Ora. Evelyn’s American-Korean roots intertwined with a California upbringing further informs their cooking. Building off Finnish ingredients, Mikkola and Kim weave in flavors of her ancestry – for example, fermenting kimchi from local radish. Plates are small and largely devoid of meat. Wine pairings focus on natural and organic producers, an ethos that works well with the food’s clean, bright and savory flavors. The interior, dark and half-submerged below the street, feels like a secret, though one that won’t stay hidden for long.
Up the coast 30 miles east of Helsinki sits charming Porvoo. The tiny town embodies all a tourist imagines coastal Finland to be. Founded 800 years ago, it’s also Finland’s second oldest city. Think red riverfront houses trimmed in black, cobblestone streets filled with historic timber buildings, and secret gardens tucked behind rambling alleys. It also boasts two excellent destination restaurants.
In the lower level of Hotel Onni, SicaPelle chef Simona Milazzo showcases the flavors of Sicily. It might seem odd to find an Italian-inspired restaurant in a tiny Finnish fishing village, yet Milazzo deftly blends the ingredients of her new home with those of her former. With a slather of creamy ricotta or still-warm mozzarella di bufala on a slice of house-baked bread, it felt disorienting eating Italian in Finland. Indeed, it’s easy to forget where you are: Each dining room, of which there are several, incorporates elements of the Old World – dark paneled walls, tapered candles in brass candlesticks, rough-hewn floors – with playful contemporary photography. But I’m reminded I’m firmly in Finland when the tender lamb and braised pork arrive with spelt and rutabaga. The excellent, tightly edited wine list focuses on Old World artisans from cooler climates and organic/biodynamic farms.
Sinne occupies a large, contemporary space just outside Old Town. The high ceilings, picture windows and industrial-chic décor feel a world apart from the precious heart of the city. But such a venue gives chef and owner Kai Kallio freedom to wander with the food. Sinne offers a la carte menus, plus brunch and a chef’s table experience. The latter is where guests experience Kallio’s point of view. Like many of his colleagues pushing the boundaries of Finnish ingredients, he works with wild and foraged, as well as sustainably harvested, products. On a clear sunny afternoon, Kallio sautéed reindeer sweetbreads with herb butter. Kallio also gives great thought to the wine selection, covering the Old World classics from Germany, Italy and France as well as several less common dessert wines like Maury, Pineau des Charentes, and Tokaji Szamorodni.
Though Helsinki doesn’t squeeze you the way other big metropolises like London or New York do, Turku still wins for its livable vibe. It’s walkable, bikeable and dog- and kid-friendly. Lots of young people have moved in, helping drive the growing food and drink scene. A new craft brewery, Kakola, just opened, started by a young family, and several more places are on the horizon. It even has its own Food & Wine Festival each summer.
Smör means butter in Swedish. Turku, being on Finland’s west coast and an easy ferry ride from Sweden, retains deep ties to its neighbor. Swedish, in fact, is an official language. So, it was apropos to kick off dinner with a fresh-baked bread of sourdough and barley, slathered in fresh-churned butter. A crisp G&T with arctic gin and blueberries further set the tone. Each dish explored Finland’s regional bounty, from wild pike drawn from the lakes to duck breast in cep sauce sourced from the forest. The sommelier focused on fresh, lively wines from cooler European regions like Germany and Austria. “Because they’re elegant and acid-driven and those wines work best with food that’s delicate” she explained. I couldn’t agree more. The setting, inside a series of vaulted cellar rooms in the ground floor of an old stone building, fit the refinement of the food.
Kaskis has reigned as the hottest table in Turku since opening in 2014. A team of young men sought to create a fun ambiance that incorporated seasonal food with serious technique. Clearly, they’ve achieved the desired result: On my mid-week visit, the small space was completely jammed with bright-eyed patrons, scenesters and international tourists. The buzzy vibe compensates for the no-frills approach to décor, though local textiles on the seats caught my eye. The food reaches beyond Finland to encompass Scandinavian flavors and ideas, with mushrooms from Finnish forests making appearances for as long as nature complies. The four-course tasting menu comes at a fair price at around $60; the wine pairing, an even better deal at $35 for a restaurant that’s won a slew of awards, including first Finnish restaurant outside Helsinki with a recommendation in the Michelin Guide.
An old prison provides the site for Turku’s latest restaurant, though there’s nothing gimmicky about it. Kakolanruusu, a reference to the rose tattoos inked on former prisoners’ arms, was still a physical work-in-progress in September. But the concept behind the food and wine has been established since opening in 2017. The goal: to have the largest open-fire pit in Finland. The menu is a departure from its founders’ other restaurant, Kaskis. At Kakolanruusu, diners tuck into large shared plates of fire-cooked veggies, fish and meat. The best bite of the night? Lapland potato mash. Creamy, earthy, full-flavored: I thought of writing a poem about the deep satisfaction derived from the elusive arctic potato. Though temporary, the restaurant’s series of dining rooms felt permanent, beautifully designed down to the lovely antique gold silverware by Pinti. In early 2019, the venue will move into permanent digs in the old stone walls of the jailhouse.