The morning was involved with tourist information and such, and we took an early lunch in a café, where I was content with a tuna sandwich — again, very generous, and plenty of tuna with the mayonnaise — and a glass of good Finnish Karjala beer.
•Café Esplanad, Pohjois-Esplanadi 37, Helsinki; +358 9 665 496
THERE WAS ONE RESTAURANT I was particularly wanting to try, but a phone conversation with the chef made it clear this was out of the question: he's booked and overbooked tonight and tomorrow, and then closed until January. He did recommend two other places, cautioning me the same problems might apply — after all, it's Friday, and Christmas season.
But the first one I called agreed, after some conversation, to seat us early, at 5 o'clock. And so we finally meet one of these much-discussed back-to-nature Scandinavian restaurants, and the results were very interesting and in general very pleasing.
The place is small, seating only two dozen; it has a semi-open kitchen; the wines are few and idiosyncratic; the menu is restricted — only three choices among three courses, which can be ordered à la carte or combined into a set-price sequence.
First arrival at the table was this stunning palte of butter, a few dots of Balsamic vinegar, and two little heaps: powdered dried ramps; salt flecked with dried powdered fir needles. The butter was sweet and delicious, and the dense, soft, very warm bread that came with this was very good indeed.
I ordered the four-course house menu: in their English,
Raw dry-aged beef with cured egg yolk and soured cream fraîche
Grilled jerusalem artichoke, silver onions, mushroom anglaise and fish roe
Baked fall apple with apple sorbet, white chocolate and apple vinegar caramel
but the descriptions have greatly simplified the courses. The mushrooms and cèpe butter, for example, also involved preverved lingonberries, and caper-like pine-cone buds, and the "bread" was more like a thick, irregular buckwheat crêpe, with a coarse, nutty texture, fried in butter.
The steak tartare was brilliant: a bed of crème fraîche; coarsely chopped sweet immaculate beef; tiny curls of hard-boiled egg yolk, a scatter of lovage and some other green. With it, a plate of salt that had been flavored with lovage. Not a traditional tartare, to be sure, but a brilliant thematic variation.
My main course was less to my taste, but undoubtedly very well conceived and executed and certainly expressive of the restaurant's "values": sustainability, local source and culinary tradition, a fondness for various kinds of preservation, necessary in this climate. We're not talking Mediterranean cuisine here.
There were six halves of good-sized Jerusalem artichoke, steamed to a perfect texture, and served in a sort of vegetable stew, with individual layers of halved, steamed white onions, a few leaves of salad greens, and quite a bit of salmon roe. To this was added a very rich supple savory crème anglaise, with white fish roe. The effect was nearly overwhelming: my palate seemed to have gone for a walk on a very muddy path in a dense hardwood forest.
And then the dessert, truly a work of art: a simply baked apple, Elstar I think, baked to soft, creamy texture, filled with the apple and white chocolate sorbet, and set in a pool of perfect caramel, much thinned, with chunks of apple in it; the whole thing decorated with a scatter of tender young sorrel leaves.
Cabernet franc: Ruben, Saumur, 2012
☛Restaurants visited in 2015 are listed at Eatingday's Restaurants