Dining Out in Helsinki

There’s a whole lot more to dining out in Helsinki, the Finnish capital and also World Design Capital 2012, than you might imagine. A recent trip to this far-flung Northern city provided a taste not just of its amazing design legacy, but also of its varied and exciting culinary offerings. In keeping with my idea of what Scandinavian food is all about, I expected a lot of salmon. And potatoes. And rye bread. And vodka. And, yes, there was plenty of all that. In fact, I’ve never eaten more delicious salmon, or sipped more astoundingly flavoured vodka. Finlandia Vodka became my friend during Helsinki Design Week, when I was overcome by a nasty cold. It can be a lifesaver. Trust me on that.

There’s also vast amounts of reindeer on any menu – smoked or served in a stew. Of course, every cuisine you’d get in any big European centre is there for the picking, including that of the ubiquitous Golden Arches. Thai and Italian joints jostle with trendy mess-hall style spots, and there’s a fair share of fine-dining eateries, too. Our breakaway group of international media snuck into the stunningly grand Savoy, designed originally by legendary Finns Alvar and Aino Aalto, hoping for a night cap, but were summarily shown the way out.
However, we felt pretty smug when enjoying some other pretty special experiences. We had a delicious lunch at the Turntable, an urban garden with a café that offers the ultimate in green dining during the summer months.
Located in a rather derelict looking industrial area, surrounded by railway lines and old factories, it’s named after the cast-off engine turntable that acts as the framework for this modern greenhouse oasis.

The larch-wood greenhouse and its adjacent garden is set on land rented from the city, and run by volunteers. Some are specialist horticulturists. Some are beekeepers – there are beehives here as well! They have open days when anyone can participate. Everything’s solar powered, and they have compost loos.

As far as casual dining experiences go, this one’s an uplifting, soul-singing affair – everything’s organic and vegan, most of it plucked fresh from the garden.

They serve unusual but delicious things like beetroot and hemp hummus, along with hearty veg soups and salads.

The bread is baked in a stone oven on the premises.

A novel use for abandoned shopping trolleys!

Upcycling at its best - the tables are made from old doors.

Then we got to have a delightful dinner in another industrial area that is undergoing a quiet revolution, set to become Helsinki’s equivalent to New York’s Meat Packing District.

The red-brick buildings of the old Helsinki Abattoir complex, designed by Bertel Liljequist in 1933, is now the setting of the Tukkutori Wholesale Market, restaurants and pop-up events.

Kellohalli Restaurant is like a big, happy, noisy mess hall, and dining is communal-style at long tables. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, and brunch on Sundays, and it’s been a hub for a variety of creative and cultural events during WDC Helsinki. Along with buckets of vodka, we feasted on some tasty fare with a Finnish flavour – I chose the foraged wild mushrooms over the reindeer.

A real highlight was dining at a pop down (literally!) restaurant, deep below the earth’s surface in a limestone mine, situated about an hour’s drive from Helsinki. Muru Pops Down in Tytyri (the name of the mine) was a WDC project, a collaboration between Muru restaurant – voted Helsinki’s restaurant of the year 2012 – and a number of other stakeholders. It was open for just three (sold-out) weeks. One of the key collaborators was KONE, whose laboratory for its state-of-the-art high-rise elevators is located at the mine, for good reason – in a few seconds we were transported 500 ear-popping metres below the surface, where we were greeted with vodka cocktails – pure, cold Finlandia infused with lavender and served with a dash of Lillet Blanc, and another concocted from Finlandia Cranberry, Red Vermouth, Luxardo and bitters.

Then we were whisked back up to 350m belowground (still wearing hard hats and thick miners’ coats), where a magical dining hall had been created.

Chef Timo ‘Lintsi’ Linnamaki and his hard-hat wearing team served up their signature ‘down-to-earth food’ – here, though, ‘in the spirit of the mining canteen’.

We ate from communal platters bearing smoked vendace (a local whitefish) in lemon oil; salted salmon seasoned with cumin with mustard-aquavit sauce; crayfish and potato salad with cucumber; and globe artichoke spread with hunks of hot bread. Then there was a fennel risotto with Pernod-flambéed escargots.

For my main course, I chose stuffed globe artichokes.

For dessert, apple crumble, buckthorn and calvados soup.

A Frank Sinatra-esque singer crooned the whole time, adding to the seriously ‘underground’ vibe – it was like being in a David Lynch film, but with delicious food. Your average Joe pop-up restaurant will never have quite the same effect! Text and images: Leigh Robertson Read more about Leigh's visit to Helsinki, the World Design Capital 2012, here...