We tend to eat out quite a bit, some out of laziness and some in the quest for new and interesting experiences. Helsinki has the best restaurant scene in Finland, but it’s still not trivial to get good food. It would seem that Finns are either not that picky or that they eat out randomly and seldom enough to not to hold a grudge.
Here are some experiences from the past couple of months (Kosmos, Carelia, Kruo Thai, Chez Dominique, Sasso, Gastone and Strindberg)
Kosmos (at Kalevankatu 3) is one of the oldest running restaurants in the city with its over 80 years. It’s supposed be a hangout for past and present cultural heros. Sadly its also got quite hostile service and not that great food.
We had a reservation, but came slightly early. The garderobe guy met us with indifference (at that point) and directed us to the maitre’d. He told us that we’d have to wait a few minutes while they prepare the table, so we thought we’d sit at the lounge and have a drink, ordering some drinks. When we returned to the lounge the garderobe guy now took an active interest in us, elling us off for not sitting at a table. Once we said that the table wasn’t ready, he went and had a look in the actual restraurant, saw an empty table and then berated both the staff for not offering it and us for not requesting it. After about 10 mins our table was ready and we managed to leave that guy behind. And no, we didn’t get the drinks while waiting.
Kosmos prides itself on classical Finnish restaurant cooking. For food I took a blini with roe as a starter and fried sweetbreads as the main. Don’t. The blini was basically impregnated with fat, leaving no room for any other taste. The sweetbreads hadn’t been breaded! I can appreciate that might be considered a valid alternative, but fried sweetbreads au naturell have quite an unpleasant texture: alternating between slimy, rubbery and stringy. Not very classy.
At around 50 euros for two courses and half a bottle of wine, Just Say No.
The service was friendly but not overpowering. The waiter was even willing to chat a bit about where they get their ingredients.
They import their own champagne (which is of course not that unusual), which was absolutely excellent! Nice bubbles and and a very definite taste. Maybe it was just different from the usual and thus tasted interesting, but that’s still good.
I had fresh pan-fried foie gras as a starter, which was perfect. It seems it’s not on the menu at the moment, but will probably reappear. Niina had a creme of mushroom soup, which while not too bad was a bit too creamy (and salty), not letting the mushrooms stand out. For the main I had a filet of white fish with pancetta. I guess it should’ve been classed as a well-balanced and full-tasting dish, but I would have preferred the fish to have a bit more room. Not bad nevertheless. Niina had some filet of deer, which was brilliant: perfect texture, red in the middle and with the right amount of browning.
For around 50 for two courses and and two glasses of fine, it’s a good deal.
Helsinki has a couple of Thai restaurants, most of which aren’t that great, in my opinion including the hallowed Mai Thai. Kruo Thai (Finnish only site), Mechelininkatu 17 is an exception. Although the milieu is kitchy to the extreme, displaying what is probably several layers of different ‘ethnic’ decorations the food is really good.
So I have to admit I’ve only tasted a few of the dishes, tending to have a curry of some description each time. But they are beautiful: a clear, definite taste of a Thai curry with a good dose of hot and crunchy veggies. It’s the clarity of thought and execution that makes me not care if the whole thing comes from a bottle somewhere (although I doubt that).
For 7-15 euros for the main courses, which are big, it’s great.
Finland’s only two star restaurant, Chez Dominique is the only restaurant we’ve been to in Finland that aims at the fine dining experience. Aggressively but subtly decorated (is that a contradiction?), well staffed and with excellent amuses it’s a joy inbetween the staple of nondescript Finnish restaurants.
But it doesn’t quite live up to the expectations or the price.
We took the surprise menu with the wine packet. The amuses were great. First a set of three small white creams: a foam of bacon, a creme of jerusalem artichoke and snow of almond. Good concept and execution, with a slight disappointment in the creme of artichoke in which there was probably a bit too much cream and bouillon, covering the subtle taste of the artichoke. The second amuse was a bit of very thin bread, some creme I’ve forgotten what of, a piece of marinated herring and a drop of roe. The way the tastes followed each other in the mouth, first the strong herring, then the creme and finally the fishiness of the roe was almost mind-blowing.
The first courses were interesting but definitely lacked clarity. There were at least 20 different things on the plate, so that you had no idea in which order or combination they would be best eaten in. There was no leading thought, at least not so that the eater could have seen it. That said, there were some really interesting inventions there, like a creme of capris which had us guessing of its ingredients for some minutes before getting it. One of the wines sticks to mind: a French white with some noble rot grapes in it, not sweet but with a strong and definite taste.
The following courses continued in the same manner: it felt as if there was a lack of courage in the kitchen. A mindset: ‘if we put as many interesting things on the plate as possible they can’t complain’. I would have preferred simpler dishes with more pronounced aims. The signature dish with pigeon in three forms was beautifully done though. The big miss came in the wine packet: the ’88 Bourgogne served with the pigeon was, in our opinion, past its peak and turning a bit watery. Not what you expect as the highlight of a 100 euro packet.
As a mouth cleanser they served a granité of mandarine with champagne, which though not that bad was just too boring. Granité (or sorbet) of mandarine is what you make at home for dessert when you can’t come up with anything new.
There was a chocolate fondant as one the desserts, that was just perfect. A clean taste of dough in the outer shell and a beautifully runny center with a strong taste of chocolate. Couldn’t be done better. But then again, with the coffee goods there was a tiny tartelet with custard where something really terrible must have happened to the custard. If I’d had it at home I would have thought it had taken to the taste of something else in the fridge. And maybe it had.
In this price class and having two stars, Chez Dominique begs comparison to e.g., (the late) Bon Lloc in Stockholm. It doesn’t measure up. Dahlgren’s simple but surprising dishes just blow away Välimäki’s.
So for 200 euro per person, it’s not quite worth it, food-wise. As the only place in Finland which tries to create this kind of experience, it might be.
We have been a few times, and generally the food has been good bordering on excellent, with a clarity of ideas and good execution. The carpaccio on tuna and grilled filet of lamb have been particularly nice, and the risotto one of the first ones you can eat in a restaurant.
The last (and I mean last) time we went there was terrible. A friend had booked a table the same day (so late) and had been told that we might have to wait a bit when we come. So we sat down in the lobby area on low and a bit uncomfortable seats. They asked if we wanted any drinks right when we sat down, but we thought we’d wait until we got the table.
And time passed, and we waited. And time passed, and we waited. At one hour and 15 minutes a waiter comes and says that our table will be ready in about five minutes, apologizes for the wait. And tells us that ‘the saddest thing is that we’ve had that table for a long time, since it was reserved, but the party it was reserved for hasn’t turned up’.
WHAT THE FUCK. They leave us for over an hour with no contact what so ever. No ‘sorry you’ll have to wait a bit more’, no ‘would you like some drinks now’ and definitely no ‘we apologize that you have had to wait, here are some amuses, on the house’. How can you assume that somebody who’s booked a table will be happy to sit for over an hour with no end in sight? Do they go to the restaurant school and look for the failures?
So we got to the table and hinted that some kind of restitution might be in order. That was completely out of the question. They reiterated that ‘we had been told there would be a wait’, that ‘they had thought the party who arrived at 4 pm (it was now 10:20) would have left well before we came’ and that ‘they were not to blame’. The last point was clearly the main issue: it was important to agree that they were not to blame.
But it’s not that you want to assign blame when you come to a restaurant. You want to have a good time and get some good food. Waiting for over an hour is not a good time. Their role as the restaurant would have been to try to soften it as much as possible – not just ignore us and then stress the importance of acting properly.
The Finnish standard of service is oft-criticized, but justly so. They did not at any point try to set themselved in our position, try to think what we might want or feel. E.g., why did they tell us that there had been a table? It didn’t help our waiting and made it clear that they had preferred this other party over us. Why mention it?
So in the end they agreed to dessert on the house. Which was nice, but after getting repeatedly told that it was basically our own fault that we’d sat their and waited, it really didn’t make up for it anymore.
So if you think the quality of service might have any influence in whether you will enjoy a restaurant, don’t go to Sasso.
(43 euros a four-course set menu).
We haven’t been to Gastone in a few months, so I’ve forgotten what I’ve eaten and so can’t give a detailed review. But what I do remember is that it has had a consistently high-level in both the cooking and the service.
The only downside is that since it’s so good, it’s always full :-). Booking essential.
About 45 euros for 2,5 courses and wine.
Helsinki has a set of good cafes alongside the really mediocre ones. In my opinion, this set includes basically Esplanadi (and Succès), Fazer, Engel, Briossi, Tamminiementie and Strindberg. But in addition to the nice (but pricy) cafe, there is the Restaurant Strindberg (Pohjoisesplanadi 33). The decor is quite plain, but nicely so and the location is of course great.
We had two courses and some wine, Bollinger by glass being a nice touch. The starters were excellent, I had a plate with liver paté, fig and a salad from beetroot leaves (which was really good, the clean taste of beetroot in the leaves a surprise), Niina a tuna carpaccio (which was a tad salty, though). For the main I had papparelle pasta with cep and Niina a risotto with grilled scallops. So the pasta was not that great, very oily, to the point of hiding all the other tastes. The risotto (with craysfish) was really good, as were the scallops.
So the food was ok, but nothing to write home about. That cannot be said of the service. Possibly for the first time in Finland we didn’t notice the service in any way. We had everything we needed, the moment we looked up to find a waiter he’d be there but if we didn’t, he wasn’t. The average age of the service personnel was higher than usual, so I can only surmiss that Strindberg actually keeps and trains the people it has. Well done!
45 euros for two courses and two glasses of wine. A pleasure.