Why Helsinki takes the crown as Scandinavia’s food capital

Posted on January 30, 2014 by in Eat, Drink and Be Merry, Europe, Features, Finland, Home, Places.

Fish at Ask

Yeah, you read that right – Helsinki, people! So roll over Copenhagen, and tell Stockholm the news – the Finnish capital has seemingly come from nowhere to become the hottest place for food lovers in Scandinavia. Before the inevitable barrage of indignant responses rains down upon Grown-up Travel Guide Towers from supporters of the other bastions of the ‘New Nordic’ movement let me state that I am going to back up this claim. In fact, I’m going to give you no less than 10 very good reasons why you should make for Helsinki if you want to experience the next big thing before the Michelin man realises what’s going on and everybody hears about it. By the way, you at the back there. Yes Oslo, I’m talking to you. You’ve got a lot of work to do…

I recently returned from Helsinki where I was one of 43 travel bloggers invited to take part in the Nordic Bloggers Experience and the Matka Travel Fair. As part of our programme we were able to choose a themed tour around the city and as you may have guessed I chose the food one. No surprise there, but what surprised me was the sheer range and quality of restaurants, bars, food halls, markets and speciality shops in a city of just 600,000 inhabitants.

Even though I had caught a glimpse of this side of Helsinki during a short visit last summer I soon discovered that the passion for food shared by members of this new movement was like an iceberg out there in the icy Gulf of Finland – it goes way deeper than it would first appear. What I like about the food scene in Helsinki is the idea of letting the ingredients do the talking – rather than zapping them into something vastly different using liquid nitrogen or altering their molecular structure.

This article includes both the places we visited on the food tour and a bunch I uncovered myself. Here, then, are 10 excuses to make your next city break one to remember on so many levels; let the others do Paris, Rome and Berlin while you stray from the herd and enjoy gourmet Helsinki – in classic Grown-up Travel style…

10 reasons Helsinki deserves to be the king of the Scandinavian food scene

They thought up Restaurant Day

Let me start by explaining how Helsinki’s relatively new passion for food can be traced back to quite possibly the greatest food-related idea of the last few years. I know I’m both generalising and over-simplifying things here but stay with me – in May 2011 Finland gave birth to ‘Restaurant Day’ and the rest of the world has been catching up ever since. Basically anyone can set up a restaurant, café or a bar for a day.

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Image (c) Marinella Ruusunen for Restaurant Day

You can flog focaccia from your front room, offer oysters at the office or sell salmon sarnies on the seashore. I’ll stop with the alliteration now. The idea was to get people to try something new and it worked a treat – Helsinki went nuts about food. From humble but still impressive beginnings – 40 pop-up establishments appeared at the first event – Restaurant Day has grown at a huge pace and gone global.  It is now the world’s biggest food festival and takes place four times a year. 190 cities in 31 countries participated in the most recent celebration of food and drink in November 2013.

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Image (c) Tuomas Sarparanta for Restaurant Day

One of the impulses behind Restaurant Day was frustration at the regulations preventing the street food enjoyed in other countries and the hope that for just one day the red tape could be removed. The authorities agreed and all restaurateurs are responsible for running their places while a volunteer group takes care of much of the organization needed behind the scenes including the excellent website. In 2014 Restaurant Day will take place on Sunday 16 February, Saturday 17 May, Sunday 17 August and Saturday 15 November so add those dates to your diary and try to time your visit to so you can enjoy the fun.

You can buy your ingredients at one of several indoor markets – and eat there too

Hietalahti Market Hall from balcony portrait

Top quality ingredients are the building blocks of a great meal, and the Finnish capital has you covered. One of the reasons Helsinki has refused to cave in to the big supermarket chains so common in other cities could well be the existence of food halls such as the one we visited – Hietalahti.

Hietalahti Market Hall fruit & veg

Home to vendors previously located in the Old Market Hall while the latter is being renovated, Hietalahti is itself over 100 years old and the tradition of buying produce at such places endures. One of the stallholders told us that even during the economic downturn the locals continued to buy the freshest fish and meat, albeit in smaller quantities. The Finns clearly share the same fundamental belief as I do – that life is too short to waste on bad food.

Marja Nätti

Many of the stalls at “Hietsu” hall remain family businesses and the people working here are not just concerned about making a sale – they want you to enjoy what you buy and can tell you how best to prepare your meal. It doesn’t stop there either – with cafes and restaurants on both levels you can have lunch or dinner while enjoying the old-fashioned atmosphere. We sampled several tasty specialities from the Marja Nätti Fish Shop at their Merta restaurant where you can also have a coffee and a pastry while you watch the chef hard at work. Merta is licensed too, which is a bonus.

During the summer you can sit outside on the terrace before browsing the extremely popular flea market that sets up in the square in front of the building. Visit the Hietalahti Market Hall website for full details.

You can find even more ‘real food’ at Anton & Anton

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A newer addition to the Helsinki grocery store scene, Anton & Anton sells “real food to real people who care about the quality and origin of what they eat.” That should be everyone, really – but it’s just so much easier to focus on cheap food from the hypermarket, right? We would all quickly see the error of our ways if we had a shop like this nearby.

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It can often feel a little overwhelming to consider reinventing the way we look at, buy and prepare food – which is why a fundamental part of the Anton & Anton philosophy is to employ staff with a passion for helping customers. This extends beyond recommending which produce to buy to include providing information about where it comes from and how best to use it. It’s the way grocery shopping used to be and is supposed to be; an experience for the senses and a satisfying part of modern life rather than a chore to be completed as quickly as possible.

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We visited the Kruunuhaka branch and found that this bold vision had been successfully implemented. With fresh meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, cheeses and bread as well as a carefully selected range of often exotic artisanal products (think Chaga coffee, craft beer etc.) it’s a world away from the bland out-of-town supermarket. With a second neighbourhood store in Töölö and a third planned for 2014, Anton & Anton has become an established part of the Helsinki food scene and is forging a path that an increasing number of locals are keen to follow.

Find out more at the Anton & Anton website

You can enjoy coffee and chocolates watching cakes being made at Karl Fazer Café 

Fazer Chocolate Bars

If asked to name one thing the Finnish lead the world in, you might think ‘education’ or ‘making apps featuring birds catapulted through the air’. But while these are both valid responses I was actually thinking of coffee consumption. Weighing in with the slightly worrying statistic of over 10 kg coffee consumed per person per year, the Finns certainly like the brown bean. The fact that the majority drink regular filter coffee and plenty of it (around 5 cups a day is common) rather than espresso-based drinks in which smaller volumes are used probably has something to do with it. In any case there are few things more Finnish than going for a coffee and arguably no venue more tempting than the Karl Fazer Café.

Fazer snowmen

Housed in the same premises as when it first opened in 1891, the building may have changed in all that time but the focus on confectionery and coffee remain the same. The company’s story is an interesting one of Karl Fazer’s love for chocolate and flair for marketing and today the company is one of Finland’s best-loved brands and its chocolates in particular a source of national pride. In much the same way that many British expats crave Marmite, Finns abroad hope that visitors from home won’t forget to bring a bar of Fazer blue.

The café is justifiably popular and if you are lucky enough to snag a table near the work area you can watch the confectioners producing a range of goodies to order behind the glass. Strangely the café website is only in Finnish and Swedish at present but Google Translate can help.

You can almost taste the history at Restaurant Lasipalatsi

When I was biking through the city last summer I stopped outside Lasipalatsi (the Glass Palace) as I was mesmerized by its old-time charm. I’m a sucker for old neon signs and functionalism so this place demanded an extra stop. But this time I got to go inside and realise what I missed in July. Completed in 1936, Lasipalatsi was a showpiece of its time and was fully renovated between 1996 and 1998 and contains one of Helsinki’s first large-scale restaurants as well as a cinema, cafe and office space.

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The architects responsible for the refurbishment carefully followed original style and the building now enjoys protected status – even changing the curtains in the restaurant requires an official application procedure.

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The new version of Restaurant Lasipalatsi opened its doors to guests in the autumn of 1998 and serves high quality, traditional Finnish cuisine in a wonderful old-fashioned atmosphere.

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The old photographs above the bar are a nice touch, too. The menu follows the seasons by including ‘theme weeks’ as well as its regular a la carte range.

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We were lucky enough to visit during ‘Blini’ week and sampled these heart-blockingly good buckwheat pancakes, a Finnish twist on a Russian speciality.

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As you can see these blinis are huge and full of butter; perfect for a winter’s day with a range of tasty toppings but you won’t need many. Having said that if you really are hungry and are up for a challenge you can go for the ‘eat as much as you can’ option, ask the staff what the house record is and try to beat it. Just don’t tell anyone we told you to…

Restaurant Lasipalatsi is also well-known using the best raw materials from local producers and is very popular in the evenings so booking is advisable. Check the website for the latest information.

You can enjoy the ‘farm to table’ experience at Ask

Next stop on the list is the small but perfectly-formed Restaurant Ask. There’s no doubt in my mind that this 26-seat establishment  in Kruunuhaka will be getting Michelin recognition in the very near future for its beautifully-presented and divine tasting food.

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Image (c) Restaurant Ask

With its own designated farmers supplying the best raw materials possible, the team at Ask put together lunch and dinner menus using seasonal produce and you don’t know what you’re getting until it appears on the table. But believe me, you can feel safe in their hands. We made our way through the 4 course lunch menu (which at EUR 45 was an absolute bargain for such a culinary experience) and this was definitely one of the best meals I’ve had anywhere.

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Image (c) Restaurant Ask

Dinner is 4 or 8 courses and all menus have recommended wines or other beverages to accompany them.

Coffee at Ask

Don’t miss out on coffee – this was the first time I’d ever seen a ‘Chemex’ coffeemaker and was sceptical to our waiter’s insistence on not adding milk before we’d tried it. He was right – the coffee was so smooth that it was unnecessary and would actually have spoiled it – like I said, these guys know their stuff. 

You’ll find more information on the Restaurant Ask website

You can take your taste buds on a journey at A21 Dining

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Photo credit: aSIMULAtor via photopin cc

Having done their part in convincing locals to enjoy sophisticated drinking with their acclaimed A21 cocktail bar, the folks behind this place just up the road are encouraging food as a multi-sensory journey. The somewhat unimaginatively named A21 Dining offers what it calls ‘mind food’ – designed to make dinner more of an experience than just filling your stomach. I didn’t take pictures while we were there but have included some examples of what to expect at A21 Dining here.

On our visit the theme was ‘Above the Arctic Circle’; the menu contained an illustrative photo for each course and we started in the autumn with the glowing colours of the fall (pork and pumpkin) and moved through the depths of winter (cod and pimento pepper hollandaise) to end with the warmth of the spring sun (cloudberry and licorice). The tasting menus include cocktails for each course specially created to fit with the particular culinary journey on which you travel.

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Photo credit: aSIMULAtor via photopin cc

I admit it sounds gimmicky but it is great fun and both the food and drink make A21 Dining another serious candidate for Michelin status. But who cares about affirmation – go there for the atmosphere, the passion of its staff and the excellent service. It’s a really different way to eat out and in New Nordic tradition the ingredients are the stars of each dish rather than some scientific process. While not cheap – the full 7 course menu is EUR 79 and the accompanying cocktails will add another EUR 63 to your bill – it still offers real value for money and I’d have no hesitation in ponying up for a fine dining experience like no other.

Take a look at the A21 Dining website for the current menu and more information

You can – and should – try reindeer tongue at Manala

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I was taken to Manala by a Finnish friend who managed to talk his way into getting us a table on a Saturday night. Located a short distance from the centre of town across the road from the National Museum, Manala serves traditional Finnish cuisine in a stylish setting with some interesting paintings decorating its walls. There are several establishments in the same building including a very popular bar and live music venue. It’s a more sedate place now since being renovated a year or so ago but still attracts a lively bunch late at night – indeed it’s one of the few places in Helsinki with a full kitchen open until the wee hours.

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We ordered a bunch of starters including dill pickles with sour cream and honey which was a minor revelation – who’d have thought that combination would be so delicious? For the main course I went for sauteed reindeer with reindeer tongue. I know, it’s easy to feel sorry for Rudolph but when you try this all such thoughts disappear. Very, very tasty. The one strange thing about Manala is their insistence on charging EUR 2.70 to take your coat.

Click on by the Manala website for more information.

Sipping the signature cocktail in the legendary Hotel Kämp bar is worth the trip alone

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Photo credit: phatfreemiguel via photopin cc

All big cities have their landmark hotels and Helsinki is no exception. Often referred to as the only truly 5-star place in Finland the Hotel Kamp certainly has pedigree – and it also has a wonderful enclosed terrace and an old-school library bar. I was given a tip to try their signature Tellervo cocktail (vodka, spiced cranberry agave, lingonberry preserve, orange bitters and absinthe) and am passing this on here – I can’t attest to the hallucinatory qualities of the last ingredient but can tell you it’s strong stuff; a good tonic for a cold day. You might want to stop at one though. Or perhaps switch to a Hemingway daiquiri to sip at while jotting down notes for that novel of yours? 

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Image (c) Hotel Kämp 

The main entrance is right opposite Karl Fazer Cafe on Kluuvikatu but ignore this new section of the grand old hotel and use the old entrance one round the corner. Opening the huge door you’ll be met by the sight of the splendid staircase, Greek columns and chandeliers. Turn left for the bar as so many famous Finns have done before you, including composer Jean Sibelius. These days it’s just as popular with non-residents as it is with hotel guests.

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Image (c) Hotel Kämp

The hotel opened in 1887 and over the years became a favourite with Helsinki’s political and cultural elite. It fell into disrepair and disuse in the mid 1960s but after massive renovation work reclaimed its place on the Helsinki scene in 1999 as the hotel of choice for visiting dignitaries and celebs.

More information about the bar and brasserie can be found at the Brasserie Kämp website

Experience weekend brunch redefined at the Klaus K hotel

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Image (c) Hotel Klaus K

I ended my trip to Helsinki with Sunday brunch at the Klaus K hotel. Brunch has become extremely popular and is available at many cafes and restaurants but the Klaus K version is a cut above; rather like the hotel itself. An achingly stylish design hotel that is as contemporary as the Kamp is traditional, the Klaus K is justifiably popular as a place to stay but if you can’t afford the rates brunch comes a good second.

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Image (c) Hotel Klaus K

After being seated in the cosy Living Room restaurant with its open fire you choose your main course from the menu. While this is being prepared you can enjoy a glass of sparkling wine and help yourself from the starter buffet.

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Image (c) Hotel Klaus K

This includes salmon, cold cuts and wonderful bread. For my main I had a perfect omelette served in an individual skillet with a fresh salad.

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Image (c) Hotel Klaus K

Then comes the dessert buffet and coffee. I’ll let the picture help and the rest is best left to your imagination. I didn’t leave hungry, let’s put it that way.

The majority of ingredients used for brunch menu are organic and locally-sourced and for EUR 35 it’s good value. If you want to eat earlier or are in Helsinki during the week it is also possible to book breakfast at the Klaus K for EUR 25.

 

So there’s your ten reasons – I could have added even more but this article is already the longest on the entire site so it seems like time to call a halt :-)

Are you convinced? Are you outraged that we could dare suggest Helsinki is Scandinavia’s food capital? Whatever you think, let us know in the comments section below!

With the exception of the last three entries in this list I visited the places mentioned as a guest of Visit Helsinki and Visit Finland during a complimentary food tour of the city. However all opinions are, as always, my own and I take my food and drink very seriously. And do you really think you can buy me for the cost of a meal or two? Come on…!

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32 Responses to “Why Helsinki takes the crown as Scandinavia’s food capital”

  1. Carl Joe WrightJanuary 31, 2014 at 01:51 #

    Scandinavian foods looks yummy. I may include this in my itinerary. Nice photos

    • Andy HiggsFebruary 15, 2014 at 12:56 #

      Hi Carl – Scandinavian food is amazing and you should definitely add Helsinki to your itinerary as the foodie scene is a fairly unknown gem and there’s something for everyone :-)

  2. Timo KiviluomaJanuary 31, 2014 at 10:40 #

    A very nice article. I shared it to our Travel & Lifestyle community, link here: https://plus.google.com/communities/115749118997840317174

    • Andy HiggsFebruary 15, 2014 at 12:54 #

      Hi Timo and thanks for sharing the article – glad to hear you liked it :-)

  3. Anni KarvonenJanuary 31, 2014 at 10:48 #

    Hi Andy! This was a really nice read on this friday morning :) The title immediatly put a smile on my face. For two reasons actually; 1. Finnish food is delicious but people just don’t know it (yet) and 2. Because I recently wrote a semi-sarcastic post about Finnish cuisine (http://fabulousfinnish.com/?p=564). Whereas I normally go to Finland to visit my family, I will definitely plan a few days in Helsinki next time, to discover some of these nice restaurants!

    • Andy HiggsFebruary 15, 2014 at 12:54 #

      Hi Anni and thanks for your feedback – good to hear you enjoyed it :-) You are right, Finnish food is still unknown but the word is spreading (I’m telling everyone I meet at least :-)) Helsinki has so many amazing places to eat, you need to spend a few days there for sure!

  4. HannaJanuary 31, 2014 at 10:49 #

    Excellent article! It’s always so refressing to read about foreigners views on our beloved city, Helsinki is great :)

    • Andy HiggsFebruary 15, 2014 at 12:48 #

      Hi Hanna and thanks for responding to the article – glad you liked it. More visitors need to discover what Helsinki has to offer, that’s for sure. I always try to spread the word now! :-)

  5. Andy QuanJanuary 31, 2014 at 22:39 #

    That was a fun read. I’m only SCANDALISED that you didn’t mention at least one other of the top restaurants in Helsinki like A21 and Ask. It’s restaurants like Chef & Sommelier that seem to be putting Helsinki on the food map, as much or more than any of the markets or grocery stores. http://andyquan.com/restaurant-review-chef-sommelier-helsinki/

    • Andy HiggsFebruary 15, 2014 at 12:46 #

      Hi Andy and thanks for your comments – glad you enjoyed the read. Of course there are many other great places in Helsinki and many paved the way before the restaurants I listed here, but I wanted to write about the ones I experienced myself on this occasion. I’ll be booking a table at Chef & Sommelier for my next trip :-)

  6. Bandula IdamegamaFebruary 1, 2014 at 05:36 #

    I am a Sri Lankan sending these comments all the way from Colombo. Indeed, reading this piece was a really moth-watering experience. My imagination toured of the Helsinki food scene and got an inkling of it. In the South East Asian countries – Singapore/ Malaysia/Thailand – every day is a restaurant day, with their FOOD COURTS coming alive in the evenings.

    • Andy HiggsFebruary 15, 2014 at 12:44 #

      Hi Bandula and thanks for your comments – you’re right, the food courts in South East Asia also serve to promote great food to the masses. What I particularly loved about the Restaurant Day idea is that anyone can serve food for the day though – so you can taste some family specialities that you otherwise would not have a chance to sample, for instance. Enjoy Colombo – Sri Lanka is definitely on my list of countries to visit :-)

  7. KatiFebruary 1, 2014 at 09:14 #

    Lovely to read such a great article on Helsinki! I absolutely love our food scene and there is plenty of fantastic restaurants not mentioned here.

    • Andy HiggsFebruary 15, 2014 at 12:42 #

      HI Kati and thanks so much for your kind words – glad you enjoyed the article. I certainly enjoyed writing it – and researching it even more! I loved the food scene and the unpretentious nature of the people involved. It’s very accessible to everyone, especially through concepts like Restaurant Day – good food is such an important part of life that it should be enjoyed by all :-)

  8. AnneFebruary 2, 2014 at 02:59 #

    I’m a food lover myself ….. looks nice to explore Helsinki gastronomic side

    • Andy HiggsFebruary 15, 2014 at 12:33 #

      Hi Anne and thanks for commenting – you should definitely include Helsinki on your travel list if you like food :-)

  9. MikeyFebruary 4, 2014 at 16:37 #

    Great text but one detail. Finland is part of the Northern countries, not part of Scandinavia…

    • VilleFebruary 14, 2014 at 16:01 #

      Mikey, maybe you should look up Scandinavia from Wikipedia?

      • Andy HiggsFebruary 15, 2014 at 12:37 #

        Hi Ville and thanks for taking the time to comment. I addressed the ‘Scandinavia’ issue a bit further down this comment list :-)

    • Andy HiggsFebruary 15, 2014 at 12:36 #

      Hi Mikey and thanks for taking the time to comment – glad you enjoyed the article. See my comment a bit further down for the ‘Scandinavia’ issue :-)

  10. Cacinda MaloneyFebruary 9, 2014 at 23:24 #

    This was one amazing article! Thanks so much for taking me on a foodie journey through Helsinki!

    • Andy HiggsFebruary 15, 2014 at 12:33 #

      Why thank you Cacinda! My time in Helsinki was surprisingly delicious!

  11. Paul (@luxury__travel)February 12, 2014 at 21:29 #

    Nice article. I was in Helsinki for Restaurant Day a couple of months ago, and there was a lovely atmosphere.

    I also got to experience a new dish no my visit – something I’d never tasted before… bear! And it was surprisingly delicious.

    More @ http://www.aluxurytravelblog.com/2013/11/19/feasting-on-bear-in-finland/ if you’d like to know more.
    (apologies, Andy, if this link goes against your comment rules – please just edit this bit out if it is!)

    Paul

    • Andy HiggsFebruary 15, 2014 at 12:32 #

      Hi Paul and thanks for commenting – am happy to link to such an interesting read too :-)

      Bear, wow that one will have to be on the to-eat’ list!

      I’m hoping to make Restaurant Day in the summer, what a great idea, huh?

  12. Heli RoihaFebruary 14, 2014 at 20:48 #

    Hi! A footnote from a Finnish person:
    Finland is not a Scandinavian country :)
    Scandinavia consists only of Sweden, Norway and Denmark.
    The Nordic countries also include Finland, Iceland, Greenland and The Faroe Islands.
    Otherwise ofc happy that you liked visiting us :)

    • Andy HiggsFebruary 15, 2014 at 12:28 #

      Hi folks, I figured it’s about time I spoke out on this (I have done on social media already but not here) :-)

      I am aware that Finland being in Scandinavia is a questionable concept and thought about this before using it in the title and article. I even discussed it on Twitter with the deputy mayor of Helsinki!

      But in travel terms Finland is usually seen as part of Scandinavia by the rest of the world and marketed as such – indeed a large proportion of Finns also see their country as Scandinavian. No matter where you stand on the issue, the point of my using Scandinavia was not only to make the most of the wave of popularity for Scandinavian food and style and TV but also primarily to be able to tease Sweden and Denmark more easily; so hopefully you’ll forgive this and see it as worthwhile :-)

      We’ll see if Stockholm and Copenhagen are willing to fight back…

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Heli and hope you enjoy the blog.

      • Heli RoihaFebruary 15, 2014 at 17:48 #

        Hi Andy,

        And yes, seen a lot of discussion about this even at other travel sites :)
        For many silly Finns (such as myself) the thought of being seen as Scandinavian just rubs the wrong way – inherited aversions about our old ruler Sweden I suppose.
        Am not so silly though that I’ll never forgive you. Only manic enough to point out this horribleness :D

        Wishing you many more good experiences with your travels (even in other Nordic countries :P) and happy eating!

  13. AliciaMarch 22, 2014 at 03:58 #

    Hi Andy,
    Thanks for a great review on Helsinki. We will be there in May (for the first time). We will be there for 3 nights only (Fri/Sat/Sun). Do you recommend that we make dinner bookings in advance? It does take some spontaneity away from the experience, however I don’t want to miss out if a restaurant of choice is booked out.

    • Andy HiggsMarch 22, 2014 at 10:09 #

      Hi Alicia,
      I like spontaneity in most things too but do like to secure reservations. I would contact and reserve as early as possible, if your plans change you can update the reservations but try to secure them soon; Restaurant Ask just got its Michelin star as I predicted so they are very busy now, and it’s a tiny place…especially at the weekends reservations are a good idea. Enjoy your trip!

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