Helsinki: a speedy taste test

Helsinki - The Great Food Escape Series

Yes, speedy it is – but when we found out one of our writers would have six hours to spare in Helsinki – the capital of Finland – we figured that would be amble time to sample several dishes and drinks. We sincerely hope that, should you be in town, your timetable is not so tight – here’s their list of places worth checking out to get you started.

Helsinki - The Great Food Escape Series

Having caught the 6.30 euro bus from the airport to the city centre, it’s time for lunch so I decide to check out one of the city’s three food halls. Helsinki’s Old Market Hall gets all the attention (and locals I spoke to swear by Story for brunch and a caffeine fix – while others recommended Freese Café – Freesenkatu 5), but it’s mid-afternoon now so I take the advice of a few bloggers and walk the length of Lonnrotiukatu in the afternoon gloom and winter drizzle to Hietal Food Market (Hietalahden Kauppahalli). Sure, there were a few occasions when I nearly gave up, but the historic and recently restored building with its friendly stallholders was well worth the journey. It’s at number 34, and although you will see a few number 34s on your way towards the water, you are looking for the old brick building that is circular one end, before turning into a rectangular church-like structure. Inside there’s coffee and cake a plenty, plus all kinds of deli offerings, but for a glimpse at the young generation of Finnish chefs getting their inspiration from abroad I suggest you make for the sparse but welcoming Fat Ramen.

Helsinki - The Great Food Escape Series

The signature ‘Fat’ ramen is under 10 euro and comes packed with well-seasoned slices of pork belly and shredded pork neck in a tonkotsu broth with bacon dashi, grilled daikon, spring onions, radish and nori. It’s spiced with Momofuku store cupboard staple Ssam sauce and certainly packs a flavourful, lip-smacking porky punch, which meant the under-seasoned hardboiled egg didn’t matter too much. For a grab-and-go lunch the white-tiled walls and simple Japanese-inspired prints of the wall don’t encourage you to linger particularly long, but the 4- or 8-course evening tasting menu with matched drinks might. It’s served between 6-8pm and I would be keen to go back if only to try the house kimchi: fermented Chinese cabbage, gochugaru chilli pepper, ginger, garlic, fish sauce garnished with spring onions and nanami togarashi – anywhere that lists kimchi in this kind of detail gets my vote – and kudos to the team for the toothsome hand-made rye ramen noodles.

Helsinki - The Great Food Escape Series

To satisfy any sweet cravings after all that umami savouriness, I head back towards the centre of town to Kanniston Leipomo – a bakery and patisserie founded in 1914 and something of an institution with five shops now operating across the city. I am at the branch on Annankatu 20, possibly the most design-candy bakery I have ever seen – all understated style and the scent of spices wafting around. Visiting at Christmas, it was a real treat to tuck into soft ginger biscuits called Piparkakku that are traditionally baked and eaten at this time of year. They also appear on top of a dense and moist ginger bun – called a Piparipulla – delicious!

Helsinki - The Great Food Escape Series

Walk off lunch and dessert along Fredrikinkatu in Helsinki’s gorgeous design district – a few streets dominated by fashion boutiques, homeware shops and some great produce stores – if only I wasn’t travelling with hand luggage I could have done some serious damage at Nicholas Vahe retailer Pino Oy at number 22. The Papershop at number 18 stole my heart with its whimsy stationery. For an overview of the best of the area – check this great blog post by guys at Visit Helsinki Blog.

Helsinki - The Great Food Escape Series

Pre-dinner drinks were at the irresistibly named Why Join The Navy When You Can Be A Pirate? on Annankatu 28, an all-day space that effortlessly transitions between daytime smoothies and shakes to serving wine in the evening. I really liked this place – more of a drinking den than food-focused Bones (although one day I will be back for their unflinchingly meaty menu), less upmarket than super-sleek Sushibar + Wine over the road but a lot more special (and more chance of a decent glass of wine) than Tommyknocker – the first European outlet of the award-winning American – Idaho Springs to be precise – craft beer bar.

Helsinki - The Great Food Escape Series

And now for dinner: Patrona on Annankatu 20 – this modern Mexican kitchen is a party just waiting to happen. From tequila-fuelled cocktails to heaps of fresh Mexican ingredients that feature in starter-size Tostadas de Ceviche Mixto (fish and shrimp cooked in lime juice, on top of a crispy tortilla) through to main plates of Barbacoa de Borrego (lamb stew) and Enchiladas Suizas (soft corn tortilla filled with crispy pork belly, covered with a creamy tomato sauce and melted cheese gratin). And while the authentic-ness of the food falters from time to time, the ambition and atmosphere does not. It’s also the sister of Lucha Loco (Korkeavuorenkatu 4) and the tapas-touting Palma just off Annankatu on Lonnrotinkatu 9.

Helsinki - The Great Food Escape Series

For a nightcap, and to sample Napue gin from the Kyro Distillery, it has to be A21 Decades on Annankatu 21, which has been voted best bar in Finland and ranks highly on global lists thanks to its innovative cocktail offerings – arranged by, you guess it, decades – and an emphasis on serving the right gin with just the right tonic and trimmings. Simply follow the interactive menu to select your perfect drop – they call it the Gin Laboratorio, but don’t be alarmed. Voted the best gin and cocktail in the world at the 2015 International wine and Spirits Competition, Napue is made with 16 herbs including local flavours such as cranberry, common sea-buckthorn and meadowsweet and is served with Fever Tree Indian Tonic alongside a sprig of rosemary and lingonberries. Oh, and then there are the boilermakers – or ‘beer cocktails’ – where a craft beer is matched with a spirit. Delicious? Yes. Dangerous? Yes. But then, in December, Finland’s plunged into darkness for pretty much 20 hours a day, so you can kind of get away with being tipsy the whole time!