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Thursday, December 27, 2007

George (Helsinki)

The day: 15th December 2007, Dinner.
The place:
Kalevankatu 17, Helsinki, Finland (tel 010 270 17 02)
The venue: Restaurant George by HenriX

Closest airports: Helsinki (British Airways, Finnair)

The food: Modern Finnish

The drinks: too expensive as everywhere in Helsinki

Our last cold night in Helsinki: we try a restaurant that until a couple of years ago vaunted a Michelin star and is now under new management and chef. Thus, a restaurant that has to prove itself and is desirous to both confirm its past glory and emerge afresh: will it succeed? That’s what we are here for: here we come, here we come…

The exterior is cool in an elegant neoclassical building typical of Helsinki:

The interior is ‘woody’, with wood floors and ceilings, and even the upholstered walls ardent to mimic panelled wood. With the tables spacious and well spaced, the impression is one of modern comfort.

The a la carte menu is short, with seven starters and five mains. Prices for the former are in the range €13-€17, and for the latter they surge from the €19 of ‘Nieria risotto’ (Arctic charr, risotto, tomato and coconut) to the €27 of ‘Harka’ (beef, peas, beans, artichokes, sweet potato and red wine). Ah, lest we forget, George don’t do descriptions for their dishes, they simply list the ingredients. Well, kind of… more on this story later!

There is also a surprise six course menu with wine pairing at €125, and a three course menu ‘George’ at €49, which selects items from the a la carte and allows you to save a couple of euros compared to the same dishes not taken under this package. Though we are miserable cheap bastards, we are insufficiently attracted by the selection, so we decide to go a la carte (and of course we do it also for you, dear reader, to give you more examples of the cuisine!).

The bread ‘basket’, i.e. a meagre, pale and weightless sliced ciabatta in a ‘pocket’, arrives:

Forgettable. Did you see, in our report from Hakaniemi market, how many wonderful breads are available in this attractive city? Well, in the light of this, such a serving is almost offensive.

Let’s see if they can make us happy with the greeting from the kitchen:

Cold crayfish on warm mango rice. Now, this is a far more interesting approach, signalling that the chef has serious intentions. The crayfish is fridge cold, which we don’t think works. But let’s be kind: it was a nice combination and the end result is pleasant enough.

Our choice of starters:

- Lohi Wasabi (Salmon, wasabi aioli, ginger and Avruga caviar) €15

- Ankanmaksa (Duck liver, Sauterne and apple compote) (but see below for the real ingredients…) €17

The salmon is excellent, with the wasabi aioli more delicate than expected (for Woman even too delicate), its pungency only emerging slowly. The same delicacy was to be found in the ginger, another nice match in this sushi-like combination. The caviar was more a visual garnish than a proper ingredient.

The duck liver has a surprise: no apple compote but cherries instead. This change was not mentioned to us when we ordered the dish, which is extremely annoying as a matter of principle. Nevertheless, in practice the cherries worked wonderfully, we can’t imagine the apples working better. The fried bread on which the duck was resting was far less wonderful, adding soggy greasiness to the already fat liver: why, why? (we imagine the idea was to add texture, but at least fry it well, no?). And the salad thrown there, didn’t we just see it in another dish? Come, come, a little more imagination... Apart from these gripes, however, it was good, with the flavoursome, luscious liver freshened aptly by the Sauterne jelly, which also lent an interesting sort of nutty aroma. And, as we said, the cherries were a perfect match.

Our main courses arrive:

- Poroa “Potka” (Raindeer, goat chees, potato, garlic and Port wine) €23

- Kuha&Hummeri (pike perch, lobster, miso, and liquorice) €24

Despite all the interesting ingredients, the reindeer is very plain, the promise of all the flavours in the description partly evaporated with the cooking. Good reduction, acceptable puree, shank slightly dry. Pleasant, far from memorable.

The pike-perch dish is nicely presented, with little cubic multicoloured happy root vegetables (you can see only one yellow specimen in the photo) – Woman complains they are insipid, Man says they were just fine, after a fight they manage to agree that they are colourful... The miso sauce has a strong hot punch, accompanying well the excellent and nicely fried fish (conversely the minuscule lobster bit is rather useless and none too good, it could be taken away with no harm). And what is the liquorice foam doing there? To be frank, we don’t know, it is ethereal to point of vanishing, and one ingredient too many. The core of this dish (fish, miso and root vegs) was very good, and we would have liked to have only the core! Why do chefs make life so difficult for themselves sometimes?

And finally our desserts (all of them are at €9.50):

- Marja (Cherry, cloudberry, strawberry and biscuit)

- Suklaa (dark chocolate, milk chocolate, cocoa and fig) (but see below for the real ingredients…)

The cherry and berries mix was on the acidic side, something that Man found rather pleasant and Woman less. But there was no disagreement that it was good, especially the strawberry ‘soup’.

And once again it happens: an unannounced change in the ingredients of a dish, this time of the chocolate dessert, and this time much more dramatic: the white chocolate has been replaced by…guess…pineapple sorbet!! Now do you think that is a matter of course that somebody who orders a full chocolate dessert is in the mood for chocolate and pineapple? Well, we don’t. We are really pissed off. And yet, and yet, we must admit it: the chocolate was superb, really, one of best we’ve had. The fig…well, see what we think of exported figs: consequently, nothing to write home about. And the guilty sorbet a little rough but OK. But in this dish the King was the chocolate, forget about all the rest, while daydreaming about how it could have been with the white chocolate…

Here in Finland wines in restaurants are stunningly expensive (a real achievement to surprise us in this way, coming as we do from London where the 300% mark-up is a rule). We ignore whether this is due to taxes or restaurateur greed, but we have no intention of subsidising either the Finnish government or the restaurateurs’ extra-profits, so we went on strike and had no wine during the meal. Yet we, derelict winos that we are, could not resist a red Banyuls and a Port in the end at €11 and €12 respectively. With two bottles of water charged (at €6 a bottle) whereas we drank only one at most (see below), the hit came to €133. We left no tip, of course not (read more below), thus staying well above water (that is, below our £100 mark).

The front room staff were polite and smiley. But sometimes smiles are not enough (except perhaps for the four drunk customers next to us). The service at George is ridiculous for an establishment with past glory and obvious ambitions for the future. Twice did they serve a dish with unannounced changes. We endured long waits (this obviously not the faul of the front room staff) relying only on our honed conversational skills… two and a half hours for a three course dinner despite the room being half empty. The faded menu, sometimes barely legible, cheap trattoria style, was pathetic and inexcusable at these prices. And one other thing annoyed us: the way they served the water. From the beginning it was obvious that they were pouring water from random bottles to the various tables, so that they could not possibly know how much water each table had consumed in the end (this being a ‘classy’ establishment they could not just leave the damn bottle on the table). This would not have been a problem had they not charged for it, but charge they did, and for more than we drank. How cheap and irritating is that?!

What about the cuisine? Certainly it deserved a better service, because the chef displayed some skill and imagination. We were not ravished by all the dishes, some dullness here, some confusion there, but overall it was an interesting and pleasant culinary experience, with some real peaks achieved. Nevertheless the changes in the dishes from such a short menu are a kitchen’s blunder, probably stemming from mistakes in sourcing and stocking (even though it beggars belief that it’s difficult to plan the stocking of white chocolate). With appropriate management, proper controls in the sourcing of materials and just a little more focus in the kitchen this could become a nice place to visit. At the moment everything that is not pure cuisine is a shambles that gives the impression of terminal decline.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hakaniemi market hall (Helsinki)

A people is a civilization if they like their food - at least, this is our firm conviction. So, we skip the definitely more touristic Old market hall in market square (all tourists want to skip the tourist bits, after all), and head decidedly towards Hakaniemi market, in the north of the city where our hosts tell us locals go.

On the square outside the market proper, there are some stalls, like this one selling berries by the mountain

(We believe the ones above are lingonberries). Inside the brick building, though, what a wonderful space opens up. We skip the boring top floor, which sells clothes, brick a brack, etcetera (but it has some cafes). We go instead for the jugular, and the first stall we bump into is serving cold cuts of meat and herring, porridge, sausages, and there is a scramble to have breakfast with what looks really delicious stuff: but it is so busy, no chance of even taking a picture, unfortunately.

Next up, a well-stocked cheese stall, the stall holder is lovely and friendly like most of the locals:

Further down, there is an impressive array of all sorts of meats on display. Just to indulge in our gruesome streak (remember Budapest market?, here is a suckling pig, who hopefully will be honoured properly at the table:

and, although this is a cold land, you can warm yourself up with a good and wide array of spices:

To the contrary, and suprisingly for us at first, the variety of fish types on offer is not very large - apparently this is what the Baltic sea offers. The Finns remedy this scarcity with plenty of ways to prepare it - and we can assure you the fresh one really is fresh, as anyone can tell by looking at any stall (we saw several specimens still jumping and gasping for air). Here we only show you the very dead ones. First, those cured and available as take away:

Note the roe on the left, very popular around here also in restaurants. Then, the "take back to London" varieties

our choice had to fall on the "Suutarin lohi" (literally shoemaker's salmon), as one of our hosts told us that if there is one thing you have to bring back home, this is it. It is herring marinated in pepper, onions and bay leaves, and some other herbs and vegs we could not identify by sight. Hopefully we'll do better when we tuck in!

But we enjoyed a lot the cooked ones, too:

again, mostly whitefish, salmon and herring. In particular, we are quite fond of the double fillets of Baltic herring (Silakka), so much so that we want to show them in detail:

As you might have suspected for these two carbohydrate foragers, we spent quite some time perusing the bread. There are several stalls, obviously, and here is one:

quite an interesting variety of both decorated types

and elongated shapes

But then, we had to take the Karjalau piirakka (karelia pie, generally with either a potato or rice stuffing, but we saw other stuffings, too), as one of our hosts told us that if there is one thing you have to bring back home, this is it.

One of our hosts told us that mixed candies are typically Finnish, and so are Zalmiak (or Salmiak), salted liquorice candies. So, in his honour, here is a candy stall:
And of course, we did buy Zalmiak, as one of our hosts told us that if there is one thing you have to bring back home...this is it!


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Havis (Helsinki, Finland)

The day: 14th Deember, Dinner.
The place: Eteläranta, 16, Helsinki (FI) (tel +358 9 68695660)
The venue: Havis
Closest Airport: Helsinki (British Airways and Finnair form Heathrow)
The food: Fish
The drinks: do not know (but markups are so high in Finland, you really do not want to know)

We are in Helsinki for a few days. We were really not counting to review this place (nice friends on account brought us here), but it was too good to miss. And it was on our shortlist (reputedly the best fish restaurant in Helsinki), so why should we not tell you about it? Only, as we had no control on either the final bill nor the wine list, we’ll have to be sketchier than usual on some details. Moreover, as we were engaged in very pleasant conversation with our host, we failed to profit to break ice with the chef who brought one of the orders to our table, and might have been distracted in places (especially Man who, let’s face it, can cope less well with alcohol than Woman can...). We also apologise for the quality of the pictures, as with the exception of the one of the interior, is really grainy…but we thought it is still better than nothing!

The location is really prime, on the seafront and nearby the old food halls.

The interior is divided into several rooms, some of them rather remarkable for their vaukted and frescoed ceiling, all very warm, enticing.

The menu is relatively short: a la carte entrees on the first page, a la carte mains on the last page, and in the two internal pages two set menus. Starters go from the €9 of the beetroot soup with Parmesan and pine nuts to the €22 of the roe of lavaret and vendace on toast. Mains go from the €18 of the mushroom risotto to €32 of the monkfish with Parma ham and stewed lentils. The Helsinki set menu is three courses for €49, to which you can pair three glasses of wine for an extra €43. The Skargardssmak menu had five courses at €65 with a pairing of five glasses of wine at €49.

We both go for the Helsinki menu, apparently voted the best fish menu of the year – one of our host, though, believes they must keep changing this Helsinki menu, as he was here before with another guest, and hewould swear the composition was different.

Anyway, here we go. Before anything else, comes an amuse bouche:

- Watercress soup, served in an espresso cup.

Now, we do have to challenge the assertion that this was an espresso cup, as no handle was there to be seen...Be reassured, though, that this was the only complaint about this beautiful thin soup, with quite a hint of aromatic mushrooms (ceps we suspect, but what do we know), to warm up our stomach, quite necessary on this cold night (several degrees below zero, even if our Finnish hosts assure us it is mild for this time of the year) .

Here comes the first component of our Helsinki menu

- Cured salmon with dill and caper mayonnaise.

What can we say: this was thoroughly, almost shamelessly beautififul and good: three chunks of excellent salmon, itself fantastic, flavoursome, stereotypically melting in the mouth, complemented by its roe, some diced potato cubes, and finished off with a delicious tangy dill and capers mayonnaise. Pure soft colourful indulgence, delicately elegant.

Next up:

- Pan fried lake whitefish with fondant potato and ceps sauce.

Its perfectly crisp skin up, its moist, succulent, and tasty meat below, it was resting on an array of tender greens and what we think were ceps (but what do we know), and accompanied by a fondant potato with a dollop of some tangy yet rich and fat orange sauce which we could not identify. The fish, as you would expect, was very fresh, the whole dish supremely satisfying.

To conclude:

- Blueberry milk with blueberry muffin and vanilla ice cream.

Well, with subzero temperatures, so had to be the berries (though, to be fair, next morning we found fresh berries in the market). Nevertheless, this was again a comforting dessert, with its good ice cream and forward berry flavour; a nice ending to this light but gratifying dinner.

Here they do not do petit four, which is a bit of a disappointment given the prices, but there you go, and when in Rome… With two bottles of wine (which we could not identify, but one of red and one of white, both pleasing, is all we could gather) and some water, we stole sight of the total bill, and we are pretty confident it was a little over £200 for the four of us. So we unwittingly approximately met the £100 rule – and we were not even paying!

Service is kind, efficient and informal. We suggest you ask for a table in the last room, which will give you a good view of the open plan kitchen. Obviously we did not have a full trial of the cuisine, which might not be particularly adventurous, but solidly based on ingredients of top notch quality. Still, what was on offer displayed an assured and delicate hand, producing dishes which are at the same time light and rewarding, with well-defined flavours. If you want a fish experience in Helsinki, we definitely recommend you come to Havis.


Monday, December 10, 2007

There are figs and there are figs

Look, here are some Sardinian figs (memories of Summer...) taken, just a few minutes before, off the fig tree branch:

and here are some other figs taken in London (still in late Summer) from a posh supermarket shelf:

You might notice they look rather “tighter”.

Let us check inside. Here you see the Sardinian ones:

And here are the London supermarket ones:

Can you see the difference? The fresh-from-the-tree ones are all over the place: they are so ripe they cannot hold their shape. Flavour, we can tell you, goes hand in hand with this type of disarray. Now imagine shipping those figs: if insect don’t have them before arrival, handling will finish them off. The figs will need to be plucked muuuuch too early.

Now for 'lecture' number two, a more seasonal one: observe these sharon fruits bought in a posh London supermarket:

and these from a supermarket in Italy:

above you see the "before" and "after" condition of the fruits :)

Now let us study them inside, first the London one

in case you wonder: no, nobody is holding the spoon up, it is the fruit which is that stiff!

next the one taken in the country of origin:

the latter gets much more "dishevelled" in appearance as soon as you cut through it. Look again, take a spoonful of the one bought in London:

and of the one bought in Italy:

Can you see how it oozes and dribbles? Now try and imagine how correspondigly sweet and juicy and marvellous it must be...

Moral: some food, including figs and sharon fruit, just does not travel well. It is pointless to try and buy material that will prove for sure desperately substandard, unripe, unreal, unrewarding (and moreover, at inflated prices). Our advice is: save a few pounds in the supermarket and use those savings to buy a flight ticket - if the figs do not travel to you, you should travel to the figs!


Monday, December 3, 2007

Costa Salici

The day: 9th November 2007, Dinner.
The place: Via Costa dei Salici, Cavalese, Trento (IT)
The venue: Ristorante Costa Salici
The food: Modern take on regional cuisine
Airport: Verona, Brescia (BA, Ryanair)
The drinks: Mostly from Trentino-Alto Adige, some other Italians, some token French. Good list of distilled spirits and dessert wines

Living in London trains you for fairly long trips to do anything: shopping, visiting your friends, trying a restaurant. One does not think much of spending 50 minutes to reach a destination. By applying the same principle when in small centres (winning over the psychological resistance of ‘travelling far out’), one can expand considerably the range of culinary experiences. So one cold November night, the very last of our short Autumn trip to Italy, we drive out and up to Cavalese, in the beautiful Val di Cembra in the Trento province. Our target is a family restaurant which is making its name among lovers of good food. The Tait family have run this place since 1982, with Chef Maurizio running the kitchen.

The interior is ‘Stube’ style, divided into several areas, a little reminiscent of Malga Panna, with warm and extensive wood panelling and some comfortable round large tables with benches – that’s where we were seating that night, in a quiet and intimate corner. Little did we know that the quiet and intimacy would soon go…

The list proposes some set menus (notably a five course Autumn menu at €36 and a three course Trentino menu at €24) as well as a la carte dishes. We go a la carte.

What a nice bread basket arrives.

An enticing selections of breads and grissini, with crispy ultra thin slices of cumin bread, focaccia, sesame bread, poppy seeds rolls and some kind of rolled tomato pizza. While we contemplate it, a large party of males only sits across us. We immediately realise from their loud voices and reddish faces that it’s the end of our tranquillity….

A present from the kitchen:

It’s a pair of cones made out of trentigrana cheese, filled with a mousse of goat cheese. It was delicious, each cone crispy and slightly acidic, the mousse sweet and soft, a nice contrast of both flavours and textures.

For first courses we had:

- Fettuccine with porcini (ceps) mushrooms and crispy speck (€9).

- Chestnut soup with speck ‘raviolini’ (€7).

The Fettuccine one was a good dish, although not one to scream for. The pasta itself was OK and cooked well but slightly less elastic than we would have liked, the mushrooms were good (and in very, very generous quantity), but lacked some intensity of flavour, the speck was a welcome addition but made the dish a little salty. Most of all, the dish was too greasy, lacking lightness.

The chestnut soup, on the contrary, elicited mumbles of pleasure from both of us. It was smooth and creamy and rightly dense and joyfully sweet but balanced by the saltiness of the speck. Comparing this to Walter Miori’s one at the beginning of the week, it was more substantial, but that was an amuse-bouche and this a first course: interesting anyway to see these two different but equally appropriate interpretations. Some truffle oil on top was delicious, too. But, wait a minute! Shouldn’t there be raviolini in this soup? Where are the raviolini???? After we enquire, it turns out that the kitchen has forgotten them!!!

The staff offer to bring us a sample, an offer that we hypocritically and feebly pretend to try to turn down. So here they arrive after a while:

Well, they said raviolini and here they are, though disconnected from the soup where they belonged they look a little naked and defenceless. But they are exceptional, now the pasta made perfectly and the filling a match.

In the meanwhile the large male group, fuelled by alcohol is becoming ever rowdier. In a jolly way, true, but with a language that might offend, in turn, believers in God, prudish people, women and in general anybody of a sensitive nature. Being ourselves mellowed down by a Pinot Noir, we just smile benignly (well, actually, Woman looks distinctly less benign than Man…).

Our choice of secondi, which arrived as we were finishing the raviolini (tsk, tsk) was:

- Rabbit cooked at low temperature with grostl of vegetables and Teroldego wine reduction (€14)

- Deer fillets ‘lardellati’, small fruit sauce and potato tortini (€18.50).

The rabbit was good, but the dish was not a completely successful one. The poor nicely presented and nicely cooked, delicate rabbit was rather overwhelmed by the wrapping and the condiment, the aggression increased by the Teroldego reduction. Too salty and too fat, this dish, a bit like the fettuccine, lacked lightness of touch. The veggies though were very good, and the potato ‘hasbrowns’ were tempting although they increased the grease level even farther.

Far more successful was the deer. The meat itself was flavoursome, succulent. And it withstood the potent condiment much better than the rabbit, forming a rich and pleasant ensemble. And the veggies (red cabbage) here, too, were a fine accompaniment, although the ‘hashbrowns’ were becoming a little repetitive, as was the use of speck or ham in the preparation.

Over the shouts of the male party nearby, we order desserts:

- Cheese ice-cream (€7)

- Strudel (€6)

The strudel was good, not exceptional but good. No intensity of flavour or surprise to write home about, and the advertised ‘Sambuco ice-cream was missing and replaced by cinnamon cream - but at least it was made correctly.

Now for the cheese ice-cream: truly remarkable. The mostarda in the pears was not too strong (were the pears half candied, we wondered), but perfectly suited to the match - the white and black chocolate flakes adding the pleasant final touch.

Last but not least, we were treated to some rather impressive petit four, with the liquorice filled chocolates being particularly remarkable.

Being our last night we had a slightly more expensive than usual Blauburgunder (Pinot Noir) Praepositus from Abbazia di Novacella Riserva 2004 at €34 (well, thinking in pounds it’s still just over £20, this wine would probably cost over £60 in the UK). It was really worth the while, perfumed and silky and with an almost Burgundian hint of gaminess. With a 0.75 litre water, and cover charge (a little antiquated this, but no service charge, remember) the total came to €102, much below our £100 threshold even adding a tip.

Driving back in the dark night, we felt happy to have concluded our trip to Trento with this drive out. True, the cuisine, although elevated far beyond its regional foundation, was still sometimes a little ‘unreconstructed traditional’, heavy and not thoroughly harmonious and varied, and some further progress and refinement is conceivable. As we recounted, the kitchen still needs to be organised to high professional standards, if it does not want to leave the really demanding customer and critic baffled and possibly annoyed. But, having said that, the overall impression was of a deeply rich, satisfactory sensory experience, enhanced by the warmly rustic setting and the kindest of service staff; an experience which reached heights of absolute excellence more than once – in fact the trajectory grana cones-chestnut soup-deer-cheese ice-cream was outstanding (except for the kitchen mess up with the missing raviolini). There is definitely talent there, and great potential. We highly recommend that you pay the Tait family a visit if you have an outing around Trento (and yes, that means you too, lazy Trentinians, who do not patronise the wonderful restaurants of your region enough!).

PS (May 2009): See an update here


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