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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.


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