To start with, they’ve got a great logo, the ‘C’ and ‘S’ and ampersand all combining into an organic plant-like shape, appropriate for an organic restaurant specialising on organic ingredients. Our visit to Chef & Sommelier, a charming, tiny and lauded restaurant in Helsinki was a delight. The food was beautiful, engaging and tasty and served up with a lot of passion and charm. Chef Sasu Laukkonen has already been gaining a reputation well beyond his city, his able partner in crime, sommelier Johan Borgar welcomed us at the door and oversee a young staff who are adorable and provided great service. We elected to have the 9-course meal for 74 Euros each, with matching wine (can’t remember how much that was). Our meal:
- Goose and porcini
- Potato and onion
- Rye bread with rosemary
- Arctic turnip
- Celeriac two ways (at least) and beef (I think)
- Pike-perch and artichoke
- Cheese course
- Two kinds of Finnish apples
- Plums and chocolate
No one gave me dirty looks for taking photos of most of the courses, and I was so delighted with the explanations of the food that I tried to respeak them (with middling success) into my iphone voice recorder. The 3rd recording didn’t shut off… so I highly recommend playing this snippet of ambient Finnish restaurant sounds while you’re reading this. It gives you the authentic experience of being there! I’m pretty sure we had a gorgeous little amuse-bouche to start off with: a sunflower bud, parsley root, and deep-fried parsnip served in a little spoon. But I didn’t take a picture, so the visual start of the menu is this thinly sliced frozen goose breast with gizzard and fresh porcini mushroom mousse. Served with the slightly fruity berry flavour of the Italian nebbiolo, it brought up the flavour of the slightly frozen meat. The combination was evocative and tasty. We felt like we’d arrived in a Nordic country. Next, local potato mashed and flavoured with pressed sunflower seeds, pressure-cooked onion, green cranberries and little potato chippy things. Was it here that we had the bread? Like every fine restaurant we went to on our Nordic tour, they baked their own bread. Here the bread is put in the oven the moment the customer arrives. Wow. Rye bread with rosemary, apparently an unusual combination with homemade butter, and as you can imagine, delicious. The next dish was one of my favourites: It was explained that arctic turnip was popular in the 50s and 60s until Finland became a Potato Nation. Served as a fettucine (of sorts) with sage butter and a parmesan created out of almonds and some of the juice of the arctic turnip, it was bitter, earthy and delicious. It was served with an Italian wine from the boot part! This was a great surprise: lichen, boiled and then deep fried, cranberry, a parsnip I think, and then a lot of delicious wild mushrooms (including black trumpets and chanterelles) with a sauce of hard-boiled egg with pine. It’s all about the vegetables, commented S. The dish was roasted and earthy with a sharp burst of cranberry. S thought the lichen tasted like steel wool but I was lichen’ it. It was served with an ice cold Sancerre from the Eastern Loire, completely natural apparently. Here we are, so transfixed by the vegetables that I forgot what the meat was: beef? reindeer? The charming waitress with a tattoo of an artichoke on her arm, sparkling blue eyes and a lovely smile explained that 90 kilos of celeriac had been delivered to them. They pickled the root, roasted the celeriac overnight (the little pieces you see next to the meat with cashews and hazelnut on top) and the leaves were made into a sauce. We really felt that the staff seemed part of a family, all chipping in to create this marvelous experience honouring local ingredients with explanations of where the produce came from and how it was prepared (I’ve found out from their facebook page that gorgeous Edith has a food blog).
Johan, who has one of those fantastic deep Finnish voices that hit at an octave much lower than other nationalities (you can here his voice in the background at the start of the sound clip), also explained the mostly natural wines beautifully though my note-taking skills on these were lacking. The poached pike-perch was served with kale chips and jerusalem artichoke roasted to perfection and creamy on the inside, a bit of dried kale in the sauce. There was not much flavour in the fish, the dish seemed to be about the lightness of the fish matched with the stronger kale and artichoke flavours. Cheese course (yum) and then two types of finnish apples for the first of two desserts. A cinnamon apple that only tastes good when it’s cooked. It was roasted then boiled and burnt slightly on the outside. The other was vacuum-packed in rosemary oil. The ice cream is made of whey, a by-product of their homemade butter. All served with caramelised sunflower seeds and a sauce from the leftover apples. Our final dish was sorbets of two types of plums, blue and yellow, from about half an hour away in a place with a Finnish name that I didn’t catch! The ice cream was made of the kernel of plum. The chocolate was made in the basement of the factory of a local department store by a guy with tattoos up to his neck who is a famous photographer. To sum up, what an extraordinary introduction to fine dining, Helsinki style: some very complicated cooking techniques that were aimed at capturing a simplicity of ingredients; rich, roasted and earthy flavours and vegetables; a touch of dairy and cream; seasonality and local produce. Perhaps if you are a major carnivore, you would be disappointed, my dining companion pointed out, but we found it quite thrilling, different from our usual cuisine so as to be adventuresome and a very special evening. Thanks Finns!
Considering our degustation at A21 matched with cocktails (review to come) and this, we’re recommending Helsinki as destination dining.