29 April 2007

Finding Good Food in Helsinki

Me in HelsinkiAfter my utterly disappointing experiences with international food in Finland, I decided that for the next week I would eat only Finnish, Swedish, or Russian food. Even if Helsinki couldn't attract chefs from around the globe to prepare great international dishes, I speculated, they should at least be able to find decent chefs in their own part of the world. I am happy to report this approach has worked out brilliantly...

I started the week off at a great little Russian place called Saslik, located at Neitsytpolku 12. I had grilled elk, which amazingly I was able to get medium-rare. As an aside, it is quite difficult to get any meat cooked to a temperature less than medium around here. I don't know whether it's because they precook the meat or if the quality of meat is not up to medium-rare standards. Before Saslik, whenever I had asked for something to be cooked to a lower temperature, the waiter usually made a funny face and recommended medium instead.

HelsinkiI had a tasty plate of Nordic herring at a charming Finnish restaurant called Kosmos, located at Kalevankatu 3. When I entered the restaurant, a nice gentleman offered to take my coat. When I politely declined (hoping to warm up a bit first), he made it clear that it was not an option to enter the dining room wearing a coat. The Finns are definitely sticklers for the rules. It reminded me of the time I tried to get a taxi driver to let me roll down the window so I could get a little fresh air. The response was that it was simply not an option--apparently everyone knows that it is just too difficult to drive with the windows down.

Later in the week, I discovered food from Lapland at a fun little place called Saaga, located at Bulevardi 34. Lapland is in Northern Finland, and traditional Lapish food includes reindeer, bear, game bird, fish, wild berries, and barley. As I was enjoying a simple soup of game bird & vegetables served in a hand-carved wooden bowl, it made me feel like Grizzly Adams.

I also had bear meatballs at Saaga, which was definitely not something Grizzly Adams would have done. Before I decided to try it, I asked about the bear situation in Finland to see if I could eat it with a clear conscience. I was told that bears from Russia often crossed the border into Finland because they couldn't find enough food in Russia. Apparently there are strict laws governing how many bears may be killed each year (only about 100), and the restaurant only served locally hunted bear. In the end, they just tasted like meatballs. By the time they were flambéed in brandy and covered in a light cream gravy, I couldn't really taste the bear in them.

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21 April 2007

Beware of Flying Reindeer

The view from my hotelI've been in Finland for almost a week. In that time, I've recovered from jet lag, met my new work team, learned a few Finnish phrases, and settled into my hotel, where I will be staying nearly 5 more weeks before my first visit back home to St. Louis...

In Helsinki, signs are mostly in Finnish and Swedish, but it's quite easy to get around because everyone speaks English, even the taxi drivers. Finnish television is largely in English and movies at the cinema are subtitled, so no problems there. But my computer has somehow detected that I'm in Finland and has forced me into the Finnish version of Blogger.com.

It actually felt like Spring for the first few days in Helsinki, but then it turned bitter cold. Having jet lag early in the week and limited tolerance for cold weather on the weekend, I haven't ventured out much to explore this new city, except to find food.

The view from my hotelUnfortunately, in Helsinki a good meal is very hard to find. Even in restaurants with interesting-sounding menus and relatively high prices, the food tastes bland and unimaginative, and usually appears to have been prepared in advance and reheated in the microwave. The Italian restaurant at my first hotel served food that was both tasteless and expensive, and the Tom Yum soup at a nearby Thai restaurant was not even recognizable as one of my favorite soups in the world.

Just as I was starting to think it might be better to save my money and subsist on Subway and McDonalds sandwiches for the next 5 weeks, I discovered a great restaurant in the Helsinki City Center, called "Grill It", which is attached to the Radisson Royal Hotel. Here is where I tasted Reindeer for the first time. I was so happy with the meal that I decided to move my room to the Radisson Royal. This was no trivial task, as I had 5 weeks of clothes and supplies unpacked at my first hotel.

Although I had another disappointing dinner last night, this time at a Spanish tapas place featuring sautéed shrimp-from-a-can, I still have hope. I'm comforted by the fact that at any time I can go right downstairs and dine on another of Santa's tasty little helpers.

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11 April 2007

Chicken Knees!

My project in NY was extended, giving me two more weeks in the Big Apple. It was a good thing since I had several restaurants on my list that I still hadn’t tried. One restaurant in particular, a Japanese Yakitori place, was reputed to have the best chicken in the world...

I had been hesitant to try it because I remembered when I was in Japan, seeing people eating severely undercooked chicken and cringing with thoughts of salmonella. I can be very adventurous with seafood, given all of its interesting flavors and textures, but chicken? Would the risk be worth the reward for such a boring meat?

With just a touch of apprehension, I found the sign for Yakitori Totto hanging on a little door leading to a long, somewhat dark stairway. At the top of the stairs, I was warmly greeted in Japanese, given a seat at the bar, and began one of my most fun and tasty culinary adventures yet.

Yakitori Totto is known for its grilled chicken knees, so I quickly flipped through the extensive menu until I came to the page describing the available skewers of chicken parts. They offered grilled tail, soft knee bone, neck, heart, gizzard, and liver, along with many of the more common chicken parts like thigh & breast. I decided to start with the knees, neck, and heart, and then tried some breast and tail. I was absolutely amazed at how much chickeny goodness they were able to pack into a little skewer of neck or tail meat.

As I sat at the bar, listening to a Nora Jones CD playing in the background, sipping my Kirin draft, and watching the chef who was very intently monitoring his skewers to ensure grilled perfection, I realized just how much I love the Japanese. Who else could turn simple grilled chicken skewers into something this flavorful and exotic?

Yakitori Totto
251 W. 55th Street, near Broadway
212-245-4555

In my final weeks on the project in NY, I also had the opportunity to experience the best Indian food I’ve ever had at:
Diwan
148 E. 48th Street, near 3rd Ave
212-593-5425

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