Americans seem kind of tepid about visiting Helsinki. Snap out of it! Helsinki is a fantastic city, a vest-pocket Stockholm with a lovely harborscenic, safe and walkable. Best of all, its restaurants took me completely by surprise. Young Finnish chefs are reinventing a robust and unsubtle national cuisine traditionally big on preserving (lots of smoking, pickling and salt-curing). They're emphasizing Nordic produce, meat and fish, working in a coolly modern idiom with French underpinnings and distinctly European, rather than global, fusion elements. Three chefs in particular stand out.
Markus Aremo at George is a classicist, a purist who reads Escoffier on his nights off and serves beautiful, perfectly cooked, modern Scandinavian-French cuisine in a warm, pretty dining room with cream-colored walls and dark-wood wainscoting. I had a great time listening to him whinge about the overuse of El Bullistyle jellies by young Finnish chefs as I happily plowed through a wonderful filet of red deer dusted with garlic bread crumbs in a thyme jus, served with potato fondant, pumpkin puree and diced rutabaga (Kalevankatu 17; 011-358-9-647-662).
Pekka Terävä at Palacenranta is a modernist. His food is simple, direct and unadorned, but with a style informed by training at the two Michelin-starred Edsbacka Krog in Sweden and travel throughout Europe. His restaurant is an extraordinary space, a hipster magazine fantasy with a giraffe-patterned stone mosaic floor and modular wood. I would kill for his parsnip soup, or for his sautéed fillets of plaice with tartar sauce. I wouldn't kill for the sea buckthorn berry tart, but that's because, I now know, I'm not crazy about sea buckthorn berries (Eteläranta 10; 011-358-9-1345-6752).
The city's official Young Turk is Hans Välimäki, whose tiny Chez Dominique offers the most inventive food I had in Helsinki. He's 32, with spiky light brown hair and the sort of arrogance that comes from being anointed by the Michelin Guide Rouge soon after opening your first restaurant. Another Edsbacka Krog alumnus, Välimäki has a style that's all restrained flash and inventive detailing. His masterly foie gras sampling, for example, features seared foie gras with a white port and golden raisin sauce, and two superb terrines served with translucent sheets of cured honeydew melon, a postage stampsize melon ravioli with a dollop of melon granita and tiny mounds of powdered pistachios and cookie crumbs spiced with cinnamon and clove (Ludviginkatu 35; 011-358-9-612-7393).
Something remarkable is going on in Helsinki. Get here now, before the hordes descend.