I recently went on a business trip to Helsinki, Finland. It is the second time I went there this year and so far I haven’t managed to discover much about the culture, the cuisine or the people. But from what I have gathered, the overall concept of this country seems to be about surviving in this weird no man’s land between Russia and Scandinavia, while speaking a language nobody understands, freezing your derriere off and coping with all this by consuming copious amounts of alcohol and meatballs. I admit that I generally associated Finland with unrefined food, especially after reading the Wikipedia entry on Finnish cuisine, and how it continuously got slammed by various European heads of state. It came as some surprise, therefore, that it was in Helsinki, where I’ve had one of the best meals of this year.
The restaurant where I had this meal is called Kuurna and it is located in a narrow street in the downtown of Helsinki. The first thing you notice about the place, as you enter it from the Finnish cold, is that it is really small, seating maybe about 20 people in total (reservations are, thus, definitely recommended). The walls are painted dark grey, which combined with the night outside, gives the place a feel of a warm dark hut where you sit protected from the outside world. There is a sort of an open kitchen raised high up and the heat from the stoves effectively warms up the place and adds to the cozy atmosphere. The choice of music is quite interesting, as it ranges from weird folk-like music, old Germanic music and some obscure jazzy classics. The menu is as uncomplicated as the décor: it is a three course prix fixe menu with three appetizers, entrees and desserts to choose from. Reasonably priced at EUR35 for a three-course meal, the menu changes at least weekly and always features local, fresh, high quality produce, prepared in a simple yet elegant way.
And although the atmosphere itself deserves a gold star, it is the food that really makes this place. My appetizer at Kuurna was a funnel chanterelle tart with cream, leeks and arugula. It was delicious. Possibly the best appetizer I’ve had in any restaurant this year. My dining companions both ordered a lightly smoked Arctic char, which looked fantastic and was repeatedly described by them as outstanding, delicious and perfect. Sadly, I couldn’t have just leapt over the table and had some, since this was a business dinner of sorts, but I was definitely tempted. Ordering the main dish took some thinking and specifically it took some looking within myself, and deciding whether I am morally opposed to eating animals to whom I assign human characteristics. And although the short answer was yes, my curiosity prevailed, and as my main dish I had a horsemeat fillet with red cabbage and roasted vegetables. It was good, but it reminded me of that old adage “it tastes like chicken”… It didn’t quite taste like chicken, but it did taste remarkably like regular steak, I even got a taste of my companion’s steak for comparison (no leaping over the table required) and I was barely able to tell the difference. If anything, the steak tasted more tender and the horse more dense. The dessert was a bit of a letdown, it was perhaps partly because I was bursting from all the food I ate and wine I drank… or maybe it took the simplicity theme a bit too far. All desserts composed of essentially a scoop of sorbet with flavoring and sauce.
A final note to make about Kuurna is that the chefs there really respect food and make a special effort to showcase the beauty of Finnish ingredients. The cuisine they practice is not about tricks or being fancy, it is really just about good food. Simple, unpretentious, delicious food. And it was definitely nice to see that simple, inexpensively priced food can still wow and successfully compete with overpriced, fancy-schmancy fine dining cuisine.
Kuurna Restaurant – Meritullinkatu 6 – 00170 Hesinki – tel. 09 670 849 – www.kuurna.fi