So you want to open a trendy restaurant? There is a checklist to observe: chip all the plaster off one wall; light it with filament bulbs; serve cloudy orange wine in repurposed milk bottles; ferment anything you can lay your hands on; and agonise at length about carbon emissions. Hire some serious young chefs, preferably with CVs that include stints at Noma, The Clove Club or anywhere in Brooklyn. And make sure your brigade has as many tattoos and as much facial hair as the crew of a pirate ship.
These thoughts passed through my mind at a couple of Helsinki restaurants recently: Grön, west of the city centre, and Ora, to the south. Both tick many of the boxes above; both only serve dinner; both only offer tasting menus. And both were terrific.
The first dish on Grön’s menu set the tone: “Potato ‘rösti’ topped with sour cream, six-year-old juniper vinegar, dried elk, grilled oyster mushrooms and onions”. Helsinki’s northerly latitude means a short, intense growing season – and if you don’t pickle, ferment, smoke, dry or cure this annual bounty, you won’t have anything to eat in February.
The elk (its salted back leg) was grated over the rösti – meat at Grön is more of a seasoning than a main course. Glazed cod tongues, for example, are served with fermented blueberries, pungent lovage leaves, ribbons of beetroot, chicken fat and chicken roasting juices, to fine effect.
The sourdough bread was superb, served with a sour butter into which fermented carrots have been whipped. Then raw scallops, bathed in a hollandaise made with the juice from fermented mushrooms and flecked with herbs, like a turbocharged tartare sauce.
Ora, another small restaurant with an open kitchen, is just as impressive. Bread is excellent everywhere in Helsinki, and Ora’s dense, chewy, rosemary-spiked sourdough rye bread was no exception. Then, ribbons of pickled celeriac, spruced up with Scots pine; gently smoky siika (whitefish) from Lake Inari, wrapped in turnip and topped with trout roe; a salty but flavoursome fillet of burbot with carrot and caraway; and a kind of meatloaf made with goose gizzards, served with the bird’s thigh meat, brown butter, fermented rhubarb and crisped husks of Jerusalem artichoke.
Not everything works – at Grön, a beetroot tartlet was overpowered by both salt and lovage; the pervasive, disinfectant aroma of Douglas fir rendered Ora’s parfait less than perfect; and the all-natural wine lists at both places chalked up as many misses as hits – but the two kitchens’ talent and creativity more than atoned for the occasional slip.
Helsinki’s food scene has a real buzz about it: as a gourmet getaway, I cannot recommend it too highly. And the city now boasts six Michelin-starred restaurants: Grön and Ora, deservedly, are two of them.