Sunday, 5 January 2014

Dining and wining in Helsinki: Juuri

Days off in the middle of the week feel so luxurious. They give opportunity to stay up late the night before, sleep in, take your time reading the papers and wander the streets of your own home town, like a tourist. Sit in the cafes watching people-watching, visit museums, pop into the markets... or, as the grim reality (too) often goes,  get stuck at sleeping too late and lounging around your flat for the rest of the day still in your PJ's without even bothering to shower. The only visits are to the fridge (which obviously turns out to be out of everything you might actually fancy) and the only wandering is taking out the rubbish, only to be (once again) reminded that you still haven't started recycling.

But in case you have several days off (oh, the joys of holidays!) there's a good chance you eventually get something done. At least taking yourself out for a leisurely lunch. If not for anything else, then to celebrate the fact that your 2nd degree burns, results of busy Christmas preparations, have finally healed and can at last accommodate something other than PJ's. So, no microwaved leftovers, scoffed down staring at the e-mail; none of that 2nd rate bulk at the canteen and instead some real, pleasure-inducing and carefully prepared food. Looking for a place I was spoiled for choice, but the call of the bright lights of the city were too hard to resist, so Restaurant Juuri it was. 

Juuri means roots in Finnish, and that's exactly what makes this restaurant so great: a genuine appreciation of their roots, executed in a world-class fashion. Located among the antique shops at the quiet Kasarminkaupunki neighbourhood, overlooked by Johannes church and next to the Design Museum, this restaurant has brought bliss to the lives of Helsinki foodies for 9 years(!) now, yet I don't think I've ever been there before. Shameful. Almost as shameful as spending an entire day in PJ's.

Since they opened, their USP has been their sapas (€4.60 each); a Finnish take on Spain's tapas: small, perfectly executed treats showcasing the finest of local ingredients and the restaurant's expertise in  the form of beautiful presentation and excellent combinations. Or what do you make of the current selection: fried gravad zander with blueberry mayonnaise? Elk sausage with root veggie salad? Duck rillette with cranberries and celery? Lightly smoked reindeer heart with apple and rowan berries?

They do have á la carte and a lunch option too, but these little gems are a fine way to explore the kitchen's culinary know-how which pays homage to the very best seasonal delicacies Finland has to offer. Perfect for someone (like me) who wants to try absolutely everything. At lunch there's a choice of 4 for main or 2 for a starter.

To start with I had sooth smoked fish soup which was accompanied with sour cream and roe (from famous Pielavesi vendace) and fish balls made of pike. The painstakingly beautiful dish was surprisingly subtle (and not too salty as I feared!) and the dreamily light pike balls literally melted in the mouth.

For main course I had the selection of 4 sapas. Today the combo consisted of rainbow trout cold-smoked to 34º which was perfect and had a delightfully firm texture. The fish came with kermaviili (a lightly fermented, mildly sour Finnish dairy product, a bit like low-fat crème fraîche) and superbly crisp and feather-light shallots.

And beet root mousse with dill pesto (what a genius combination!) topped with crumbs that according to the waiter were herby bread, but which to me looked and tasted like goat cheese. One of the winners, nonetheless.

Then there was mousse of smoked whitefish with yoghurt made with the milk of kyyttö, traditional and recently revived Finnish breed of cows, some sort of a cucumber relish and crisps made of organic potatos (the origin of which totally slipped my mind though it, too, was specifically mentioned!). Oooooh.

Being a liver lover the expectations for the 4th sapas, foie gras served with apple and brioche and liquor-marinated plums ran high. Unfortunately this time foie gras was too strong - the combination of its fatty richness and the tartness was too reminiscent of... goat cheese. Don't get me wrong though, it wasn't bad. The dish could have used a bit more plum.

I was also greeted with a small portion of kitchen's potato and cabbage-mash which was a funny coincidence, seeing how only last week I too, made colcannon!

And since the portion sizes were, in their heartbreaking beauty, rather reasonable, I couldn't think of an excuse to turn down the pudding. And dear me - "kitchen's take on sea buckthorn cheesecake" was a mighty fine way to end a meal. The meringue-like biscuit crumbs, the bright acidity of the sea buckthorns, the sweetness of the sea buckthorn purée and the lovely, sour richness of cheesecake mixture (made of kyyttö's milk among other things) had everything going for it. The tastes and textures truly complimented one another. 

New year means opening one's mind to new experiences, so I went along with the waiter's recommendation from the beer menu (so much for Dry January...!). Malmgård blonde ale (from a Malmgård mansion's lovely microbrewery) was light and somewhat crisp, but did have that bitter after taste of ales. Worked well enough with the dishes though. Especially with the soup as it really enhanced the pepperiness of the leaves. Oh and their bread? From their own bakery (how else?)!

This place is a gem. Small, but intimate in a homey, inviting way. Minimalist, but in a cosy, not too industrial manner.

The service was a delight, too: friendly, knowledgeable and so considerate that as a woman in a table behind mine was fretting over the potential headache that a glass of wine might have brought forth had she taken one, the waiter actually offered to dim the lights for her.

The price tag for a lunch with one beer came to €34. Sure, that sum would buy you whole week's lunches at the canteen, but I'd much rather have one lunch here and then spend rest of the week boiling water for a Cup-a-Soup - the quality is at least 5 times of that canteen. And perhaps therein lies a challenge for many of us: that less can well and truly be more? More quality, less quantity?

And though we're only a couple of days into the new year, there was a definite spring in my step. That's what happens when your meal has nurtured your soul as well!

And if you're in town, don't forget to check out their other place just around the corner, Latva (Finnish for tree top).




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