Saturday, 24 May 2014

Dining and w(h)ining in Helsinki: Ragu

Warning: following text will feature shitloads of photos, over-the-top-giddiness and cliches, lacking imagination and originality to the point of annoying, such as "breathtaking" and "exquisite". Oh, and I'm sure there's a blasphemic remark or two. Proceed with caution, then.

A couple of days we had a date night during which we pondered over how much has happened in the past four (yes, you read correctly - four!) months. And how yet another tempting restaurant has opened in Helsinki when there are still so many we still haven't had the chance to try.

In the light of all this an invitation to come try Ragu was more than  welcome and offered a nice distraction from everything that's been going on lately. You know, such as shelves, shopping lists for Ikea, shoe racks, rococo armchairs, the essentiality of coffee tables (I don't even drink coffee!) and the potentially nonexistent function of throw pillows.  

Ragu opened in April and is its chef's Antti Asujamaa's first own restaurant. He has previously worked in the kitchens of Sasso, Sipuli and Fishmarket. The other chef, Erno Kemi, has honed his skills at Michelin-starred Demo, too.

The decor is serenely elegant. The atmosphere changes slightly in different parts of the restaurant, yet remains fuss-free and simple peppered with some interesting details.

The menu lives according to seasons and is an elegant and quietly confident melange of what's best in Mediterranean and Scandinavian cuisines. As the name would suggest, they also have made the most of the lesser used (and cheaper!) cuts of meat, something I, too try to encourage readers to do. Leave those filet mignons in the store and instead give them a go - you're in for mouth-wateringly succulent feasts!

Apart from organic options all the wines come from Italy. The wine list is thought through and continues to evolve, I hear. Some of the wines you can't get anywhere else - such their own wines.

The beautiful glasses are sourced from Italy, too.

Our culinary expedition was kicked off with Champagne (how else...?). Jacquesson Cuvée no 736 was dry with lovely acidity, but courtesy of its rather a high Chardonnay percentage (53) it was charmingly light, too. All the recent Champagne tastings are clearly starting to pay off: I noticed the "delightfully small bubbles" (!) and "brioche-like toastiness" (!!)

The bread platter (foccaccia, muffins baked with olive oil, soft malt bread and some wonderfully thin fennel- flavoured crisp bread) was served with Jerusalem artichoke and goat cheese mousse, olive and tomato paste, browned butter (I bet you could hear my sigh as I typed in that one?) and rhubarb spread. Which was insanely good.

We gave the kitchen a free reign over our meal and so our evening started with this piece of art:  Amazingly juicy and sweet veal crudo with lemon mayo, roasted small onions, marinated cherries and jellied egg yolk. I mean, just look at it: is anything less than "breathtaking" even enough to describe that?

We were offered two different wines to go with this dish. Pinot Noir (swiftly becoming one of my favourite reds in its exciting versatility) complimented the cherries brilliantly and brought out the pepperiness in wood sorrel in a whole new way.

But the rosé (also Pinot Noir) was, if possible, even better match.  It had a very subtle acidity but enough body to sustain several of the master pieces we got to enjoy that night. For instance with the lemony mayonnaise it was a fantastic combination. 

Then we moved on to trout pastrami with roasted new potatos and avocado mousse. The trout (from Åland) was sublime in its subtlety and cooked to perfection. Why don't I eat fish more often? Why doesn't it taste (and look!) anything like this in my kitchen?

With the trout we were served their own Chardonnay. Which was ok. For a Chardonnay. I've just had such an overdose of the said grape that I doubt it's ever going to knock my socks off. The rosé worked well with this dis, too, lending it some new character. According to The Boy Next Door it had "brininess reminiscent of Baltic Sea". And sure enough: the bouquet really did have some sea in it!

Then it was onto the white fish. And man, what white fish it was. With it there was Hollandaise made with olive oil, wonderfully rich fregola with shrimp (move over risotto - there's a new sheriff in town!) and spring veg - so delicate yet so full of flavour. And that crumble on top? Olive liquorice, of course!

The recommended wine for white fish was a grape neither one of us had ever even herd before: one of the hundreds grapes native to Italy, Arneis. This rascal from Piemonte (that's the actual translation of the grape!) is considered difficult to grow, but the result is dry and full-bodied wine. Intresting, I say. Though something with a little bit more acidity and citrusy notes would have worked beautifully, too, providing the rich dish with some contrast.

And then this heroic bottle made its appearance. The spicy bouquet immediately got our attention and the aroma, oozing dark berries really set the expectations high for the main course...

... which is exactly where we found ourselves, too. High on cloud nine. We were served this jar, which, upon opening released a thick cloud of smoke in the air. Feast for all senses!

The smokey aroma immediately transported me back to my childhood and my grandparent's sauna by the river and the contents of the jar, lamb shoulder ragú, slow cooked over 18 hours, was very much in sync with the atmosphere - it was pure love. The red wine it was cooked in lent it some wonderfully deep berry notes that the wine so deliciously complimented. Along with the fig jelly it was served with. A wine match made in heaven if there ever was one. Ragù was served with asparagus risotto with boldly al dente asparagus. My absolute favourite for ragú is and will always be soft, moreish polenta though.

The dish made an equally potent impression on the date, too. "Is this the lamb of God", he asked. 

Already at this point there was no end to our raving as the we reviewed the evolution of the evening we'd just had. That lamb... nothing short of divine. But we weren't done, oh no. There was dessert! Chocolate ganache and orange served 4 ways. Crikey. Both looks and taste... incredible.

With it we got a glass of Moscato we'd never had before: Macula Dindarello. Fresh and fruity without being too sweet. Perfect for fruity, citrusy puddings with some acidic notes.

We finished the evening off with coffee and with it some Recioto della Valpolicella, Italian counterpart for port wine. The grapes (Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella) are hand-picked and dried for minimum 100 days, resulting in wine that is dark, sweet, full and rich to a point of jelly-like. No toastiness but neither is it overly sweet.

As you probably could tell too, we were well and truly looked after. Even the sneak previews I'd collected among my friends mentioned the excellence of service and we couldn't have agreed more. That is one of the things they really know how to do here. The staff, both i kitchen and in front of the house emit an air of rock-hard professionalism, ambition, pride of their knowhow and a true passion for their work. Ok, I'll admit: I actually hugged every single one of them - that's how happy they made me. I definitely recommend. Go. And PLEASE- do have the ragú!

*We were happy and well-fed guests of the restaurant*




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