Friday, March 27, 2009
Springtime in Finland
Finland – this reviewer’s first foray into the beyond for ’09. Departing Aeroport Charles de Gaulle on a rare sunny, Spring-is-in-the-air sort of morning, I quickly learned that Spring means something quite different in Lapland. As my plane descended from the clouds, the effect was startling – what started in color transformed into black and white. True, I never made it to Lapland, limiting my visit to Turku and Vaasa in the southwest, but I did learn that Springtime in those Finnish locales consists of a 10-inch snowstorm and –12C temperatures. Fortunately, I learned those meteorological details upon my return to Paris, having missed the fresh burst of Winter by one day. Nonetheless, the already snowy terrain and temperatures lurking around zero put me in the mood for some hearty grub. Hardly known as a gastronomical wonderland, it is my firm belief that there are gems to be found even in culinary wastelands like Finland; I’m happy to report that I was not disappointed. Seek and you shall find.
First up, Fransmanni. This chain restaurant was coincidentally selected as the go-to place by my hosts as I arrived in both cities, Turku by plane and Vaasa by train (or, more accurately, Vaasa by four trains). I don’t know if that was a happy accident, a lack of imagination, or simply a Finnish custom whereby when you take your guest from France to dinner, you take him to a restaurant which in Finnish means ‘French man.’ Whichever, I was surprised to see that Fransmanni evokes both exceptional good (‘food is great and dear’) and exceptionally bad reviews (‘food – inedible’) online. I would have to say that based on my two experiences, I fall somewhere in the middle and concur with the self-appraisal on the restaurant’s website – to wit, ‘homely and unpretentious’. Of my four dishes across two dinners, the main dish of fried perch fillets (19.90€) breaded with crushed rye biscuits, chanterelle sauce, mashed potatoes and oven-roasted root vegetables truly excelled. Light, flaky, and tasty fresh fish. One appetizer, recommended by my host as a Finnish specialty also rated a thumbs up – Fransmanni’s salmon rillette (8.90€), described on the menu as slightly smoked salmon in spiced mayonnaise, marinated shrimps, red onion, tomatoes, dark French Blé Noir bread and basil pistou. Less satisfying was the Fisherman’s scallops (10.70€) appetizer (two – count them - two scallops, lettuce, tomatoes, artichoke, red onion, roasted pumpkin seeds, balsamic syrup, and lobster sauce). The pumpkin seeds were a nice touch, but overall, a forgettable dish. Somewhat disappointing was the other main dish of Provence fish and shellfish casserole (15.90€), comprised of mussels, salmon, shrimps, mushrooms, fava beans and onion in creamy white wine broth, with baked potato. For my taste, this dish was a bit on the rich side – I couldn’t finish it. In short, when in Fransmanni, go native – order Finnish dishes and leave the French cooking to the French.
Fransmanni Turku Sokos Hotel Hamburger Börs
tel. (02) 337 3241
Fransmanni Vaasa Radisson SAS Royal Hotel Vaasa
tel. (06) 212 8240
The highlight of my Turku dining experiences was found at the relatively
new, somewhat trendy Mami restaurant, located in downtown Turku along the Aura riverbank. I started off with the Savulohta entrée (10€) – salmon with beetroot marinated in balsamic vinegar accompanied by small strips of marinated dark rye bread. I loved this dish. This was followed by a main dish of gnocchi in rosemary butter, with zucchini, eggplant, and roasted peppers (17€). Gnocchi is not one of my favorites, but ordered out of necessity – the three other main dishes did not appeal to me. Evidently prepared with care, not unnecessarily complicated, it was a satisfying, if not exactly memorable dish. Two refreshing additions that are all-too uncommon in French restaurants – an interesting selection of breads, and a global wine list. On my own, and shaken by the lofty prices of bottles, I opted for a couple glasses of Argentinian Pinot Noir and a couple Spanish Cabernets (each priced 6.20€ a glass).
Mami, how I love ya – but get with the program and start up a website. Nice little restaurant, recommended if you’re ever in Turku. And one final advantage – you can drink all the wine you want without worrying about falling into the river on your way home. In Springtime, the Aura is still frozen.
Linnankatu 3, 20100 Turku
Tel. +358 (0)2 231 1111
No matter who I asked in Vaasa for restaurant advice, I received the same two recommendations – Gustav Wasa and Bacchus. I checked out the online menus and found the two restaurants rather comparable. As people always mentioned Gustav first (thus negating Bacchus’s alphabetical advantage), I used that as a sign. The restaurant itself is a converted coal cellar with an extensive wine cellar. So if you are afraid of heights, this is the restaurant for you. Overall, I had a very satisfying and enjoyable dinner there, albeit a bit on the pricey side.
I started with the confit of salmon with escargot and bacon vinegrette (12.50€), which I highly recommend. Delicately prepared, the marinated rectangle of salmon nearly melted in my mouth. The limited list of alternative entrees consisted of blini with burbot roe and liver or rabbit consomé. For the main dish, I opted for the piked perch accompanied by goat cheese and almond potato (25€), foregoing the tempting partridge dish and the exotic reindeer option. The grilled fish was satisfying, but the highlight of this dish was the chevre, prepared with beetroot and honey. Let me tell you, until my visit to Finland, had you offered, I would have told you that you could keep your beets. In fact, get them as far away from me as possible. Once you combine deep red beet slices with chevre, throw a little honey on top, there’s no turning back. It’s a bit unsettling watching your white goat cheese turn all pink and everything, but try it, you’ll like it. A distinct taste that for years to come, I am sure, will evoke memories of springtime in Finland. According to my waitress, this is a Russian specialty. The Russians got this one right. For dessert, I went with one of my favorites, nougat with nuts and chocolate ice cream. This was a rather odd preparation of the dish – the nougat consisted of a somewhat chewy concoction, but once the whole mess started to integrate, the overall effect wasn’t bad at all. By the way, I should add that the meal was accompanied by two mise-en-bouches, one before the entrée, and the other before dessert. Both were interestingly prepared and tasty, but I can’t tell you what they were because I lost the little piece of paper on which I described them. If I find the paper, I’ll get back to you.
Once again, the wine list was international, with a good selection by the glass. I’m a sucker for Spanish Riojas, so I started with Domino de Ugarte Reserva 2004, outrageously priced at 18.50€ for 24cl. What's life without a little outrage? I’m never disappointed with a Rioja, but at that price I expected something spectacular. This one fell far short. I followed that up with a few glasses of a more reasonably priced (9.90€ a glass) Chilean Merlot, Varietel 2006 Maule Valley. Given the wine list, I was a bit bemused by the Asian diner sitting alone at the table in front of mine when he ordered a Coke and then proceeded to diligently photograph every single development that unfolded at his table. I asked him about the reindeer dish on my way out. His response: “Good. My second time. Tastes like beef.” Everybody's a critic.
Restaurant Gustav Wasa
Phone: +358 50 466 3208
Web site: http://www.gustavwasa.com