Friday, 30th December 2018 – Ask, Helsinki
The White Guide says “Dazzling Finnish poetry – In the sparsely decorated room, with benches along the walls and Ilmari Tapiovaara’s simple wooden chairs, nothing here betrays that we are about to be treated to a spectacular show in roughly fifteen acts. Chef Filip Langhoff surely learned a lot during his years in Norway and Barcelona, but back on his home turf he is engaged in poetically interpreting the harsh and characteristically acidic Finnish traditions.”
He’s apparently done a stint at El Bulli and it shows. Anyway, with Michelin rating the place highly enough to award a star, and the White Guide listing it as Finland’s best restaurant, it was good enough for me. I booked, taking their word for it that we would need 2-3 hours to work through the tasting menu. We caught a tram and arrived slightly ahead of the appointed time, to find the dining room already half full and it wasn’t even 19:00. Mind you it does only seat 22 people.
Seated and settled with a glass of very good Champagne in front of us, we were soon in possession of the first of several amuse-bouche, three different types of home made crisps, served with a mayonnaise dip, and made with seasonal vegetables, they were light, crunchy and subtly flavoured.
Following on we were presented with these little beauties, with pickled daikon, fermented rhubarb and fermented carrot, each sharply acidic and, in the case of the rhubarb, sour as well. These were very refreshing for the palate and the marigold mayonnaise was a fine accompaniment.
The penultimate amuse-bouche were tiny, deeply, intensely tasty, and brilliant, in the shape of smoothly cut reindeer tartare, a spongy soft hit of umami in the caviar brioche which had been steamed and were topped with caviar, and some creamy cheese mousse on rye crispbreads so thin they were almost translucent.
A final flourish at this stage was a perfectly crisp sliver of chicken skin, perched in a wintery birch branch.
The final act before we started into the menu was a broth that tasted of bread and butter, achieved by adding clarified butter to what I believe was a broth containing sourdough, reminiscent in a way of Polish zurek soup which is made using a sourdough starter, but far more sophisticated.
Next up was a dish of kohlrabi, sorrel and almonds, with a creamy mousse-like filling to rounds of sliced kohlrabi, very delicate to the taste and with a pickled edge to it that lifted it from bland to fascinating. It was served with the first of the matched wines, a generous pouring of a Claus Preisinger 2017 Kalkundkiesel Austrian “raw” or natural white wine, made with 60% Weissburgunder, 30% Grüner Veltliner and 10% Chardonnay.
The second plate was a selection of cute little breads, made from malt (the darkest one on the left-hand side of the photo), spelt (the round roll in the middle) and potato (the flatbread), served with a seaweed butter that was gorgeous and silky smooth.
The duck egg and forest mushrooms that followed was one of my favourite plates of the whole evening, but then it contained two of my favourite food things so I guess that’s not a surprise. I’m guessing that the egg yolk had been slow cooked at 62 degrees and was still soft and runny and when punctured it flooded out to mingle with the mushrooms. I could happily eat that on toast for breakfast, possibly every day of the week, given half a chance! It was served with a glass of Riesling, a Sybille Kuntz 2003 Goldkapsel, from Lieser, the rather wonderful town on the Mosel that we blundered across last Autumn. The wine was rather wonderful too, and does indeed have the Riesling characteristics you might expect, including the initial “petrol” aroma that you get on first sticking your nose into the glass!
Inevitably perhaps there was a beetroot course (it’s the Nordics in winter – beetroot is inescapable) in the shape of “beetroot, beetroot and elderberry”, a beetroot soup with added beetroot, sweet, fruity, deep and very smart. They say beetroot juice is very good for runners, so maybe I need to figure out how this could be reproduced at home. The wine chosen to go with it, by Linda Stenman-Langhoff, the co-owner, a sommelier of some repute, and coincidentally married to the chef, was a Domaine des Lises/Equis 2015 Crozes-Hermitage, a fruity red but not too strong.
Next was a potato dish that seems to have caused some diners a certain amount of distress if TripAdvisor is to be believed. Anyway, we liked the potato, Finnish garum and whitefish roe, which was salty and fishy but also tasted of the best sort of potatoes, with an almost buttery texture. The waiter, and Irishman, was amused that we knew what garum was without him having to explain, and I was amused by the concept of a chef deciding he wanted to create his own version of a 2000 year old condiment! The wine was surprising to me too, coming from Tenerife and being made 100% of a grape variety (or at least a name for a grape variety) that I hadn’t heard of before, the Listan Blanco otherwise known as the Palomino and used mainly for making sherry these days. Whatever it’s usual uses there was nothing wrong with the Envinate 2016 Palo Blanco. It was light and fresh and dry.
The next dish was another of the blockbusters of the evening for me, a fabulous celeriac and buckwheat concoction, the buckwheat crisped and sticky, with a slice of softly roasted celeriac, the whole brought together by a strongly flavoured broth which I loved. This came with an intriguing unfiltered wine, a Voltumna 2014 Marcello Sui Lieviti about which I can find very little, apart from a suggestion that it comes from Bologna, and it is “macerated in amphorae for 8 months”. It’s made apparently by blending Pignoletto with Albana to create what the vinter’s own site describes as “anarchy”! There is some very odd stuff going on in the world of wine these days…
We now switched from vegetable to animal with a fish course or Pike perch and false morels, with a light creamy sauce coating the tender fish, the whole served with a lovely glass of Les Heritiers du Comte Lafon 2016 Clos de la Crochette a white Burgundy from the village of Chardonnay, in northern Mâcon. Apparently the 2016 is “suave and elegant with lemongrass notes” which is a fair description and better than I could manage to craft.
The menu was edging towards what would be the climax for many people, the meat course, in this instance a beautifully executed venison and Jerusalem artichoke dish, with a couple of slices of just-right rare venison loin, and a slow cooked portion of the less refine meat, possibly shank, that had been cooked down to a tangle of gamey fibres, the flavour running all the way through the resulting casserole, sitting on a smooth, rich Jerusalem artichoke puree that proves there is some use for a vegetable I usually have no time for (unless it’s been turned into an artichoke cappuccino at Le Manoir for example). This was brilliant. The wine was pretty good too. We stayed in Burgundy with a glass of Catherine and Dominique Derain 2015 Mercurey Rouge la Plante Chassey, made with 15% Pinot Beurrot (Pinot Gris) here apparently planted by the current wine-makers grandfather, this being the traditional grape of the area though it’s rarely grown here nowadays. It’s resulted in a silky, delightful wine that I’d be happy to drink with most red meats.
We were now beginning to lose momentum, so a shared cheese plate seemed like an excellent idea. The cheeses were a lovely mix, with a salty, sharp blue, an assertive sheep’s cheese, and a cheese the name of which I never got, but it doesn’t matter because it tasted good. There was a carrot jelly, a quince jelly and I think a lingonberry one and they served to close the savoury section of the meal to perfection without being too big to deal with.
A pre-dessert was sent out next, a small sorbet with teensy meringues, and a puddle of liqourice that was mild and pleasant to the taste and that complemented the sorbet rather than overpowering it. I’m not a fan of liquorice straight, but have now had it in a number of skilfully rendered dishes which have made me wonder whether it’s a matter of preparation rather than the actual base level ingredient that I have issues with.
The first of two desserts proper was next in line to delight our palates, this being a goats milk and sea buckthorn combination, where a ball of goat’s milk ice cream was encased in a sea buckthorn gel, producing gloriously orange citrussy flavoured treat with a seriously creamy centre. It looked simple and tasted divine. The accompanying wine was pretty special as well, a glass of Rita and Rudolf Trossen’s 2015 Von Berg, a Riesling
Spätlese from the Mosel village of Kinheim (home to some very odd pumpkins), which was always going to endear it to me.
And finally (well if you discount the possibility of petit fours) we came to the autumn apple and caramel, an extremely sticky and completely wonderful thing, the apple so coated in caramel that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. It was perfect, not to big, and full of late autumnal flavour. I loved it. For the wine we’d moved just a few miles along the Mosel to Kröv for a Staffelter Hof 2000 Dhroner Hofberger, an elegant Riesling that worked perfectly and transported me right back to one of my favorite places in the world.
And then the thing we’d feared happened! Several rounds of petit fours were delivered, including these little beauties. And luckily they were both little and exquisitely light, which meant that even though we had probably more than eaten our fill, we nibbled our way through the madelaines, and the fruit jelly squares.
And the other plate of petit fours also went the way of all flesh, I’m afraid to report!
As did the candied carrot slices, which were deliciously sticky and which saw the return of the birch twigs too. We didn’t eat them, which was probably just as well, though we could of course have used them to clean our teeth!
And so, full of food, we wandered back to the hotel where we slept the sleep of the exceedingly well fed…