Sunday, 2nd December 2018 – Gaijin, Helsinki
Sunday night in Helsinki (and even more so in the rest of Finland in our experience) is a tricky one. Because staff are paid a hefty premium for working on a Sunday, open restaurants are hard to find, if not almost impossible as we discovered in Hämeenlinna in 2017. As a result, rather than running round looking for a sensible place to eat, I booked us into Gaijin, on the grounds that it’s good (we’ve eaten here before in 2016 and 2017), and it’s close to the hotel.
Of this place, the White Guide comments thusly: “Gaijin takes Asian food to a whole new level. Only in this context could China, Japan and Korea join forces to take us on a joy ride. Ingredients are carefully picked and pickled, the fish is of the finest quality, and all kinds of ingredients, from hamachi to daikon and wakame, are combined in mind-boggling ways… The Hot Pot is a triumph. It’s comforting and a perfect balance of spicy and sweet, umami and meaty. As we listen to the rap music, and look around the room, the crowd makes us feel our age. This is a hipster spot and all you need to fit in is a tattoo…” They’re not wrong and we’re almost certainly not their normal demographic but actually we love the place. I think we probably feel like this because we agree with Michelin: “Gaijin comes with dark, contemporary décor, a buzzing atmosphere, attentive service and an emphasis on sharing. Its experienced owners offer boldly flavoured, skilfully presented modern takes on Japanese, Korean and Northern Chinese recipes. The tasting menus are a great way to sample the different cuisines.”
We arrived slightly earlier than planned as the hotel bar was closed (also not unusual on a Sunday in Finland) and so we happily sat and drank a cocktail in the bar while our table was prepared. Lynne had a Shiso Kiri, made with Absolut vodka, shiso (a form of mint), ginger, lime and a lot of crushed ice.
Meanwhile, I enjoyed a Sakura, which combined Schochu, yuzu, cherries and kombu to very good and fruity effect. Their version of glacé cherries are a beautiful thing too.
We were shortly taken to our table, and decided we would go with the full set menu. On Sunday evenings there are no other options apart from a shorter set menu. It doesn’t stop the kitchen doing a splendid job of feeding a lot of hungry people very efficiently and very well. It’s popular with all sorts but on a Sunday night seems to fill up with business travellers newly arrived in town.
On the set menu tonight the first dish was a massive New Zealand green-lipped mussel served with a yuzu and honey dressing, a perky wasabi mayonnaise, and seaweed “caviar”. This was one of those dishes where you find yourself eating the main body of it and then optimistically and repeatedly tipping the shell to your lips in the vain hope that there might be some more of the delightful dressing left.
The second of six dishes was a wagyu beef brisket and choy sum, the beef grilled until it was tender, with a scattering of crispy rice paper, and dressed in a fiery Red Dragon dressing. It was a small but exquisitely flavoured dish, the dressing lending it some punch it might otherwise have lacked. It was accompanied by the bowl of rice that would be refreshed over the next few plates and is listed as Gohan rice (but as Gohan means rice in Japanese we’ll gloss over that).
Next up was the seafood tempura and pickled salad dish, which includes the crispy tempura of the day, in this instance scallops, with some lightly pickled vegetables made in house, a Japanese aojiso dressing, and a dollop of yuzu creme. It was very light, though not perhaps as crispy as other types of seafood might be.
The one dish we’d been slightly doubtful of, not really liking pork because neither of us find it particularly digestible, was pork belly and red cabbage, which turned out to be two roasted pork belly ribs, which had been coated in a soy-mirin caramel, and were served with pickled red cabbage. Actually, it was fine, coming off the bone easily, and providing a sticky, finger licking experience with very little in the way of digestive distress the following day either.
The final savoury course was a brilliant lamb neck kimchi “hot pot” where braised lamb neck was served in a kimchi broth, with added kimchi mayonnaise, and slices of pickled cucumber. I could probably have done without the cucumber, but the broth and mayonnaise combination was gorgeous, moreish and rich and full of flavour, and the lamb was just meltingly soft, the fat have rendered down during slow cooking to make the broth even richer. A dash of pinenuts also helped with the texture and the taste.
All that left was dessert, a triple choco and mint combo, which was chocolate cake, white chocolate creme, crystalised chocolate, mint cream. The cake was intensely chocolatey, the crystallised chocolate delivered a great textural boost along with the white chocolate creme, which was more of an ice cream than a cream in textural terms, while the mint cream was smooth and soothing.
Happy, we paid the bill (not small inevitably for Helsinki) and scooted two doors back to the hotel. It was attempting to snow out there so we were happy not to be out for long without the benefit of thermals.