Updated: Mar 18, 2020
Helsinki is a haven for food lovers around the world and with its high concentration of Michelin chefs and restaurants it’s easy to see why. Hailing from Toronto where the prestigious award has not yet graced us (albeit our food scene is pretty awesome I must say), doing a stopover in Helsinki where there are not just one, not two, but SIX Michelin-awarded restaurants was quite a step up in the level of gastronomic greatness made accessible. And with only 24 hours to spend in Finland’s capital on a stopover, my inner foodie begged me to not let this opportunity pass and indulge in a culinary field day!
First things first, we did a bit of research to compare between the six restaurants; looking at the menus, reading the reviews and of course checking reservation availability (we basically planned in the afternoon for dinner that same day). As it was mid-December and just before the rush of the holiday season, our weekday reservation was graciously accepted at our final choice: Restaurant Demo.
It was the focus on food and cooking rooted in French traditions and the laid-back vibe that ultimately drove us to this decision. Having not planned for a fancy dinner and no access to our checked luggage for the stopover, we wanted to make sure we didn’t stick out like a sore thumb in our airport attire! We also loved the idea of a surprise seasonal menu that let our imagination run wild as we anticipated each dish. Being pretty adventurous when it comes to trying new foods, we had absolutely no issues with not knowing what would come next. The restaurant’s longstanding reputation of excellence was a big bonus as well, retaining its Michelin Star status since 2007 (the lengthiest out of the six restaurants). Lastly, the option to choose from a 4, 5, 6 or 7 course menu is also worth mentioning as it catered to every level of hunger (or curiosity?) as well as budget.
We arrived at Restaurant Demo on a cold winter day and as we walked in, the candlelit room immediately gave an intimate and warm invite. We were seated right away in what I would consider one of the best seats of the house – right by the establishment’s large window which offered perfect views of the tranquil street outside. It was a quiet evening having only been accompanied by 3 other tables over the duration of our dinner (which we had no complaints about!) making for even more dedicated service and attention. We opted for the 6-course dinner for 95 € as we were rather peckish but didn’t want to be too gluttonous and go for the full 7 courses. It was a good thing we did as to our surprised delight by the end of dinner, we were spoiled with 10 dishes, talk about freebies! The stars definitely aligned for us tonight!
Our first dish was a showstopper. Warm stones were delicately placed in a simple wooden bowl and perched on top were a couple profiteroles filled with fennel puree. It was light in taste, graceful in its delivery and it was complimentary! We were already impressed.
Next, we were presented with a slice of aged duck (which resembled a deli meat in my humble opinion) dressed with a 50-year-old balsamic glaze and adorned with an unpretentious thin “cracker”. Being from a Chinese background, I am no stranger to the acquired taste of duck meat and after being cured, its distinct flavour was very mild - for those who have never had duck, it has a similar texture to chicken except with a gamier dark meat taste. Staged on a modest slab of stone with a very subtle patterned background, the attention is immediately drawn to the charcuterie and with more stone than duck on the makeshift plate, the bareness shows the vulnerability of the dish – and also the dainty portion (which is what I usually picture when I think of fancy foods). Nonetheless it did not disappoint for yet another dish on the house. The bar was definitely set high at this point.
The first “official” dish of the night highlighted the time and place of our Scandinavian dinner. By that, I mean the chef incorporated a traditional dish to the menu reminiscent of the cultural and long-established practices of Finnish taste. By choosing this warm and hearty option over others, it complemented the cold, winter weather felt outside. Fish soup is a classic meal served in the Nordic countries as historically, its northern geography meant harsh winters and very little fresh produce. As a result, the people were dependent on fishing as a livelihood and a stable means of getting food and protein year-round. Restaurant Demo’s modern spin on this dish combined a creamy fish stock, lox (most commonly used in this staple), quail egg and dill. For someone who has never had a creamy fish soup before (by choice might I add, unless you consider clam chowder), it was very tasty and the fish flavour was more subdued than I anticipated. Unlike a chowder the broth was much lighter in texture and because I love dill, the zesty contrast was quite pleasant.
Of course no lavish dinner is without a bread and butter duo for the table. In our case, it came in the form of a house-baked wheat bread with a generous side of BONE MARROW brown butter! I don’t know what about anyone else but that combination would have never crossed my mind and it is in a Michelin-Star dining experience that such an ingenious fusion of ingredients would emerge. The subtle yet apparent flavour of the bone marrow along with its fatty elements was the perfect extension to enhance a creamy brown butter. The result? An absolute game changer!
The following course, however, was likely my least favourite of the lot (hard to one-up bone marrow butter!). On paper it sounded delightful but it was the texture on its delivery that didn’t quite meet the expectation. Crab meat? Yes! Buttermilk sauce? I can jive with that. Kohlrabi? Never heard of it but I do like turnip (as I later Googled the ingredient). Maybe it was the fact that it was served not as a hot dish, not really a cold one but somewhere in between. The super thin slice of kohlrabi that enveloped the crab meat was also a little too raw for my liking. Perhaps it was the combination of both these factors that resulted in this dish ranking fairly low among its companions. On the bright side, presentation was fantastic with the drizzle of herb essence that brought colour to a pre-dominantly all-white appearance.
We start moving on to heavier flavours as we inch towards the main course of the night. First one being a pan-seared fermented herring filet with malt-miso puree and langoustine. The unity of the herring’s traditionally acidic elements with the sweetness of the langoustine was amplified using the accompanied sauce of savoury and nutty flavours. Overall a great dish but not one that left a long-lasting impression.
The most sizeable meal of the evening was served next and I can not praise this feast enough! Every bite was such heaven that I wished my stomach was bigger so I could eat this dish continuously for days! It featured Finnish mangalitza pork cooked to perfection; crispy edges with just the right amount of fat surrounding a light pink centre. It was tender, juicy and absolutely divine! Served with a mushroom polenta that was smooth and creamy and accompanied with roasted kale and butter (because it’s the only way to eat kale). The sharpness of the dark white wine sauce made it even easier to enjoy the meal without being too redundant in its savoury flavours.
Everything listed above sounds fairly tame for the main course of a Michelin-Star restaurant... except for one additional component: a pan-seared cube of congealed blood! A delicacy that involves a discerning palate. In Asian cuisine, the use of pig’s blood in dishes like congee is not uncommon so I was not surprised by the ingredient, but it was never something that I enjoyed and often stayed far away from. What made this time different was the way it was prepared; the blood was not soft and gelatinous like what I was used to seeing growing up, but instead had a beautiful crispy outer layer and cooked throughout. It was so inconspicuous with its dark crimson colour and the fried texture was superb in contrast to the mashed polenta. For the first time in my life, I can say that I enjoyed blood jello! It is a rare occurrence that something I despise becomes something I appreciate; and I love those moments! The revelation alone was enough to elevate this dining experience to a whole other level. Being able to communicate through food and deliver such strong emotional reactions in the diner is a skill worthy of worldwide recognition. This course was in my eyes, the star of the show.
The next dish brought you back down to Earth, literally. Pickled artichoke, artichoke puree and Kaltbach de Cremeux (an easy-to-love, smooth cheese). I wish there was more I could say about this dish but to be honest, I was still on a high from the last. I will say this much; the cheese was a great way to ease the palate into the final course of the night and one I always save a separate stomach for: dessert!
Ending off on a high note, we were served a gooseberry pastry and ginger yoghurt ice cream. My eyes always light up whenever I hear ice cream so it was already a win in my books! The hint of ginger was a balanced approach countering the cold with its spicy heat; a warm send off into the cold wintery night!
Needless to say, by the time I swallowed my last bite, I was satisfyingly full; something I did not expect going into the dinner. If there was a bar set for my expectations, Restaurant Demo punctured through the ceiling and rocket-launched itself into outer space! It took me on a gastronomic journey through taste and emotion. Such an artistic expression in the most delicious form! My first experience in Michelin dining did not disappoint; it has instead, opened the doors to a new avenue of exploring and experiencing remarkable foods around the world. This, I’m sure, is just the beginning.
Have you had amazing or awful Michelin-dining experiences? I'd love to hear about them! Comment below with your stories!