So the time for our much awaited escargot dinner was closing in upon us. With sunset at 3:30pm, it was already dark by the time we were finishing our lunch and with the disappearance of the sun, the temperature rapidly began to drop (not that it was very warm that day anyhow and it had begun to rain pretty steadily).
Though our reservation for dinner was still about an hour away, we decided to go to the restaurant early to see if they would let us sit. It was dry and warm inside and there was a bar, so at the very least, we figured we could sit and drink if they were too busy.
First off, the entrance to Timbaali, the escargot restaurant, is adorable. There's no other way to describe it. Quaint, cute, clean. Just makes you smile. And all of the snail decor? Ridiculous, but in a way that makes it humorous and quirky, rather than overdone.
We were let inside and shown to a waiting area of arm chairs and dark wood furniture. The rest of the restaurant was bathed in white - glossy white floorboards and walls, white furniture, white bar, white curtains, white tablecloths. Everything was white except for the accents - which were all snail-related in some small way. Snail paperweights. Snail statues. Snail bookends. Everything related to escargots. Even the little decorations they put on the cloth napkins were empty cleaned snail shells. Snails. Everywhere.
They took their theme very seriously.
We were told that our table was still occupied and that we would need to wait. As we were being led to the waiting area we had looked into the various rooms that held diners and noticed several empty tables. Tables that would have obviously fit our party. Thus is the Finnish way - they had reserved one particular table for us, and because that specific table was busy, we would wait. It's pretty ridiculous, and inefficient, but alas, that's just the way they work. I've also seen this at the office. The desire to follow a process is rigid, unbending.
So we waited. For an hour.
Luckily Hong Kong P wanted to share a bottle of wine, so she and I had a lovely bottle of rose brought to our arm chairs and happily sipped as we all chatted about this and that. The time sitting and waiting was not painful. The atmosphere in the restaurant was wonderful, minus the odd note of inefficiency that swirled around us. But we tried not to let that bother us too much - we weren't starving, so it was fine.
Eventually our time came and we were led to our table. We could see the remnants of another party that had just left, but other than that we had the entire room to ourselves. It was oddly quiet - we felt like we had to whisper because no one talked very loudly in the establishment and there was no one else to temper our raucous laughter. We are a bawdy group, there's no denying it.
Time to choose our goodly foods.
The menu opens up to a description about the historical elements of the building (it's on the same site of a restaurant from the olden days, how about that!) and how it used to have its own snail farm but now all snails are imported from Italy. It is the only escargot restaurant in Finland. Fancy fancy.
Once again I noted the abundance of snail decor. It's well-played though, really.
Anyway, to the food. For appetizer I ordered a crayfish broth soup with garlic flowers. Yes, it is understood that this has no escargot in it, but I couldn't resist. It sounded divine.
And it was, it truly was. Imagine lobster bisque but without the thickness. It was like the purest seafood broth I had had - sweet, subtle, and rich with flavor without being cloying or heavy. Little dollop of cream, some froth, and a little roe-covered cracker to boot.
The garlic buds were unexpected. I know they were on the menu but when I was eating the broth I had completely forgotten about them (probably helped by the amazing rose I was drinking). Anyway, when I hit them at the bottom of the bowl I was surprised, and then delighted. They looked like daffodil buds, still closed, and with little nubs resembling something closer to broccoli. Actually, it reminded me a lot of the plants that had been on top of my pig's head terrine in Kuurna the first time I had been there. Luckily a bit less creepy, because it was in an amazing broth, but still, a bit unsettling.
The flavor? Incredible. Like you've roasted garlic and all you've got left is the sweet essence. The stink and bite of the garlic was all but gone. Not even the crunch was left behind - just little nodules of flavor, bursting every time you chewed them, like steamed broccoli. It was beautiful.
A well-played first dish, and well worth it's ridiculous 12euro pricetag.
Next up? The reason we were here: escargots.
Hong Kong P and I decided to order little 6-creature orders of the two flavors we were really interested in - classic garlic in butter and the highly-recommended Roquefort variety. Well okay then.
The one you see above is the traditional garlic. Swimming in melted butter and a ton of garlic, this still remained to be a favorite. You just can't beat something that's been cooked in so much butter and garlic.
I will say here that it's been a little while since I've had escargot. Probably a little over a year? Maybe a touch more, it's hard to remember. The snails here, considering they're supposed to be a specialty, were definitely different than any I'd had elsewhere. They were...stronger. Stronger in flavor, luckily not in texture. They were more earthy - they tasted like damp soil. Now, perhaps this is how they're supposed to taste - only a true escargot connoisseur would know, but I guess I'm just used to the type of escargot that sucks up whatever you cook it with and you love it because it tastes like whatever crack you've decided it should taste like. This escargot set had the audacity to want to taste like itself.
For that, I couldn't hate it, despite not loving the taste itself. It was certainly different. And they were incredibly fresh, there was no denying it. Soft and not at all rubbery - like the softest scallop you've ever had in your mouth, almost no give against your teeth. Pleasant where other meats resist.
The Roquefort ones were also incredibly tasty. I love Roquefort cheese (well, there aren't many cheeses I don't like now, to be quite honest), but this one just didn't have the same oomf as regular garlic and butter. There was something missing. Like the Roquefort wasn't strong enough, silly as that sounds.
Hong Kong P and I agreed that if you're going to have snails of this taste magnitude, you have to have something equally strong to eat it with, otherwise the flavor of the snail itself would be overpowering. And maybe some people really love the taste of dirt and damp - it does work in certain situations and food groups (like certain red wines have great earthy flavors...same with cigars from what I understand), but somehow this one didn't seem quite right.
In the end we were really glad that we went with these two sets of snails and not some of the other, subtler ones on the menu - there was one with apples and something else. We were imagining what they would be like and the only word that came to mind was, "weird."
Not too long after our main courses arrived.
I ordered the pork belly with escargot mushroom salad. That yellow cube sitting in the middle of everything? Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) not butter (which is what I took it for when my plate was set down for the first time). It is actually a beautifully cut square of potato. And extremely well-flavored, considering it looks like it's just been boiled. It had the wonderful taste and aroma of something that's been infused with a broth of some kind. Fabulous and subtle, something you would not expect.
The pork belly was amazing - melt in your mouth and fatty to the right degree. I made it last as long as I possibly could. The sauce surrounding it was a subtle reduction of something a little sweet but mostly savory, like balsamic with the vinegar taken out. No harsh flavor notes in it though, all beauty and harmony.
The escargot salad was the most unusual thing there. Mushrooms, escargots, and cooked onions. It was surprisingly mustard-based, but again, not particularly strong-flavored. The escargot were once again overpowering in their dirt-essence, so I tried to eat them with other things to mask this flavor, but otherwise it was quite a tasty side on its own.
The overall package was delightful. Savory spoonfuls of well-crafted epicurean glory. Admittedly it was not the snail experience I had been expecting, but I was not at all disappointed. It's likely I'll not return to this place again, but I'm glad I came.
Snail mission accomplished. I can check this one off the list now. :)