Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Reindeer Games

Inevitably the come of winter brought with it a rash of farewells. Goodbye to sunlight, to warmth, and in this case, also to good friends.

This particular friend had decided she'd had enough of the Finnish cold and was moving back to her home country of gloriously sunny, warm, humid, Indonesia. A higher position and the comforts of her native culture awaited her, and so, the decision was made.

The night before she was to fly out she held a farewell dinner and party to see everyone one last time. We all gathered at Ravintola Zetor, a slightly older restaurant in the middle of town, as it was the only restaurant she could find on a Friday night that had tables open that could fit a group large enough for our party (26 people RSVPed to say goodbye).

Being studiously on time (call it adopting the Finnish way (hell, at least I wasn't 15 minutes early, which is the true Finnish way), an antsy-ness to get out of the office, or just being the traveling partner of always-on-time German K), I was granted the pleasure of being placed at the table of prominence with the guest of honor. Our group fit over three tables, so this was quite a feat.

Conversations about her impending move commenced and chats with other people at the table about everyday life buzzed and as we waited for others to arrive, drinks were ordered.

As previously noted, there is a distinct fog of Christmas to the air, since Finland has nowhere to place its sentiment anymore, now that there are no more holidays between now and the most celebrated event of the year, so glรถgg is now on every menu in the city. Having only had the non-alcoholic version of the beverage in America a year or two back, I decided I should have the real thing that night, and promptly ordered myself a mug:

Think of it as a very awesome mulled wine that also has almonds and raisins boiled in it. Spiced, sweet, and decently alcoholic. A wonderful wintertime treat when the wind and cold is blowing outside. Warms you right up. I think I drank this mug down in 15 minutes. It was one of those nights. I had the instant glow of someone warm and content. Om nom nom.

Not knowing much about this restaurant beforehand I was a little shocked seeing its menu for the first time.

Like a really large, thick, Finnish newspaper. It had fake articles on the front (unfortunately none of which I could read...except the large title, which translates to "Finnish food number 1!") and then the inside is an extensive list (in as many languages as any of us required - English, Finnish, Swedish, German, French, etc) of their menu items. Appetizers, mains, desserts, drink recommendations...anything you could possibly want was on that menu. It was kinda awesome.

What did I order, you ask, from a restaurant boasting about its love of classic Finnish food?

Uhh, the reindeer of course.

And there were several renditions of reindeer for me to choose from. Fancy that!

There was reindeer filet, reindeer saute  and reindeer something else (I've forgotten...sorry, old person moment).

I considered the differences between the filet and the saute. It was about 6euros difference in price and one came with roasted potatoes versus mashed potatoes.


Although I love mashed potatoes a tiny bit more than roasted potatoes (most of the time), it seemed wise to me to spend the extra 6euros and have the higher quality cut of reindeer meat. One was presented to me like a steak, the other in strips. I'd had the ground up reindeer meat available in heaps of gravy before (which is as easily findable as your local Ikea), and somehow the flavor of the meat disappears as you cut it onto smaller and smaller pieces.

Well, okay then, it was decided.

I even got asked how I'd like it to be cooked. Rare, please, of course. Wave it over the flames and give it to me. Blood on the plate, anything that allows it to be in as close to its natural form as possible.

And voila, tastiness was presented to me not too long later. Roasted root veggies, lingonberries, mushroom and wine reduction sauces, and those cute little roast potatoes. I should have known that Finland would have better roast potatoes than anywhere I've been; it's been true everytime I've had their potatoes, and this time didn't disappoint.

And was the meat rare? Ehhh. But it was the closest thing to rare I've gotten since living here. And that's saying something.

Now, avert your eyes if you don't want to read about my love of rare meats, but I feel like this was my first true taste of reindeer meat (minus that glorious experience of eating baby reindeer heart, which is still unparalleled, in my opinion). I've had reindeer salami, ground reindeer, and some sort of reindeer saute before, but this was a pure reindeer steak. Meat meat meat, pure and simple.

And it was beautiful. Reindeer tastes like no other meat I've had. More like blood than beef. Like it has more iron content, though unfortunately this piece of meat had no actual bloody juices coming out of it. Disgusting as it may sound, I think this is a wonderful flavor; it really is quite pleasant. Not too salty, not too sharp; just a subtle overall blood flavor. Not even really that tangy.

The texture is also very unique, and was very similar to the heart meat. Sort of like a cross between a softer steak (like filet mignon, though perhaps something slightly tougher than that, not quite that soft) and ahi tuna. Really nice to muddle over and chew on because it isn't that chewy. Soft, without being rubbery.

I was actually very content with this dish. Really flavorful (especially the combination of sauces), and all of the additional bits (such as the roasted veggies, berries, and potatoes) were very complementary. It wasn't particularly fulfilling, despite the fact that it was pure meat and potatoes, which was surprising, but it was quite tasty.

And per their recommendation on the menu, I ordered their strong lingonberry wine to go with it. They actually had a lot of wine pairings on the menu, none of which I'd seen before - cloudberry, huckleberry, sea buckthorne berry? Are these even real berries or is someone just doing a poor translation job? (I've looked them up for your enjoyment and yes, it does seem that all of these are in fact, real berries and could indeed be made into wines, should someone choose to do so). I knew about cloudberry and huckleberry already...but sea buckthorne berry? Just kind of ridiculous.

The verdict? Extremely alcoholic. Not much flavor of lingonberry, just generic juice flavor...though it was difficult to detect given how much alcoholic vapor this beverage was giving off. Still enjoyable, since the steak and veggies/sauce was so flavorful and powerful on its own, but jeez. A real wineglass of this stuff and most people would be toast. I guess that's why they only give you a tiny glass of this "strong" wine. Nuff said.

Overall it was a very tasty and fun dinner, despite the sad reason for it. Everyone was having lively conversation about something or other and because we were across three different tables at some point in time there was a sort of duck-duck-goose rotation from one table to the next so you could catch up with other people.

As we made our way out of the restaurant to go to a nightclub and finish out the night with a bout of dancing and merriment, we all noticed that the back part of it had turned into a club. Many in the group had warned us that this restaurant was known for its unscrupulous middle-aged clientele, and to be careful as we passed through. I could immediately see why - as soon as our group of young and nubile persons started to make our way through all older people's heads turned around and stared, like a group of starving refugees staring at a freshly cooked pile of sausages. It was slightly horrifying. More than one girl was stopped by an older gentlemen (or several) on the pretense of invitations to dance. Not so polite declines were given. We made our way out as quickly as possible after that. No need to linger in a place we clearly do not belong. Time to get back to our people.

And I'll stop chronicling our night here. We went to Bar Loose afterwards and had a great time dancing to oldies (of the musical variety, not of the age variety) and said our farewells. Another night in Helsinki, accomplished.

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