Thursday, May 30, 2013

Earning my Michelin star

It is altogether likely that I've eaten at a Michelin star restaurant before in my life. Very likely, in fact. But if this has happened, for whatever reason I can't remember it. Maybe I wasn't told that I was at such an establishment. Or maybe I was drunk (never that drunk at fancy restaurants though, so this is also improbable). Or maybe I just have too much to hold in my brain now so it was discarded along with other things I wish I could retain but don't seem to (like directions).

Whatever the situation may be, I'm taking this opportunity to record my first remembered Michelin star restaurant experience. Because I like celebrating the little things, and this experience was pretty exceptional and special.

First off, the restaurant was pretty much empty. Hong Kong P and I arrived, about 10 minutes late (well, I got there stupidly 15 minutes early and she got there 10 minutes late, so if you average out our times we were actually, in fact, early). This made no matter though. We were greeted by a lovely Canadian waiter (who I later befriended, because he was the nicest and most lovely person I've met in a long time, but I'll get to his life story later) only to be told that it would be a very quiet night.

Why's that?

Because a party of 9 that had reserved a table in the restaurant had failed to show. So it would be just us, a table of two. And another table of two, business men, who were already dining.

The room wasn't particularly spacious, but still, even in a medium sized room this is a bit weird.

But Hong Kong P and I are never daunted by any task, so we took it in stride and said that we would make up for the silence. Our waiter was delighted.

He took our coats and brought us to our table. It was beautiful inside, but relatively plain and actually, not particularly memorable. Or maybe it's that the conversation and food were so memorable. And the waiter. So I didn't really notice the environs. Whatever the case is, I didn't particularly notice. Plus we were seated next to a gorgeous view of the harbor. That probably helped as well.

At this particular restaurant they let you choose 3, 5, or 7 course meals. You can also get the accompanying 3, 5, or 7 wine pairings that go with those courses. Ohhh the agony of having to go low-fi on this experience. I was on a business trip after all and I was already going to surpass the food quota for the day. But whatever, I was at Michelin star restaurant. So worth it!

So we went with the three course meal and a single glass of wine for the main and half a glass of the recommended dessert wine for our desserts. Hoohoo!

After we selected from the rather simple menu (which was not simple in actuality), we continued talking and our waiter soon brought over other food that we hadn't ordered. Apparently this Michelin star restaurant felt the need to feed you inbetween your courses! Well, don't mind if I do!

The first was an appetizer dish (or set of them) called "Tour of the World." Each little bite-sized nibble was a calling from some part of the world, redux!

This was the first plateful of them. From top to bottom:

Little deep fried balls of delicious paste inside, sort of like a dough ball but a lot more flavorful. I almost want to say it was some sort of fish paste ball but the texture was too smooth. I know the waiter told us exactly what it was but I'll shamefully admit that I've completely forgotten by this point. Anyway, the gist was smooth, slightly crunchy on the outside, savory, slightly fish-tasting, and very nice.

The middle was supposed to be from Germany - headcheese with a froth of something on top. Basically this is terrine made from pig or cow head (like the delightful pigs head terrine I had at Kuurna that one time). This one was a little less jelly and a little more chunky meat patty, but still very much along the same lines. It was slightly pickled, as these things tend to be, and with the addition of the foam (which I believe maybe was a cabbage foam?) it had a pleasantly preserved aftertaste. Not too strong.

The third to the left were miniature kebabs. Delightful. Little chunks of lamb in tiny little buns. These were the most delightful. There was a dab of some kind of creme in there and even a splash of something slightly spicy, as it is in real kebabs.

Nothing particularly mindblowing, but a nice way to start the meal.

Except that that wasn't just the start of the meal. There was more.

As we were finishing our first nibbles (my fried ball still sad and lonely at the top of the tray), our waiter brought out more niblets for us to eat. The tour of the world continued!

From left to right:

Bowls of basil perfection. I don't know what the little white cubes were, but it's possible they were either the lightest cheese ever or very silken unflavored tofu. In either case, they were amazing. This all in basil oil and tomato water. Yes, tomato water. Imagine the juice you get from the sweetest tomatoes you've ever had then take out the acidity and you're left with pure tomato nectar, in water form. It was glorious. Whoever thought of distilling this liquid was a genius. A genius I tell you.

In the center were spoonfuls of a nod to England. Strong cheese is all I remember, and we were advised to eat it last as it had the most lingering (and excellent) of flavors. It had a little cracker and crumbs on top as well but those weren't as memorable as the slightly soft and melty strong aged cheese flavor. I am a lover of cheeses, as you well know, so this was right up my alley.

And a salute to Sweden on the far right. Flaky crackers with a circle of salmon, creme, and roe. Simple in its perfection and pure in its flavors. This is exactly what you'd expect it to be, and quite Swedish to boot. It was fabulous.

Did our ordered appetizers come after that you ask?

Actually they didn't. The free (first!) round of bread came next.

With fresh organic Finnish butter. I can't tell you the difference this fresh organic butter stuff makes. I don't buy butter for myself normally because...well, I'm cheap and I don't eat it that often (i.e. I don't cook that often for myself anymore), but man if I did...this is something I would actually spend the money on. And admittedly the stuff I do have in my fridge is wholly olive oil based, so it's not like I'm cheating myself into eating petroleum or anything. ;)

This was bread #1. Mushroom turnover. Tasty and not too oily. Went with the fresh butter very nicely. I've never been much of a bread person but if I were, this would be up my alley.

And then...

the appetizer:

Absolutely gorgeous. I don't have any other way to describe this dish. Gorgeous. Whoever does their plating (I'm assuming they only have the one chef but who knows) has a gross attention to detail. Who does this with their food? Apparently Michelin star restaurants do. It's a bit mindnumbing to think about.

Anyway, this was my toast skagen, redux. The waiter had made it very clear that it was an updated version of toast skagen so I shouldn't expect the plain old normal version. And god I'm glad he warned me because if I had been expecting traditional and gotten this I could have been incredibly disappointed. Instead I was pleasantly surprised. How do you even call this "toast" anymore?

Apparently the orange goo in the middle, is bread that's been turned into its alternate self.

Yeah, really, that's what I was told. It's bread that's been foamed.


Anyway, the general verdict? Delicious. Let me dissect this dish a little for you:

There were actually two kinds of shrimp going on (not that it's easy to tell from the photo). There were cooked, smaller shrimp (cooked to perfection and cold, btw). And there was another, raw shrimp that was larger. This type of shrimp was an amaebi - the same kind that is usually served raw for sushi and is generally known as "sweet." Sweet it was, and amazing. Fresh is all I can say about both of those types of shrimp. Fresh.

The jelly was vinegary and slightly savory, like unsmelly fish sauce that had been solidified. The foam/creme bread was good but not heavy - almost like a chpotle mayonnaise but less intense. The green liquid beneath everything was actually the strongest part.

Overall this dish was very good. The mixture of flavors worked really well together. There wasn't much variety in the texture (mostly soft and squishy, as you could imagine) but I don't think that detracted from it, to be honest. Flavorful and rich, but not heavy. I give it a thumbs up for sure. Updated? Oh yes. But did it beat the traditional version? Actually I don't think it did. Good, but no absolute winning cigar.

Anyway, after that was cleared away it was back to good conversation (not that that had ever stopped) and...

bread round #2.

This was an olive oil focaccia. Definitely olive oil. The kind that comes off on your hands. A bit too much oil for my taste, though it was very high quality extra virgin (and you could taste that).

And finally our wine arrived (who doesn't love wine!). Red wine for the goat entrees.

And hooooo how delicious this red wine was! I have the name of it pinned to my fridge so I can potentially get bottles of this, should I ever choose to be so choosy. This wine was absolutely lovely. Not too alcoholic on the nose or mouth - smooth while being extremely pleasant and not dull. Had all the right notes.

And soon after, the goat entrees:

Another artful array of food, though this time everything slightly more recognizable. Candy cane and golden beets cut into the cutest little tokens, goat medallions and tenders, and a creme made from the goat's own milk. Hong Kong P and I talked about how slightly wrong it was that a meat was cooked with its own milk (we are starting to see the logic of that particular kosher does seem a little wrong, doesn't it?).

The goat was...well, quite goaty. Goat has a particular flavor, similar to how lamb has its own smell and taste. To be honest this goat wasn't anything special, though it was tasty. It was meaty, and goaty, and...well, that was about it, actually. There isn't much you can do with goat, and what was being done here was pretty much what you do with goat.

The rest was nice though - crunchy beet tokens, the goat creme was nice (and again, had that nice specific goat flavor). We both finished it and enjoyed it immensely with the red wine but agreed that it was nothing special (we'd both had goat before).

And so we chatted and looked forward to dessert, though admittedly by this time we were getting full. We hadn't anticipated being fed so much free food inbetween our courses so we were thankful we'd only ordered the 3 course instead of the 5 or 7 courses. What a disaster that could have been. Especially after having had steak for lunch at work.

And what should appear before our dessert? Another dessert!

I believe we were told that this was warm milk and cold rhubarb jelly, but I didn't taste much rhubarb in it (it tasted like sweet jam of some kind, potentially apricot though it was indistinct) and the milk tasted a lot like what creme brulee smells like and what white rabbit candies (Chinese chewy candy) tastes like. A delicious mixture, nonetheless, but Hong Kong P was not impressed. She thought it tasted particularly artificial and that bothered her. I enjoyed the little shot of refreshment but I agree that it didn't taste particularly natural.

And then our desserts arrived, with our dessert wines as well (half glasses only):

I had ordered the sea buckthorn berry oatmeal. As you can tell, there is no actual oatmeal on this dish. Once again to cut the heaviness they made the heavy ingredient (this time the oats) into a foam. It was more like a whip with oat chunks in it, but it definitely wasn't what it used to be.

This dish was definitely...unique. And I do mean that in a slightly positive way. It had fresh sea buckthorn berries (little orange berries the size of currents that taste...well, sort of like juicier sweeter currents), tiny carrots and this oat whip. Plus some sea buckthorn berry or another fruit sorbet with it.

It was...odd. To say the least. A bit too raw and crunchy to be a completely enjoyable dessert. I liked the flavor a lot (like one of those concentrated juice popsicles you could get as a kid...or not), but the oat whip kinda threw that to the wind and the raw carrots just made everything weird.

It was worth experiencing but definitely not something I would order again.

The dessert wine on the other hand, was blissful. Like the lightest riesling you've ever had - not at all cloying or syrupy, clean on the tongue after the finish, and no aftertaste. Glory, it was glory.

Hong Kong P had likewise ordered a sherry for her dessert (which was a very rich tiramisu) and hers was perfection - like liquid raisins. We also got the listings for these drinks, should we decide to be choosy at another occasion.

So overall I'd deem this And considering it's a Michelin star restaurant, I feel like that's kind of low. Not particularly worth its price, though in general it's not that expensive compared to what I've paid for other meals lately (like this was still cheaper than the meal we had in Copenhagen, which didn't include appetizers or desserts and only one glass of wine).

I know I'm a food snob so this comes from that place, but I'm not sure I'd recommend this restaurant for anything except the waiter, Xander, who we ended up spending a long time with after the restaurant closed and befriending. Here is a blurb on his life story if you're interested, otherwise here is a link to the restaurant:



Xander moved to Finland about five years ago to marry his husband, a Finnish guy he met online while he was living in Canada (where he's from). Sweetly they met online while both living in their respective countries and never thought anything would become of it. Guess it just goes to show (and I'd like to say this just adds fuel to the flames of my theory) that if someone cares enough, they'll prioritize you and make it work. They met online from overseas and still made it work. And now they're married today and one of them moved to be with the other. Boom.

Xander obviously works as a waiter at Luomo, where we were eating, but has had a varied career in theater arts, writing, and at other fancy restaurants in his past.

The thing we talked about most though was the fact that he realized, only recently, that he doesn't have any true friends in Finland. Similar to many expats before him, it's been difficult for him to find friends, especially English-speaking friends, who he can relate to. He's made great friends with one of the New York sisters who founded the Brooklyn Cafe (which I reviewed previously). He said that's why he was drawn to our table in the first place - for whatever reason I reminded him of her. It turns out that the sisters are half black half Asian. I would have never guessed. But gotta love it. :)

Anyway, he spends the time he's not waiting tables with his writing club, which is where he met the Brooklyn Cafe sisters. They rent a space together (along with several other writers) to have a place to meet up and work and help each other out with their respective writings/books. He's currently in the process of writing a children's book.

After meeting us he feels a lot better about meeting new people in Helsinki, despite the fact that I don't live there anymore. Hong Kong P promised to hook him up with the group that I used to be part of that still meets every Friday for their drinks at Teerenpeli or with the Helsinki Social Club. I wish Xander the best in making new friends and finding a new avenue of life in his chosen city.

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