Helsinki: Michelin Magic at Restaurant Ask

In the past year, I have visited four of the five Nordic countries (I’m coming for you soon, Iceland, I promise), and I have noticed the same phenomenon in each: they all seem to be having a moment, culinarily-speaking. In Stockholm, I met the world’s most enthusiastic and knowledgeable cheesemonger, in Copenhagen, I had the tastiest organic hotdog from a street cart you ever did find, and in Oslo, I visited a newly-opened food hall, a delicious spot that locals are increasingly beginning to embrace and enjoy. And in Helsinki? In Helsinki I discovered a robust culinary scene that was much more delicious than I ever would have imagined it to be.

In fact, I loved every single meal I had in Helsinki, which surprised me: I would not have pegged Finnish cuisine as one I would so enjoy. Yet enjoy it I did, and that all started at Restaurant Ask, where I had my first big meal. In perusing travel blogs, I had seen Restaurant Ask mentioned several times. And when I learned that the restaurant had just earned a Michelin star in 2014, that sealed the deal; I knew I needed to try the restaurant that seemed to be hitting its fine dining stride.

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I went to Ask for lunch, where each day they offer a 49 euro four course menu, a menu that changes depending on what ingredients are available that day (always a great sign). In terms of my typical travel budget, 49 euro is more than I usually spend for lunch, but I thought this meal was a fantastic value, as everything was super high quality and delicious.

To begin, I was served a few little nibbles: buckwheat and millet crackers with a yummy elderflower yogurt dipping sauce and fermented carrot with cumin mayonnaise. They also brought me sourdough bread with organic Finnish butter in the cutest butter dish one could imagine – a small touch that I adored.

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For the first course, they served a lamb tartare with wild herb salad and radish. I’m generally not a fan of tartares, but this was excellent – and I loved the dressing on the herbs, too.

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The second course was another winner: nettle pancakes (in a vibrant hue of green) topped with a brown butter sauce, yogurt, and egg. This was the second dish that contained yogurt, and I noticed that yogurt was often a component of dishes throughout my stay in Helsinki, a trend I can definitely get on board with.

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For the third course, they brought out a smoked pike-perch (caught on a nearby island) topped with butter sauce and served with leeks and ramps. The butter sauce was rich but not overwhelming, the fish was perfectly cooked, and I liked the smokiness of the dish. I also adored the veggies, and while I wouldn’t typically say something so rapturous about vegetables, I thought these were incredibly flavorful.

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Before the fourth course, my waitress brought out what she dubbed “a little pre-dessert”: a blueberry sorbet with carmelized oat muesli.

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Then, the real dessert arrived: a lingonberry parfait with deep friend buckwheat and a licorice sauce. The ingredients here – the lingonberries and licorice – were quintessentially Nordic yet unexpectedly wonderful (to my palate, at least). I am not typically a big licorice fan, but its tartness provided a great counterpart to the very sweet lingonberries. In fact, though I’m generally licorice-averse, I spooned up every last bit of the licorice sauce!

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The meal ended on another high note: a tiny piece of spruce fudge with spruce jam. This really did taste sprucey and tree-like, but not in a weird way!

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I loved my meal at Restaurant Ask from start to finish (er, Finnish?). Every course was on point, and I loved how they took Finnish staples – berries, fish, licorice – and made them creative and modern. The service was so well done, too, with perfect timing and helpful explanations for each dish. Restaurant Ask may have been a bit of a splurge meal, but it was one well worth making.

 

Odds & Ends from Oslo

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If I’m being honest, I only went to Norway for the fjords; my visit to Oslo basically happened because I thought, “well, if I’m in Norway, I guess I should see the capital too…?”

That kind of attitude, though, is misguided: Oslo is great. No, it’s never going to be the biggest or the most exciting European city, and it’s never going to have the best food or the most museums. But it does have lots of things to do, to see, and to eat in its own right.

I stayed centrally in Oslo, not far from the Oslo Cathedral. While the cathedral was not particularly memorable, my favorite feature had to be the royal box: the spot where the royal family sits when they come to church. I’m sure they only attend on rare occasions, but I like the idea of being in church on some random Sunday in February, looking up, and waving to the King.

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Across from the Cathedral is Stortorvet, a square with a large flower market on it. Having never met a flower market I did not adore, I browsed through here several times during my stay in Oslo.

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Oslo’s main thoroughfare is Karl Johans gate, which stretches from Central Station on one end to the Royal Palace on the other. While portions of the street are undeniably touristy and tacky, it was nonetheless integral to my stay, and I loved the gorgeous, stately architecture of many of the street’s buildings.

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Just off Karl Johans gate is the National Theater. While I did not get a chance to take in a performance there, I loved this building, from its columns and cheerful yellow facade to everything that surrounded it: statues, fountains, and flowers galore. And speaking of statues, I noticed that they were everywhere in Oslo: from the grand collection in Frogner Park to the statues that could be found in front of just about every major building and in the middle of just about every square. I’m not sure why Oslo is statue-mad, but I loved this aspect of the city.

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While it was relatively overcast during my time in town, Oslo’s harbor area was worth a stroll. The waterfront is tidy (of course) and fun, lined with plenty of restaurants and even more flowers. On a sunny day, I’m sure this is the place to be.

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Another highlight was visiting the National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design. The obvious attraction here is Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” but I found plenty of other previously unknown-to-me gems, too – all the Norwegian romantic landscapes were a particular favorite. Another fun feature of the museum? One room had a sculpture with easels set up around it – guests are free to sit down and sketch if they like.

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Oslo is very much a modern city, but I found quaint pockets too. I have no idea the name of this neighborhood, not far from Mathallen (Oslo’s food hall), but I loved it. It was very hilly, but the burn in my calves was totally worth it as I was treated to colorful homes decked out with flowers. Swoon.

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Oslo’s fortress, Akershus Festning, was another charming spot. My favorite part of the fortress was its views – it overlooks the harbor – but the complex is also home to several different museums. On a rainy morning, I stopped by the Norwegian Resistance Museum – it was tiny and not terribly riveting, but it was still interesting to consider World War II from a perspective I rarely ever hear about.

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(Sidenote: as seen above, Norwegian schoolchildren on field trips are the cutest – they get decked out in matching jumpsuits and reflective vests, like tiny, blonde construction workers, and everyone is always holding hands.)

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I didn’t step inside Norway’s Royal Palace, but I still dropped by to give King Harald a wave from the palace grounds. This was a beautiful building, but perhaps not quite as riveting as other European castles I have visited.

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In terms of food and drink, Oslo had plenty to offer. At Rorbua, a rustic restaurant near the port, I ordered the “bucket of shrimp” and was promptly delivered the largest portion of shrimp I have ever seen in my life, and all of it super fresh. I only ate a fraction of this, but it was damn good.

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At Mathallen, which I had already visited once on my food tour, I grabbed a dinner of fish ‘n chips. I loved Mathallen’s vibe: on the evening I visited, it was packed with locals and bustling with activity.

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Another favorite spot in Oslo was WB Samson, a classy café on Karl Johans gate. I stopped in several times for coffee and snacks; it was one of my favorite places to relax and regroup amidst all the sightseeing.

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While I didn’t eat anything there, I also enjoyed browsing the food market on Youngstorget, which was filled with interesting stalls. This market has an eclectic mix of goods: savory and sweet, with tons of international cuisines too.

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A local highly recommended Cafe Tekehtopa to me, and I ducked in there for lunch in the midst of a downpour. It was a cozy place with friendly waiters, and my bouillabaisse was the perfect antidote to the damp weather.

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Oslo’s big department store, Steen & Strom, houses a food hall on its ground floor. Of all the shops, the one that caught my eye was the cleverly named Hello Good Pie. I stopped in for an afternoon snack and found that the place certainly lived up to its name.

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I spent nearly four full days in Oslo, and found that the city was well worth my time: I had plenty to do to fill my days, yet Oslo is compact enough that I felt like I was able to explore beyond the usual tourist sites to find some of the city’s more hidden, off-the-beaten-path attractions. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the weather, and while the crazy high prices made me want to cry, exploring Norway beyond the fjords was most definitely a good idea.

Oslo: Fun and Funky Street Art

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The man walked on to the Norwegian Air flight from JFK to Oslo, guitar slung over his back, long, wild hair, head-to-toe denim, piercings galore. He reached his row, occupied by an elderly, conservatively-dressed couple and himself. “Yes,” he said with a grin and a chuckle, “I am the guy sitting next to you.”

I observed this scene from a few rows over, and as I continued watching people board the plane, it occurred to me that there were a lot of people similar to that man on the flight. Was this indicative of Oslo as a whole, I wondered? Would it be filled to the brim with creative, quirky types? Or by some fluke had they all just wound up on my flight?

While I wouldn’t say Oslo was solely hipster rockstars a la the man who boarded my flight, it was definitely home to a very cool energy. Some of the city was touristy and sedate, sure, but there were also pockets that gave me strong Brooklyn and Berlin vibes. Chief among these Brenneriveien, a street in Oslo’s Grünerløkka neighborhood. The area, filled with old, unused industrial buildings has been transformed into a street art paradise by local art students. I visited twice (once on my food tour and once solo), and each time left inspired and energized.

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The abundance of street art in Oslo surprised, and it’s no wonder: when I think of Norway, and Scandinavia at large, some of the first things that come to mind are tidiness and efficiency. However, creativity is alive and well, too, if only you step off the beaten path to find it.

Oslo: Discovering the City’s Hidden Culinary Gems

For the past year or so, there has been one constant with just about every place I have traveled: I take a food tour. There are many reasons why I love a good food tour, but the main one is that they always, always lead me to places I never would have found on my own: the hidden away restaurant serving petiscos (Portuguese tapas) in Lisbon, the amazing organic hot dog stand among a sea of other, lesser hot dog stands in Copenhagen, the restaurant tucked into a courtyard with unexpectedly wonderful cheesecake in Berlin, the relaxed wine bar where locals grab a drink after work in Edinburgh…and on, and on, and on.

Oslo was no different, and my four hours spent with Oslo Food Tours led me to all sorts of gems I would not have otherwise found. Case in point: the tour began in Olaf Ryes Plass in Oslo’s Grünerløkka neighborhood – a beautiful area, but not in the heart of the tourist zone – and the first place we walked to was Mathallen (literally, “food hall”), an awesome culinary emporium that was tucked away in a quirky neighborhood I never would have found on my own.

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Mathallen is relatively new on Oslo’s culinary scene, having opened about two-and-a-half years ago. Our guide explained that it has been a bit slow to catch on with the locals. Eating out is – like just about everything in Norway – expensive, and most folks eat at home to keep down costs. Luckily, the food hall concept seems to be catching on: it wasn’t crazy busy when I visited (once on the tour, and once again later on my own), but the atmosphere was vibrant, bustling, and fun.

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At Mathallen, we sampled food from three different shops. First up, Den Blinde Ku, a cheese shop whose name is translated as “the blind cow” (the owner was given a blind cow for her birthday one year, began making cheese, and – voila! – a business was born). Our guide explained that Norwegians have never been cheese connoisseurs but, recently, they have been growing more adventurous with their cheese. We tried three varieties of cheese that exemplified this: a blue cheese, a gouda with juniper, and a brie. The clear winner for everyone in our group was the gouda with juniper; it had a crunchy, salty texture to it that was so on point.

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From Bondens Butikk Vulkan, we tried some Norwegian farmers market goodies: a super sweet raspberry juice and crackers with honey. I loved these thin, crunchy crackers – something about them seemed terribly Scandinavian to me. The honey was excellent, too.

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At Melkerampa, purveyors of delicious dairy products, we tried two more memorable cheeses. First, a Jarlsberg aged five years – this was good, but quite strong. Second, the crown jewel – a Norwegian brown cheese, brunost, which is a caramelized whey cheese. In fact, I did not even realize it was cheese at first – it really does look like chocolate! – and its taste was a little trippy. It’s cheese, but it’s sweet and caramel-y? What’s that about?!? Ultimately, though, this was good, if a little disconcerting.

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From Mathallen, we embarked upon a non-food related experience that wound up being one of the highlights of the day for me. We left the food market and headed toward the river where, near the art school, the buildings and streets have been turned into street art masterpieces. I loved the bright murals and quirky décor, and the entire area gave me strong Berlin vibes – a very, very good thing.

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We then headed to Youngstorget, a lively square with a food market on it. We didn’t browse through those stalls on our tour, but I came back later in the day on my own (more on that in a later post). Nearby Youngstorget, we found Wurst, which serves hot dogs and beer. This was yet another example of a place I never would have found on my own: not only was it tucked down an alleyway, but there was also a series of chalkboards with arrows on them guiding us to the place (and past some other seriously cool looking bars and restaurants).

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At Wurst, we drank an amber ale with our two varieties of sausages. We ate a lamb sausage with a mint chutney dipping sauce and a pork with honey mustard. Both were super tasty!

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From Wurst, we began our journey back toward the tourist heart of the city, where we stopped into Steen & Strøm, a department store with a fancy food hall in the basement. There, we tried goodies from the Oslo branches of two gourmet dessert shops I was familiar with from my time in Copenhagen.

First up was Lakrids, where we ate all the licorice. We received five flavors of licorice to taste: white chocolate, mint, chili, Belgian chocolate, and a traditional salty one. The three sweet varieties were delightful, but the other two were more…challenging, shall we say. The salty one was not great, but it was manageable. The chili one, however, made me feel slightly nauseous. I bet licorice lovers would be in heaven here, but for those who aren’t fans of the stuff, my recommendation is to stick to the sweet kinds only!

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Lakrids

At Summerbird, we tried delicious organic chocolates. First up were a variety of almonds covered in chocolate: one with white chocolate, lemon, and chamomile, one with raspberry powder and dark chocolate, and one with plain chocolate. These were tasty, but the real stars of the show at Summerbird were the flødebolle: marzipan discs, topped with meringue, and encased in chocolate. These were super light and dreamy – little chocolate clouds of heaven.

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From Steen & Strøm we continued on to Oslo’s fortress, which overlooks the harbor and provides great views. Then we walked down into the harbor itself, where our guide told us that “all the restaurants here are tourist traps…except the one I’m taking you to.”

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Ironically enough, the one she took us to was Rorbua, a restaurant where I had eaten lunch the day before. I didn’t mind the repeat, however, as we ate something pretty special there: a platter of various meats and seafoods, some of them pretty daring.

This was a feast: crab, trout, dried codfish, smoked whale, reindeer heart and tongue, moose sausage, caviar, potato salad, and lingonberries. My favorites here were the raw trout (super fresh and perfect) and the whale (which I did not expect to love). The one item I really struggled with, though, was the reindeer tongue: it looked like a tongue, and I had a tough time getting past that.

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Our final stop of the day was Amundsen, a restaurant near City Hall where we had a flight of beers. We tried three: a pale ale with citrus, Amundsen’s own Oceans IPA, and the delightfully named Biggie Smalls, an American brown ale. I will say what I always say when confronted with beer: it’s not my favorite, but these were three interesting varieties.

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Amundsen

As the tour ended, we were all full to bursting, but I didn’t feel too bad about it: the food was great and we had covered a ton of ground on foot, so I’m sure none of the calories even counted (sure!). All the walking, in particular, made this tour memorable: I loved how much of Oslo we saw, from off-the-beaten-path places to fun discoveries within the tourist heart of the city. I felt not just that I had gotten to know Oslo’s cuisine, but also the city itself – and I loved both what I saw and what I tasted.

Things That Are Awesome, Vol. 149

The weekly roundup of internet gems:

  1. I have always wondered: Steve Perry Answers the South Detroit Question from Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’.
  2. A great Tumblr: Paris Posters.
  3. Clever: Here’s How the Scooby Doo Crew Would’ve Dressed Through the 20th Century.
  4. Despite growing up in Michigan, I only started playing euchre within the last few years. Still, this is fascinating: The People’s Card Game.
  5. An important question: What Did Rory Read After Gilmore Girls Ended?
  6. Comprehensive: An Illustrated Guide to All 456 Deaths on Game of Thrones.
  7. Kinda disgusting, yet oddly fascinating: All the Vintage Food from The Astronauts Wives Club.
  8. Yes: If Jane Austen Got Feedback from Some Guy in a Writing Workshop.
  9. Channing Tatum’s Reddit AMA is terribly weird and wonderful. Possible favorite response? “I like the broom from Fantasia.”
  10. “There is room for only one diva in a stall”: Barnyard Buddies Curl Up at Belmont.

(Image via)

Things That Are Awesome, Vol. 148

The weekly roundup of internet awesomeness:

  1. I WANT A DOG: 19 Pugs Who Just Get You.
  2. Can’t wait to see this: Suffragette Official Trailer #1.
  3. Rory and Amber Bravermore! Perfect.
  4. So good: I Have Been Sitting on Manspreaders for the Past Month and I Have Never Felt More Free.
  5. Let’s hope so: Technology of Books Has Changed, but Bookstores Are Hanging in There.
  6. On a related note, what are we all reading this summer? 29 Books You Should Definitely Bring to the Beach This Summer.
  7. Love her: Amy Schumer Photobombs a Couple’s Engagement Shoot in Central Park.
  8. Clever Illustrations That Compare the Two Types of People in This World. I am so a right column person, except with regard to chocolate eating – what even IS that?
  9. Epic Buzzfeed journalism in action: We Have the Receipts on Taylor Swift and Katy Perry’s Alleged Feud.
  10. Hear, hear: 16 On-Point Responses from Female Scientists to Nobel Winner’s Sexist Comments. #distractinglysexy

(Image via Buzzfeed)

Oslo: Sculpture Masterpieces at Frogner Park

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Before I visited Oslo, if you had asked me to name the most noteworthy sculptors, I would have thought only of the usual suspects: Rodin, Michelangelo, Bernini, and the like. One name I would not have said – having never heard it before – was Gustav Vigeland. As it turns out, however, his is a name well worth knowing.

Vigeland is a Norwegian sculptor, perhaps best known for his work in Oslo’s Frogner Park. The park, just a quick tram ride from Oslo’s city center, is filled with Vigeland’s sculptures and divided into three main sections. First, you cross a bridge lined with sculptures. Then, you reach a fountain surrounded by sculptures. Finally, you come to the main event: the Monolith Plateau, which consists of circles of sculptures on steps leading up to a gigantic totem pole made of…still more sculptures.

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As the multitude of photos evidence, I adored Frogner Park. The sculptures themselves are wonderfully expressive and varied, consisting of figures young and old, male and female, and with poses of all sorts: romantic, sad, sexual, pensive, angry, and…downright weird. And it isn’t just the sculptures that are appealing, it’s also their setting: a gorgeous park, perfect for relaxing and wandering aimlessly. It reminded me of how I felt the first time I visited the Rodin Museum in Paris: utterly transported by the beauty of the art juxtaposed with the beauty of the natural landscape. For my money, this is the number one must-visit in Oslo.