For my beloved Brother who introduced me to the art of cooking, who taught me how to taste and truly love food. Without him I'd never be able to be where I am today.

October 8, 2012

Purest Indulgence

Ever since last winter when I dove into the flourishing restaurant scene of Helsinki for the purpose of my Master's thesis, I’ve been licking my chops in anticipation of actually tasting the food that I analyzed and wrote about for all those months.

During a time period that seemed like an eternity, I was kept in suspense. In my thoughts, I had relished the new Finnish cuisine a thousand times. In reality though, it wasn’t as simple as walking in to one of these restaurants to just sit down and eat. There was a reservation to be made, money to be saved and the ideal season that would tingle my taste buds to the maximum to be selected.

At first, summer seemed like the most obvious choice. But I wanted to try something different and more special by not choosing the season that is in many ways the easiest for chefs, as the raw material availability is at its peak. Even though I have no doubt about these chefs’ skills in their ability to prepare “something out of nothing” amazing dishes even during wintertime, I still didn’t want to go that far. Neither was I prepare to wait that long.

Spring turned into summer and summer into autumn and I started feeling like it was time. Autumn in Finland is a fantastic food season with game, apples and mushrooms just to mention a few seasonal delicacies. It sounded just about right. Autumn it would be. I had also made it through the worst of my personal economical crisis and was ready to invest in myself – literally.

On October 2nd, I woke up like a kid on Christmas Eve. The day I had been waiting for had finally arrived. I often spend my days fantasizing about food and flavor combinations, but on this specific day, there were no limits to my imagination that was running far ahead of me.

I had made a reservation at Chef & Sommelier – a Finnish culinary oasis located in the picturesque part of Helsinki called Eira. Previously, I had been to this lovely little restaurant just to talk with Executive Chef Sasu Laukkonen. Smelling the beautiful odors coming out of the tiny kitchen that afternoon, as the team was preparing for yet another fully booked dinner was the closest I had come to eating the exquisite food they serve. Those smells made a huge impact on me and already then I knew that the days I’d return there I’d certainly do a lot more tasting than talking.

When I made the reservation, Sasu informed me of their upcoming game theme. Perfect! I love game.  Not only for the fabulous aromas, but also because, apart from reindeer, it’s something that I rarely cook myself. Besides, restaurant experiences should be something out of the ordinary and not comparable to home cooking in any way. To order something that you cannot make yourself is the best.

On that chilly October evening I was welcomed by a smiling team of positive and energetic culinary professionals, “How nice of you to come here for dinner tonight!” (As if dragging my ass to one of the city’s absolutely finest restaurants had been the most disgustingly horrible effort). “The pleasure will be all mine, I assure you”, I answered and sat down at my table. I felt overwhelmingly happy and I hadn’t eaten anything yet! I had to cover my mouth with both hands so that I wouldn’t accidentally scream out of immense joy.

A few minutes later, Sasu welcomed me like I’d be the only guest there. He handed me the menu for the evening and I swear I almost fell off the chair. It was beyond belief. Here’s what it said:

Pheasant and cabbage
Reindeer and lingonberry
Roe deer and hay
Sea buckthorn and fir
Elk and onion
Wild duck and porcini
Pike-perch and mushrooms
Cranberry and apple
Finnish cheese

Two hands covering my mouth didn’t help at this point. Sasu explained the process and content of each masterpiece and I was drooling like a dog. I think the elderly couple next were slightly uncomfortable due to my “ooohs” and “aaahs”… never mind them. I was ecstatic. Luckily, I didn’t have to choose one over another. Besides, I never do anything half hearted any way. “Bring it on, all nine of them!” I said. Sasu seemed pleased, “Okay, let’s get stated, it’s going to be a long night”. Boy did I love the sound of that.

Right when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any better, the second half – the sommelier –approached me with his wine recommendation. To my surprise, two out of three wines were natural wines. Fabulous. It would be a first for me.

When the first dish arrived in front of me, I wanted to relish that moment forever. I took a look at the kitchen, the dish,  I glanced at the people around me, then the dish, again, the wine, and then, the dish, the gluten-free bread baked just for me (!), and finally, I only had eyes for the pheasant that was about to melt in my mouth. And I can tell you boys and girls, it sure did! It was perfection!

As the dishes started rolling in, one by one, perfection after perfection after perfection, not only did I feel like the luckiest and happiest girl in the world, I knew I was the luckiest and happiest girl in the world. No doubt about it.

The game tasting at Chef & Sommelier was something I had never experienced before. Not only was the food amazingly delicious, it was the first time I knew for a fact that the smiling man dressed in white standing right there, a few meter away in his kitchen where I could see him, had personally selected only the most exquisite raw materials and prepared each dish with utmost love and care. His food philosophy shone through and surely created one of my most memorable dining experiences.  The words I wrote in my thesis made absolute sense to me now. Boosting the purest raw material in a righteous way and trusting in their naturally characteristic flavors absolutely pays off. And there’s nothing bland about it!

I can but only salute Sasu and his team for staying true and trusting both in their incredible know-how and the finest fruits of nature.

Thank you Chef & Sommelier!

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