(CNN) - Paris. Bologna. San Sebastian. Rome. What do these places all have in common?
They're a few of the European cities to which food and drink lovers flock. While each offers plenty in the way of other attractions (well, except for maybe Bologna where the cuisine is the main event), the food is a significant factor in their buzzworthiness.
Many people plan their trips around the food of the city or country they're visiting, making dinner reservations 30 days in advance, booking flights to far-flung destinations all for a three-starred Michelin restaurant's tasting menu.
I wasn't thinking of Michelin stars when planning a recent trip to Helsinki, Finland. The design? Sure. Beauty? Check. Agreeable weather in July? Yes, please. But the food? Not on my radar.
Vibrant, ingenious, inventive, fresh and fun, the food of Helsinki deserves top billing. Travelers looking for another European food destination to write home about need look no further. It is right there in Finland's relaxed capital.
The value of roots
Dishes at Juuri, a small-plates restaurant in the city's design district just off the main square, are composed of myriad ingredients belied by spare menu descriptions such as beef with beetroot and chicken with celery.
"Is this considered eclectic Finnish food?" the server was asked, to which she responded succinctly: "This is Finnish food. This is typical." Nothing unusual to see here, unless you consider plated works of art something to see -- and taste.
Full disclosure: The dishes did not feel worlds apart from a recent meal at Eleven Madison Park, a highly acclaimed Michelin-starred restaurant. One of the world's best restaurants, EMP deserves its every accolade, and yet it doesn't feel blasphemous to say that Juuri can hold a candle to it -- at least, insofar as taste is concerned.
Heidi Kavander-Sundström, Juuri's office sales manager, pointed us to the website, explaining that it would reveal how Juuri was born, where its roots are and what the establishment's values are.
Click on the website's "Roots" tab and you'll see it plain as day: "Our roots in this country," reads the headline, below it a hard-to-argue-with sentiment: "Times change but one thing remains unchanged: Tasty food is always topical, preferably several times a day and without rushing."
Juuri calls its bite-sized tastes "sapas" and encourages sharing. The menu offers little in the way of description. Tomato with bread gives you only a sense of the most basic ingredients but does not indicate how richly flavored the seemingly simply toast will be. Potato with garlic doesn't sound exciting, but your palette would have to disagree.
If Juuri, "Finnish cuisine with attitude" leaves an indelible mark with its modern take on the country's cuisine, then Kalakauppa E. Eriksson, a fish shop in the Old Market Hall of Helsinki, gets points for pure, unadulterated taste.
Helsinki has two main markets: Vanha Kauppahalli and Hakaniemen Kauppahalli. Each is worth a visit (or three).
The wide variety of pastries at Hakaniemen are worth seeking out. A favorite, viineri (from Danish pastry), is a cream puff croissant-like concoction. Filled with lightly sweetened, whipped cream and a smattering of jam, it's like eating a cloud but 10 times tastier.
Vanha Kauppahalli, Helsinki's Old Market Hall, has been around since 1888 and though the sheen and polish inside suggest that it's undergone a facelift in recent years, it still gives off an old-school air.
Fishmongers present the catch of the day. Butchers hawk reindeer (more on this meat later), jerky and the thickest cuts of aged Porterhouse you've ever seen.
A boutique liquor store selling wine, beer and local gin among other spirits advances the market's one-stop shopping cause, and Mari's Smoothie, featuring gluten-free baked goods and fresh juice, entices health-conscious shoppers.
The market isn't all Finnish though, as evidenced by the gluten-free vendor above. Local Finns craving an American-style cupcake or cookie can turn to Blondie Bakes, a bakeshop boasting made-from-scratch items.
And market visitors with a hankering for Asian flavors should beeline for Hanoi Vietnam. Along with the Vietnamese mainstay, the bánh mì sandwich made with pork and terrine and crunchy vinegar-soaked vegetables, this stall offers a Finnish take on the classic sandwich by substituting crayfish for the savory meat when the seafood is in season, which it was in July during my visit.
Kalakauppa E. Eriksson is a popular fishmonger residing in a large corner of the market hall. One side has seating for folks who'd like to enjoy the premade offerings (including salmon soup, a must-have regional dish) at a more leisurely place, perhaps with a glass of sparkling wine.
Opposite the few tables and stools is the to-go seller, which sells fish by the pound, about half a dozen open-face smoked sandwich sandwiches on nutty, brown pita-like break, shrimp salad, fried herring and last but not least, crayfish salad.
By the pound or as a sandwich that fits in the palm of your hand, this is the market champion.
Made simply with good-quality, slightly sweet mayonnaise and topped with a dill sprig and thinly sliced lemon wheel, the crayfish sandwich may be the single best food item in all of Helsinki.
Kauppias Juha Lindberg, who oversees the E. Eriksson Market Hall (they sell fish wholesale too), offered up a most modest reply via email when asked to describe the company's food and ethos: "Our seafood in a tiny bistro is very popular because it is so fresh. I have created my career for 17 years with passion for seafood."
Crayfish season begins on July 21 and goes through the end of October.
Old and respected
With menus in Finnish, Swedish, English, Russian and Japanese, Sea Horse may just be Helsinki's most touristed dining destination, but it is no tourist trap. Founded in 1934, the restaurant serves traditional Finnish cuisine in a simple space marked by white table-cloth lined tables.
Known for both its meat and seafood dishes, Sea Horse appears to be the kind of restaurant that has no desire to fix what isn't broken. There are a handful of vegetarian options, but that's not why you dine at the institution that is Sea Horse.
Multiple preparations of steak are available -- pepper, beef topped with fried onions and sour cream, and filet mignon for two -- but you don't go to Sea Horse for the steak or even the Sweetbreads a la Sea Horse. You go for the reindeer.
Fillet of reindeer appears close to the bottom of the menu, but as it's such an unusual menu item, it's unlikely you'll miss it.
The Sea Horse version is served medium with a cranberry-red wine sauce. On the side in its own separate dish is mashed potatoes with onion and butter, and, more butter from the taste of things. The richness of the starchy side is a nice accompaniment to the lean reindeer meat, similar to elk or venison.
But in spite of its low-fat content, the reindeer, prepared medium as per the chef, is juicy and flavorful. It's also the type of meat that soaks up sauce nicely.
Sea Horse's portions are generous, but they are happy to do dessert to go. The Finnish squeaky cheese with cloudberry jam and the cheesecake are both recommended.
Belly up brunch
"Breakfast is included and is from 7 to 11 a.m. in the restaurant off the main lobby," the receptionist informs upon check-in at Hotel Lilla Roberts, a former police station building turned art deco boutique hotel in the city's design district.
Krog Roba is the hotel restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. It takes hotel dining -- not to mention pejorative breakfast-included connotations -- to another level.
Velvet green banquettes and chairs provide ample seating in the large space anchored by a long bar on one side of the room. During breakfast and brunch, the bar space is covered with pastries, porridge, fresh fruit and homemade honey mead.
A roundtable just off the bar presents thick slices of smoked honey ham, a creamy hunk of blue cheese, sliced tomatoes and a bread station featuring multiples types of fresh-baked bread and rolls. There is also the star of the show: juniper salted salmon.
Karri Knaapila, executive chef at Krog Roba, credits Finland's "pure and clean air, fresh water and nature," with guiding the vision of his menu composed of "high-quality ingredients."
He explains that the "short but very intensive and light full summer season" contributes to the flavor profile of a number of items, including vegetables, berries and wild mushrooms.
"Nordic madness is shown for example in ingredients, plating and seasoning food: juniper salted salmon, frozen dried wild berries and honey mead are a few things where you can feel this touch when you are eating our breakfast."
Knaapila is excited about Helsinki's rising food scene.
"Past years have brought many new chef-owned restaurants in Helsinki. Good restaurants bring even more good restaurants."
Find out more on these restaurants
Juuri, Korkeavuorenkatu 27, 00130 Helsinki, Puh. (09) 635 732
Kalakauppa E. Eriksson, Holkkitie 12, 00880 Helsinki, Finland, +358 20 7639335
Hakaniemen Kauppahalli, Hämeentie 1a, 00530 Helsinki, Finland, +358 9 31023560
Vanha Kauppahalli, Eteläranta, 00130 Helsinki, Finland, +358 9 31023550
Sea Horse, Ravintola Sea Horse, Kapteeninkatu 11, 00140 Helsinki. Puh. (09) 628 169
Krog Roba, Pieni Roobertinkatu 1-3 00130 Helsinki
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