I thought I knew what to expect when I visited Finland. It was my first trip; Sami, the other half of Dancing Tomatoes, is a Finnish native and he is constantly showing me the way of Finland, giving me tastes of his favorite Finnish foods, finding technical solutions. When I act amazed he says, “It’s normal, I’m from Finland.”
Thus, I expected efficiency, laughter, warmth and I got it all.
What I didn’t expect was the quality of food and service we encountered at Finnjävel, one of Finland’s newest Michelin starred restaurants. There, chefs Tommi Tuominen and Henri Alén have created a dream.
It Began with Embarassment
Their dream began with embarrassment. According to Chef Tuominen, who was a Paul Bocuse Globe d’Or winner, he and Chef Alen realized they knew basically nothing about traditional Finnish cuisine. “We are a young country,” Chef Tuominen said. “We haven’t had so much time to create a traditional cuisine, and we weren’t focused on it.”
Finland’s Culinary Past
Taking a page from the careers of so many chefs throughout the world who are returning to their culinary pasts, the chefs decided to open a restaurant whose menu would be exclusively based on Finnish food traditions. They use only locally sourced, artisanally produced ingredients, and they’ve turned to Finnish artists and artisans for the restaurant design and furnishings.
2021 Michelin Star and Service Award
Their dream has more than been realized. In 2021 they were awarded a Michelin star for their food, and Michelin Welcome and Service Award for their waitstaff. I can attest to both being outstanding. From the minute you walk into the warm and welcoming restaurant you feel you are in someone’s dining room. Tables are spaced with enough room that conversations bubble but cannot be heard; each diner has a light that shines down on his or her plate, making for bright islands of light in a cozily darkened room.
The menu is set; the only choices have to do with wine, and here is where Chef Tuominen gets realistic. “We don’t have a grape wine industry in Finland,” he said. “We turn to countries around us.” He’s right to do so. On the other hand, they offer a non-alcoholic flight of beverages, all made in Finland, and each is a unique universe of flavor that goes perfectly with its dish. I would call this meeting a huge challenge and they do it with flying colors.
Dining at Finnjävel with Sami was more than a revelation because without him I would have adored it, but I would have missed some fine points because I didn’t grow up with the dishes on the menu the way he did. Particularly revelatory was the chicken fricassee, a dish Sami remembers having every week at school. “The flavors are exact,” he said of the sophisticated little ballotine and the sauté that accompanied it. As for Jonssen’s Temptation, a dish I have a particularly fondness for, there again Chef Tuominen soars. Because in its natural state, Jonssen’s Temptation is far from subtle or beautiful. At Finnjävel it is both.
The dessert, modestly called “porridge” and honestly something I wasn’t looking forward to, was sublime. Exquisite. Never has a blend of oats and fruit looked or tasted like what they offered! I’m still dreaming of it!
I asked Chef Tuominen what else was on the horizon for him in terms of dishes to play with. “Well, we’ve identified 150 traditional Finnish dishes,” he said.
That’s not many, I thought to myself, accustomed to endless traditional French dishes in my past and future, and I asked what he would do when he’d made all of them. “We’ll go back to the first one and re-re-interpret,” he said with an honest touch of delight, as though he couldn’t wait.
This is good news for his diners, and good news for me as I anticipate my next visit to Helsinki and Finnjävel.
By the way, Finnjävel means Finnish Devil, a pejorative name the Swedish gave to all the Finnish immigrants to their country, long ago. The chefs love the name because it incorporates the notion of “sisu,” a “Finnish combination of stamina, perseverance and ambition, seasoned with a pinch of megalomania” as their website states.
Helsingin Taidehalli, Ainonkatu 3, 00100 Helsinki