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In Helsinki, they hang Michelin stars in the bathroom

The practice is consistent with the irreverent, self-deprecating attitude shared by more than a few neighbourhood chefs

New York

ON Feb 19, Michelin released the 2019 edition of its Nordic Cities Guide. Predictably, the headlines focused on Noma regaining two stars after a year-long reinvention.

Stockholm added a two-star restaurant, Gastrologik, cementing its culinary destination cred. Helsinki, meanwhile, added a new starred restaurant to bump its total up to six, but still hasn't registered on the general food-snob radar. Which makes now the perfect opportunity to capitalise on the city's burgeoning dining scene, but without the price hikes and reservation rushes that typically follow Michelin notoriety.   It hasn't always been this way.

From 2003 until it closed in 2013, the Finnish capital's legendary Chez Dominique, a high-end, modern, French-inspired restaurant of the white-tablecloth variety, held two Michelin stars, longer than any other place in the region. Not until 2016 did Copenhagen's Geranium and Oslo's Maaemo join the three-star club. Noma's Nordic-cuisine hype and Michelin's focus on the region with a dedicated guide happened after Helsinki exited the stage.

The result: Helsinki's best restaurants have tables available pretty much any time you want them, a notable contrast to, say, Sweden's Faviken Magasinet, whose reservations book up within seconds of becoming available. Helsinki's new generation of chef-owners is also cooking with a chip on the shoulder, aware that Finnish spots don't get the recognition their neighbours do. But they're also wary of repeating the mistakes that torpedoed Chez Dominique, particularly relying on tourist traffic to fill tables.

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"Everybody my age remembers what happened to Chez Dominique. They were in the Worlds 50 Best restaurants, but they closed because they had no guests," says 30-year-old Inari head chef Kim Mikkola.

"The scene has changed to small restaurants, 20 to 30 seats that focus on local product, and you've now got them in all price ranges," says chef Filip Langhoff of the Michelin-starred Ask, where the menu changes weekly. (In case you're wondering, yes: Reindeer is always in season.)

This formula was replicated to great success at Gron, which built up a huge local following with an affordable 58 euros (S$88) tasting menu and a no-frills aesthetic: Raw ingredients are stored in plastic containers stacked high above the dining room. It was named "Restaurant of the Year" by the Finnish Gastronomy Society in 2017. And though it earned a Michelin star in 2018, some 60 per cent of the guests are locals. The restaurant keeps the award hanging above the toilet, consistent with the irreverent, self-deprecating attitude shared by more than a few neighbourhood chefs.

Inari's Mikkola went so far as to try to get out of the award race altogether. "I called Michelin and told them not to come here," he says, unaware that an inspector would eat at his restaurant just two days later.

Mikkola spent four years at Noma before moving home to Helsinki with his wife and sous chef Evelyn Kim last summer. The pair opened Inari, which specialises in Finnish fare infused with Asian flavours, resulting in a trippy, inter-continental experience. A dish might marry local wild lingonberries with shiso from more temperate Asian climates; local tomatoes, cultivated in a greenhouse due to the short growing season, are slowly dried and then dunked in emulsified Sichuan peppercorns. A seven-course meal of dishes goes for 70 euros. A similar-sized tasting menu at Operakallaren in Stockholm costs double the price, 146 euros. And if a diner were to even get a table at Mikkola's former stomping grounds, Noma, that meal would start at around US$380 (admittedly, with more courses).

Despite the movement toward smaller, Finnish cuisine-focused restaurants, most local chefs are most excited about the reboot of Palace Gourmet. The roomy, French-inspired restaurant seats 50 and had a long run as one of the city's premier fine-dining spots after earning Helsinki's first Michelin star in the late 1980s. It shuttered late in 2017.

Now just called Palace, its relaunch came with minimal fanfare and almost no publicity. Hot off its first star for stylish dishes such as crispy carrot with goats milk and veal sweetbreads with black truffle, there's now hope that the dining room can get Helsinki back to two, or even three stars. After all, the chefs rebooting it, Hans Valimaki and Eero Vottonen, have worked together before - at Chez Dominique. BLOOMBERG

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