Finland is an under-appreciated tourist destination. I was first turned on to Finland back in college when one of my classmates chose to study abroad in Helsinki. She went for a semester and never returned to the States. After hearing about her delightful life and meeting her partner, I started to research Finland. Granted, this was many, many years ago, but before our trip in 2015, there was still very little information available, even Lapland food.
Finland warrants multiple posts since it's so unique. One of the first of many highlights occurred early on in the trip at the Sky Ounasvaara Hotel and Restaurant with one of the best meals I've ever eaten.
It all started in Rovaniemi, Finland. We had a cabin in a nice wooded area near the town's sporting complex where my dear ole dad was competing in the World Weightlifting Championships (he got 5th!). Just up the hill from the sporting complex and our cabin, was the Sky Ounasvaara Hotel. The hotel's appeal is rooftop access - a perfect place to see the Northern Lights. Luckily, in mid-September, the lights were just starting to peak out for the season. While we were prepared to see the lights, we were not prepared for the meal in the hotel's restaurant.
We were initially intrigued by the prix fix menu: 4 courses including dessert for 125€. We didn't have to make decisions and we got a fine dining experience for a reasonable price. Before the meal even began, we were served the most delicious homemade Lappish bread with salted butter. Then came the amuse bouche: smoked celery and kale soup with fried parsley. I am neither a celery fan nor a kale fan, but that soup was creamy, smoky, delicious, smooth, rich, and comforting. I never knew I always wanted that soup. Before we knew it, the soup was gone and it was on to the next course.
Starter - Reindeer Tartare
The one and only thing that sold me on the prix fix menu was the reindeer tartare. I'm usually up for trying anything at least once. I'm no Andrew Zimmern, but I fancy myself an adventurous eater. Until this meal, reindeer didn't cross my mind as a protein. They were always Santa's flight crew. But that changed. The dish was inspired by the free roaming reindeer across Lapland and what they graze on and eat in the wild. In addition to the reindeer tartare itself, we had reindeer tongue fried like bacon (you read that correctly). It was delicious. I still think about that one piece of the dish. To complement the meat, we had lichen, which was boiled and flash fried to give it a crispiness, plus a nettle puree, a fried nettle leaf, pickled carrot and kohlrabi, topped with dried egg shavings.
Who knew a simple starter could be so delicious. We knew if this was the start of the meal, we were in for an unexpected delight. I was so excited for this, I completely forgot to take a picture of this Lapland food speciality. But I promise it was unbelievably good.
Soup - Strawberry Gazpacho
While the soup was my least favorite part of the meal, it was still delicious. It had a creamy richness that was smooth and cool. The gazpacho itself was made with strawberries, cucumbers, and garlic. It was topped with dried strawberries to add a little crunch, plus frozen basil, some pickled breadcrumbs for acidity, and a dandelion bud. Each taste bud felt satisfied it was a light refreshment for an early fall meal.
Main - Arctic Cod
The Arctic cod was a main entrée on the regular menu and happened to be what my mom got for her meal. It was fresh as fresh can be with a perfectly made Hollandaise sauce. Pickled root vegetables like parsnips and carrots surrounded the cod along with nasturtium leaves. The nasturtium leaves were surprisingly pleasant and not too earthy.
Dessert - Crème Brulee
Starting the meal, we had the reindeer tartare and I was equally intrigued by the dessert. Crème brulee is one of the classic desserts you can find around the world because who can go wrong with a vanilla custard topped with caramelized sugar?! But, as you might guess, this crème brulee was no ordinary dessert. The vanilla custard was flecked with real vanilla beans and it was nestled between a lemon crème and a birch sauce on one side and a birch sorbet on the other side. The whole thing was artfully topped with a pistachio crumble and a pistachio cookie with hints of mint.
With such a delightfully unexpected meal so early in our trip, we were thrilled with our experience. The food was just familiar enough to be comfortable, but still different enough to be memorable. We still talk about this meal well after the trip and if you have the chance to go to Rovaniemi, make the trip to the Sky Ounasvaara Hotel for a phenomenal meal and maybe a little dance from the Northern Lights.
Would you try reindeer? Leave your thoughts in the comments!